The foreign policy debate is a hard one for me to write about, because I just generally object to the entire process. First of all, the Beltway media narrowly defines foreign policy as “Israel plus countries we’d be interested in bombing”, and that framework basically determines the debate. No mention of the economic issues in Europe, no real interest in the ongoing violence that our drug policies helped create in Mexico. Romney trotting out the right wing myth about an “apology tour” Obama supposedly went on took up more time than discussion about any trade policy. I didn’t learn much about Romney’s foreign policy ideas, but I did learn that he thinks that a man’s dick shrivels up and falls off if he ever dare utters an apology. (Fill in joke about how Ann Romney seems grim all the time.) Having an official national stance of “Fuck you, we regret nothing!” is particularly ridiculous in a country where half of it decided to start a war rather than give up slavery.
Not that Obama was “apologizing”, of course. Beyond just Romney tapping an apparent right wing allergy to ever admitting one was in the wrong (which goes a long way towards explaining the higher divorce rates in red states), Romney’s embarrassing insistence on chewing on events that didn’t actually happen during the debate proved once again that the monkeys have taken over the Republican zoo. “Apology tour” is basically Birtherism, dressed up in slightly nicer clothes. It’s part of a larger constellation of right wing myths and conspiracy theories that point to their belief that Obama is Not One of Us, and by One of Us, they don’t mean “Republicans”. There’s other notes on the Barack Obama Isn’t a “Real American” instrument: “Muslim”, “reparations”, “birth certificate”. All of these are elaborate ways to assert the idea that black Americans aren’t real Americans, but do so in a way that avoids coming right out and saying so. Obama has been seen as being a bit ornery (though less so than Romney) these past two debates, but considering the willingness of Romney to blow the dog whistle right in his face, I would say that Obama shows a remarkable amount of calm.
Will it work? The entire Republican strategy has been to argue, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, that Americans elected Obama in an effort to prove that we’re hip enough to be down with a black President, but now that we’ve had our fun, it’s time to suck it up and return power to its rightful white owners. The hope is that by hinting around that narrative, some white voters who broke for Obama in 2008 will let their prejudices wear down their resolve to continue to support the better candidate, and cave in the booth for the white guy. Basically, an electoral white flight strategy: You know intellectually that black family that moved in next door is perfectly nice, but don’t you want to sell your house and move to the suburbs anyway, voters?
I remain cautiously optimistic that the strategy will fail. The problem with the strategy is that the public has had a chance to get to know Obama and his family in the past four years. It’s a lot harder to to stimulate subconscious prejudice if the person has a strong counter-narrative about the situation. To make the whole situation weirder, the dog whistles being blown here only make sense to people whose bigotries are far closer to the surface, who wouldn’t vote for Obama anyway. I don’t think the average white swing voter with subconscious prejudices but who tries to be fair really is tapped into the elaborate right wing fear that Obama is a secret radical subversive who gained power in service of toppling America as an act of revenge. Words like “reparations” and “apology tour” probably fall on deaf ears outside of those circles.
Still, I remain unnerved by the fact that it’s come to this: A supposed foreign policy debate used more time chewing over a conspiracy theory that is rooted in racialized paranoid right wing narratives than it did discussing very important nations that are enduring crisises that actually affect us, like Mexico or many countries in Europe. Again, even though I know it’s blasphemy to say so, this is just more evidence that dedicating half of the official debate time to foreign policy is just a stupid Beltway media trick that confuses more than enlightens. Foreign policy is important, don’t get me wrong. But the reality of foreign policy isn’t even being discussed. We didn’t even get to hear a list of the candidates’ favored suggestions for Secretary of State, which is the sort of thing that would actually make for a substantive foreign policy discussion. Instead, when the candidates weren’t being pressed into war-mongering, the discussion drifted back to coded culture war stuff, in no small part because that stuff actually matters more to voters.
And maybe it should! If we actually started to concentrate on domestic policy more, the Beltway belief that the President’s main job is running the American Empire would get less play, which in turn would allow for multiple ideas of what America could be as an international player—ideas beyond “big guns who shoot a lot”.