Matt’s right-—this article by Frank Rich that uses “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” as a reference point is a sobering reminder to those of us who were born after the 60s that the majority of Americans actually lived through those tumultuous times, which goes a long way to explain McCain’s baffling showing in the polls. Because for all that McCain is supposedly so far behind, really this should be a blowout. The Republicans have done pretty much everything they can to turn the public against them. They suck away your tax dollars on a pet project war that turned into a clusterfuck, exactly as was predicted it would. They’ve ushered in an economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. The one thing people elected them to do in 2004, and trusted them to do—shut down Islamic terrorism—they not only didn’t do, but in fact they actively made the threat worse. By all accounts, they shouldn’t even have a party anymore, they’ve fucked it up so badly.
But Republicans hang in by re-fighting the 60s. (And early 70s.) Which is rich, because as Dubya showed us, they’d really prefer to rebuild the 30s so they can do it “right” this time by turning most of the nation into a permanent underclass. The Holy Grail of Republicanism is taking away programs that FDR founded, especially Social Security. Re-fighting the 60s is a poor substitute for going straight to the source of liberalism in their eyes. But most people living don’t remember the 30s, and even if they do, they take that past as unchangeable history, so Republicans are stuck re-fighting the 60s. In the final days of the campaign season, the entire strategy of the Republican party campaigning can be summed up as, “Stoke fears that a certain class of people has been nurturing for 40 years.” Elizabeth Dole busts out anxieties that have been alive since Time magazine put “Is God Dead?” on their cover in 1966. The Norm Coleman campaign in Minnesota is mainly alive because they’ve been blanketing the airwaves with ads that suggest that Al Franken perhaps is a little soft on the issue of keeping women chained to the stove and pregnant. And the McCain campaign’s argument has been reduced to, “Can you really believe we’re going to elect a black President? Did I mention that he’s BLACK?!”
What’s fascinating to me is that the McCain campaign has gotten so deep into this that they’re actually reviving racist stereotypes that fall on deaf ears for younger generations. Red-baiting particularly doesn’t make sense to those of us who, at best, remember the Cold War as background noise to our childhood games and perhaps necking sessions (and then there’s those of us who are so young we don’t really remember it at all). For sure, we don’t actually remember a time when there was a genuine belief that the civil rights movement was considered a communist plot by pretty much all right-leaning Americans. But for a lot of the older people (who vote a lot more consistently than younger people) sitting at McCain/Palin rallies, the word “socialist” conjures up black faces pretty immediately, especially in the context of this election. Attempts to tie Obama to more recent ugly stereotypes of black people, including the use of the word “thug”, have fallen by the wayside. The stereotypes the McCain campaign are leaning on are mostly 60s era ones—that black people are openly hostile to America, that they’re socialists, even, with the Jeremiah Wright nonsense, that they’re separatists. Stuff that doesn’t actually make sense to people who don’t remember that time. People like me, who grew up with the civil rights movement neatly nestled in a history book, where the goodness and rightness of it goes unquestioned. I don’t actually remember that there was any controversy over the MLK holiday, for instance. The first inkling I had that people were still embittered by it was when my high school didn’t honor the holiday, and the mother of a friend of mine made her stay home from school in protest. Until that time, it never even occurred to me that there was still a fight over this stuff, that the people who resisted the civil rights movement in the 60s were still around.
And of course, they still are and they still vote, and that’s whether or not they were grown adults in the 60s or teenagers. One of the most frustrating things about elections where we continue to re-fight the 60s is how unfair it is to those of us who have to inherit a country that’s been torn up by the bitterness of people seeing white privilege (and male privilege and straight privilege) questioned. Thanks for the enormous debt, Reagan voters, Bush voters, and (god forbid if he wins) McCain voters. You sure showed those civil rights marchers who’s boss! But chickens do come home to roost more quickly, I think, than people realized, as we’re seeing with this economic crisis. No, you won’t be able to fuck up the country and then leave it for someone else to clean up. Shit is hitting the fan now.
The good news is that an Obama win will do a great deal of damage to the heritability of racism. It won’t dismantle it, and in some parts of the country, it’ll harden it. But just as I was baffled in the 90s to find out that there was any controversy over Martin Luther King’s obvious heroism, I suspect white kids that grow up after we have a black President will find the hysteria that is racism even more baffling. It’s as good a argument as any as to why we can’t delay running racial minorities, gay men and women (of all sexual orientations) in elections because of electability issues, because the sooner the public gets used to the idea, the easier this is going to be on everyone. It’s like the gay marriage thing. In a weird, roundabout way, the hard right shot themselves in the foot by making gay marriage such an issue, because it prompted gay rights organizations to prioritize it. (Even I remember when gay marriage was something of a non-issue.) But the more straight people saw of gay marriage—the more pictures in the paper, the more court battles won—the more, well, mundane it seemed and the energy to resist it is draining. I realize it probably doesn’t seem like that in California right now, but demographically the right is losing the battle for hearts and minds by a war of attrition as the people who are panicked by gay marriage are being replaced by a generation that doesn’t see it as a big deal. I think that goes a long way to explain why Democrats like Obama are talking out of both sides of their mouths about this—not supporting gay marriage but dismissing any and all attempts to stop it, and offering “civil unions” as something of a stopgap measure—because they see a day when the controversy over this will seem as baffling as the controversy of the MLK holiday was to me.