About That Ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta Stone Confession

I don’t know if everyone is talking about race because Congress is deadlocked and, well, we have to talk about something more than Ukraine and the missing jet airplane, but I think Jonathan Chait’s cover story for New York Magazine probably has a lot to do with it. It obviously touched a nerve. There’s a point in his piece where he makes a reference to “the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession,” which we are all obviously supposed to be familiar with. If you want the full background on it, Rick Perlstein wrote it up for The Nation right after the election in November 2012. The short version is that legendary GOP strategist Lee Atwater gave an interview in 1981 (which survives on audio tape) in which he confessed (not for the record) that, among other things, calling for tax cuts was really just an abstract way of saying that you don’t want any of your money going to black folks. The way he actually put it was a bit more colorful.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””

When Chait refers to this quote as “the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession,” it’s meant to be dismissive. He uses “ubiquitous” to mean that the quote is over-referenced, and he uses “Rosetta-Stone” sarcastically to argue that you can’t actually translate every conservative belief into a form of abstract racism. And he follows this up by flat-out refuting the main thrust of what Atwater confessed to:

Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.

It’s a rather argumentative tone to take, suggesting that he’d given up on using logic to further his position. It’s plainly not “insane” to object less to taxation because it costs you money than because of who (you think) your money will go to. There are people who don’t like paying taxes because a lot of it goes to buy weaponry used to fight wars they don’t support. Those people don’t necessarily object to paying taxes for roads and bridges; they just don’t like violence and death.

But this kind of turns things around a bit, because Atwater isn’t talking about why people don’t like paying taxes; he’s talking about politicians who make subtle racial appeals to white people by suggesting that all their tax-money goes to black welfare queens. If we’re talking Rosetta Stone, it goes something like this:

Language A: Very wealthy people stand to benefit greatly by even slight reductions in the tax rate, but most people will not benefit because all the lost revenue from very wealthy people will have to be made up elsewhere, unless services and investments are cut.

Language B: Since winning at politics requires a majority, very wealthy people have to convince a lot of people that a reduction in very wealthy people’s tax rate is a good thing or else they will never see that reduction. Convincing them that their taxes are being misallocated is the key.

Language C: The way to convince people that their money is being misallocated is to tell them the money is going to racial minorities who are lazy and undeserving.

Language D: The more stigma is attached to nakedly racial political appeals, the more abstract the language must be so, eventually, you don’t even talk about welfare queens anymore. Except, sometimes.

Does this mean that all requests for lower taxes are racist? Of course not. Lowering taxes is a tool that can be (and is) used to juice a slumping economy. It’s a tool that can encourage or discourage certain behaviors. For the very wealthy people who started this anti-tax campaign, racism was a necessary tool but not necessarily a belief. I’d point out, though, that being so greedy that you’re willing to enflame racial animosities for your personal financial gain is probably worse than not wanting your taxes to go to racial minorities.

I’d put the question to Chait this way: “Do you think that very wealthy people would have been so successful in restoring wealth disparity to 1920’s levels if they hadn’t had a party out there telling white people that their taxes were going to welfare queens? If so, how would they have convinced a majority of the people to go along with it?”

What’s disturbing to Chait is that he sees the left as making a tautological argument in which everything conservative is racist because of racism. And, he’s right that you can go too far with that kind of analysis, particularly when you are ascribing feelings and motives to individuals rather than explaining political strategies and movements. Chait gets to the core of his argument here:

One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.

Can we begin our response by asking Chait (since he didn’t mention it) to stipulate that questioning the legitimacy of the president’s birth certificate is not within the scope of “legitimate opposition” to the president’s policies?

Yet, I get his point. You can’t explain every conservative belief by reference to racism. At some point, you have to debate things on their merits. The problem is that Chait is concerned about the wrong thing. He is concerned that liberals are too quick to lob accusations of racism around, but the bigger problem is that the Republican Establishment has lost control of the beast they created to get these historically low tax rates.

When Wall Street bankers and the Chamber of Commerce and the evangelical community and agricultural industry, collectively, can’t outweigh the racists in the Republican Party and pass comprehensive immigration reform, you’ve reached the point where there isn’t anything left to prove.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.