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Commentary: Subliminal or not-so-subtle voting cues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - Presidential candidates spend huge amounts of money tearing down opponents or lauding themselves. They are now aided by independent committees that are backed by undisclosed donors. Most of the advertising, in 30 second bursts, is negative. Strategists carefully craft the ads to appeal to a certain target. This year that target is white working class voters.

MSNBC’s “Hardball” maintained that Democrats would try to reach these voters by criticizing the high rollers, the financiers, the top 1 percent. Republicans, Chris Matthews contended, would try to introduce race, playing on historic prejudices.

Race as an electoral tool has a long history. The Solid South was established to thwart agrarian populism. The one-party system (the one party being Democrats), put in place a de jure segregation touching many facets of life and disenfranchisement of blacks. Its practitioners used racial demagoguery to keep the support of poorer whites. Special interests were not challenged, taxes were low, services were few and playing the race card kept the system intact. 

The civil rights movement and the 1964, 1965 and 1968 civil rights bills – which had bipartisan support, but were pushed by a Democratic administration -- brought down the South as we then knew it. The old order turned to the Republican Party, which in the 1960s used campaigns in favor of states rights and other ways to prevent federal interference in de facto segregation.

Anti-war demonstrations by college youth were not well received by those whose children were being sent to Vietnam. The counterculture movement compounded the anxiety felt by working whites over school integration, begun with 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Busing was ordered to integrate schools where previously the races had learned apart. Uproar in Boston and elsewhere showed that white workers did not want their children taken across town to schools in black neighborhoods.

The tumult of the 1960s, racial and otherwise, led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” He addressed the “silent majority” and targeted their racial fears with attacks on busing and social engineering. Ronald Reagan pursued a similar strategy. In 1980, he kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., close to the site where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years before. He spoke of states’ rights and deplored interventionist judges. The Democratic Party had been thoroughly linked to civil rights and such judicial intervention.

The political ad most frequently identified with racial messaging was placed by an independent group that supported George H.W. Bush in 1988. Willie Horton, a convicted felon on early release in Massachusetts, murdered a woman. (Bush’s opponent was Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.) Horton was African American and his picture dominated the ad, which found Dukakis culpable. Even though many Republicans decried the ad, its effect was evident.

We have moved beyond such blatant appeals, but the subtle form still exists. The Republicans and their allies have run five ads accusing President Barack Obama of waiving work requirements for welfare recipients. Welfare is said to be code for black, harkening back to Reagan’s attack on a welfare queen. The administration says what it granted were waivers to governors so they could experiment with ways to make the work requirement more effective. But the ads and accusations continue because GOP campaign strategists say the accusations resonate with white working class voters.

The Democrats’ wedge issue features attacks on the Wall Street plutocrats. It has been couched in terms of asking the very rich to pay their fair share and eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy. Certainly Roosevelt had choice words for the doyens of Wall Street, and they carried weight during the Great Depression. Roosevelt was called a traitor to his class.

Today the considerable economic pain is seen in the large number of people who have lost their jobs since 2008 and have found it hard to find work again. It they do find work, it is rarely at their old salaries. Those in the middle and working class who have remained employed find that they are running in place or falling behind. Yet, the linkages to the top are not as clear as in 1932 and Americans always admire those who do well financially. They have been our heroes. As the Republicans repeatedly said at their convention, “Success is the American dream.”

How this year’s campaign will evolve is unclear. But it is the percentage of white voters that will determine the outcome.More subliminal cues will appear in ads. But perhaps politicians will be more cautious in sanctioning divisive tactics. Perhaps. Regardless, the incessant negativity will continue to be intolerable.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.