The not-so-soft racism of Tom Cotton

Reagan adviser Lee Atwater:

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–, n—–, n—–.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—–” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–.”

GOP representative Tom Cotton, telling a gross lie:

“(My dad) taught me early: farmers can’t spend more than they take in, and I listened,” Cotton said in the ad. “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no.”

Of course, Cotton isn’t even in the ballpark of truth here. Food stamp bills have long been attached to farm bills in a cat’s cradle knot to encourage urban and rural legislators to vote for each others’ programs. It was the GOP who dissociated them in the hope of cutting food stamps. Obama had nothing to do with it.

But it’s worse than that. It’s no secret that food stamps (now called the SNAP program) have long been racial code for Republicans, even though a large plurality of SNAP recipients are white. When a Republican politician tells his base that he favors cutting food stamps but not farm subsidies, he’s using Atwater’s dog whistle, promising to deliver the pork to rich (white) agribusiness to boost their profits, while stiffing a lot of minorities (most of whom do work at least part-time) who would actually benefit the broader economy by receiving spending money.

Republicans bristle at being called racist in their policies: they feel that Democrats use every opportunity brand any conservative policy as racist. But that’s because they’ve grown so used to their own dog whistles that they don’t even realize that other people can hear them and take offense.

Tom Cotton isn’t just lying to rural voters about the history of the farm bill. He’s also playing a deliberately divisive form of racial politics that has no place in modern America.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.