By Frederick Sparks
Jimmy Carter’s grandson, James Carter IV, who brought us the infamous “47%” Mitt Romney video, has uncovered the audio recording of an interview of the famed political consultant Atwater by late political science professor Alexander Lamis. Lamis published the interview without using Atwater’s name in his 1984 book The Two Party South, and later used the quotes again, fully attributed, after Atwater’s death. But conservatives long questioned the validity of Lamis’ article and bashed Lamis’ integrity and objectivity, which upset Lamis’ widow who made the tapes available to Carter.
The recording puts the words previously cited in a larger context, in which Atwater on the one hand argues that the new strategy rests on the assumption of a post-racial South whose electorate (including African Americans) would respond more to the superior neo conservative economic message than to racial politics, yet at the same time Atwater delineates how subtle language couched in economic terms could still blow racial dog whistles tuned to the anti-black sentiment of southern whites:
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.”
The GOP message has hardly strayed from this formulation, though demographic changes and the phnomenon of Barack Obama has rendered it less effective in the last 2 presidential elections, in terms of ultimate victory. Yet the coded message still resonates with the majority of voters in southern states, at a time when the Supreme Court is prepared to review the constitutionality of provisions of the Voting Rights Act; a review that is justified because presumably the South is beyond all that racial stuff.