Posted by: Chris | January 25, 2012

Narcissism Not Racism

People have cited certain elements of Newt Gingrich’s recent debate performance as engaging transparently racist appeals.  For instance, Andrew wrote:

Then Newt tickles the Southern g-spot, by saying that his debating Obama will be a battle between “knowledge” and a “TelePrompTer.” I don’t think Newt realizes how his contempt and condescension toward Obama is riddled with racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates argues along similar lines:

The notion that Gingrich is somehow unaware of that “food stamp president” has racial connotations, that he is being on the level when he says the black community should not be satisfied with food stamps, requires an extension of supernatural generosity. 

While it would not be terribly surprising if Newt had some dog-whistle scheme in mind when he harps on these points, I think another explanation better fits the evidence without extending to the former Speaker “supernatural generosity.”

A trend I have increasingly observed, especially here in DC, is that partisans of all stripes routinely underestimate the extent to which their antagonists are familiar with their reasonings and explanations.  For instance, on economic matters, conservatives often speak as if their counterparts on the left have never encountered public choice economics or are unconcerned about inducing perverse incentives or unintended consequences.  Likewise, liberals like to justify their opinions by harping on the existence of inescapable market failures (see the health care debate, for instance), as if no one on the right advanced beyond introductory micro. 

Instead, I have noticed that the politically interested (or at least the modestly intelligent ones) tend to be quite familiar with the various contrary caveats their opponents have stockpiled and have complicated their respective worldviews sufficient to accomodate them.  However, partially out of limited co-mingling but mostly out of a inflated view of themselves, these partisans assume that others have not done the same.  This misapprehension fuels one of the most seductive and pervasive fantasies I have encountered amongst politicos: that they will debate someone with hardset opposing views and leave their interlocutor stupefied  by the novelty of their arguments (or, even better, baptize a new co-religionist on the spot).

Newt Gingrich, himself a rounded dallop of thoroughly Washingtonian hubris, is this delusion made manifest and he is running a campaign whose primary promise is to allow Republican voters to experience vicariously their collective debate fantasy on live television.   This is why all Gingrich ads emphasize that only he amongst the Republican candidates can beat Obama during the presidential debates.  In this context, his argument about knowledge vs. TelePrompter is not some deeply coded appeal to his audiences’ suspicions of black people.  It is instead a more explicit appeal to a commonly felt belief that the President would be left speechless in the face of the arguments of true conservatives.

The silliness about food stamps and paychecks and speaking to the NAACP runs along a similar logic.  My sense is that Newt and his ideological confreres do not presume that African-Americans and the indigent are dependent on the government out of congenital shiftlessness, but because they have never been exposed to arguments in favor of working for a living (or else why would they still be unemployed and/or Democrats).  Thus Newt apparently thinks he can travel down from on high to the NAACP and, like Moses from Mount Sinai, deliver the gospel on hard work and self-suffiency to the audience (all of whom, this being the freaking NAACP, well-employed at present) and win hordes of dumbfounded converts to the cause. 

These presumptions looms so large across everything Gingrich does* not because he thinks so little of the President or African-Americans or anyone else but because he thinks so much (and so often) of himself.

*For instance, C-SPAN today had a rousing speech by the former speaker from Cape Canaveral wherein he declared that the only thing standing between us and permanent lunar occupation is an exhorting declaration from future President Gingrich and the promise to make the Moon the 51st state if enough people move there.

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Responses

  1. […] This post by Chris is very interesting, but also off-the-mark. As I understand it, Chris is saying that Newt’s rhetoric — notably his claim that a debate between him and Obama would be “knowledge versus a teleprompter” and his labeling Obama the “food stamp president” — both does not stem from Newt’s racism, and also is not intended as a racial dog-whistle. (Depending on how capacious Chris’s understanding of Newt’s “ideological confreres” is, he may also be saying that Newt’s rhetoric doesn’t even operate as a dog-whistle for South Carolina conservatives.) Instead, Chris thinks that Newt’s rhetoric arises not from racism (either his own or his audience’s), but from his commitment to beltway conservatism’s belief in the power of conservative ideas to demolish liberalism, and also to inspire a virtuous, industrious citizenry. As Chris puts it: [Newt's] argument about knowledge vs. TelePrompter is not some deeply coded appeal to his audiences’ suspicions of black people. It is instead a more explicit appeal to a commonly felt belief that the President would be left speechless in the face of the arguments of true conservatives. The silliness about food stamps and paychecks . . . runs along a similar logic. My sense is that Newt and his ideological confreres do not presume that African-Americans and the indigent are dependent on the government out of congenital shiftlessness, but because they have never been exposed to arguments in favor of working for a living (or else why would they still be unemployed and/or Democrats). […]


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