The modern GOP’s leading luminaries on race, left to right: Ann Coulter (21st century), 1st Viscount Bryce James Bryce (19th century).
Republicans, repeatedly hammered in recent elections by overwhelming opposition from minority voters, are bringing back an old talking point to turn black Americans against the Democrats – and guess what? It’s amazingly racist!
“It is undeniable that the left claims the mind of every young person of color,” Republican celebrity Michelle Malkin said on FOX news last month. “Yes, it’s a plantation.”
Malkin’s word choice echoes multiple statements by other Republican stars, who argue that black voters don’t think for themselves or make independent, adult judgments about who to support.
“Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” Republican radio personality Herman Cain told CNN’s The Situation Room.
Pat Buchanan, commenting on CNN, agreed. “I think what he’s saying is they bought a lot of liberal propaganda on the liberal plantation and I think he’s right!”
Birth of a talking point
Republican marketers have an impossible task: to explain why their party can’t even win 10 percent of black voters – without admitting that the problem might have something to do with their positions and policies.
It’s a tough sell, especially coming from the party that thinks President Obama might be a secret Kenyan.
So it’s pretty obvious how the strategy session went. “Black people hate slavery, right? Let’s say that voting for a Democrat is like being a slave!”
Nevermind that the “liberal plantation” talking point is an embarrassingly cartoonish, ham-fisted approach to race relations – the equivalent of telling Scottish voters that Democrats are “playing you like a set of bagpipes.”
There’s a bigger problem here: the argument reveals a grim current of racism that’s still alive and well in the modern GOP. The “brainwashing” argument only makes sense if you accept the racist stereotype that black Americans don’t have minds of their own.
We can graciously concede that Republicans who buy this line aren’t intentionally insulting black Americans. But anyone with minimal respect for the basic agency and intelligence of other humans would reject the “brainwashing” argument point-blank.
An old insult
The notion that blacks are easily manipulated and prone to group-think isn’t new. It has a long and shameful history in the United States.
James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, written in 1888, is a classic example. In that work – still highly regarded on the American right – Bryce is quite blunt and forthright about the assumptions behind the “brainwashed” argument.
The “African brain,” he writes, is “pliable, submissive,” and “highly impressionable”.
Today, Laura Ingraham complains of “the liberal plantation” where “if you’re a black or a minority, and you happen to champion conservative causes…you’re a sellout, you’re an Uncle Tom.”
Similarly, Bryce wrote: “So far as [the negroes] voted at all they mostly clung together, and voted solid, intimidating or boycotting any one of their number who was supposed to be a ‘bolter’.”
Today, Charles M. Blow writes that “The Democrat Plantation theology goes something like this: Democrats use the government to addict and incapacitate black by giving them free things – welfare, food stamps and the like.”
But this strategy onlys work if you think, like James Bryce thought in the 19th century, that “the negro…is heedless and unthrifty…with little tenacity of purpose, and but a feeble wish to better his condition.”
Spin isn’t the problem
These ancient, backwards ideas about race aren’t just an extremist aberration on the right-wing fringe. The “liberal plantation” meme has been almost universally adopted among Republicans, advocated by all of its top-selling writers, its most influential celebrities, and its most powerful politicians.
There’s a reason why they’re so common: it’s impossible not to insult the poor and oppressed if you believe, naively, that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.
Republicans usually just insult them directly, as when their presidential candidate Mitt Romney was caught on tape insisting, “I’ll never convince them that they should take responsibility and care for their lives.”
When that gaffe contributed to Romney’s resounding defeat in 2012, Republicans noticed that something was wrong. But instead of actually changing their ideas, they just concluded that they “have to do a better job of explaining and demonstrating why our ideas are better,” as Romney’s Vice Presidential pick Paul Ryan said.
The “liberal plantation” meme is Ryan’s plan in action: same ideas, new spin. Black Americans are still irresponsible, but since they’ve been “brainwashed” they aren’t responsible for being irresponsible. But of course, by failing to leave the “liberal plantation”, they’re ultimately responsible for being brainwashed into irresponsibility for their irresponsibility.
Because until Republicans actually reconsider some of their ideas about economics, this is only gonna get more complicated.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.