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Republican Political Correctness
November 1, 2003
By Woody

Remember Political Correctness?

Back in the 1990's, Republicans were up in arms about something called Political Correctness, or PC. The story back then was that women and people of color could say or do whatever they wanted, while oppressed white men had to constantly submit to absurd restrictions on their language and behavior. This was transparently ridiculous, of course. White males were still running the country. In fact, more and more white Republican males were running the country, because suburban voters were eating this story up like ketchup on white bread.

Coincident with the rise of George W. Bush, the GOP realized that a time was approaching when people of European extraction would be a minority in this country. Feeding resentment against people of color did not seem like such a bright idea. So the GOP stopped doing it, somewhat, and invited every Black Republican elected official in the United States to their convention. The message: Please don't take revenge on us for scapegoating you. Pretty please.

Sometime in the early part of the Bush presidency, the Republican Party kidnapped Political Correctness outright. It would be helpful at this point to imagine an Oberlin English professor in a tweed jacket, stepping out of his lecture on The Semiotics of Gender. All of the sudden, a bunch of GOP operatives (perhaps the ones who stopped the vote count in Miami) throw a blanket over his head and shove him in the back of a van. From then on he was locked away in a cell in Gitmo, only allowed to emerge when it was convenient for his captors.

To my recollection, the prisoner was first let out of his cell in the summer of 2001, when Congress was debating whether to let Mexican truckers drive in the United States without a US driver's license. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott then proclaimed, "It bothers me that there's an anti-Mexican, anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA attitude among Democrats that says, `We really don't want to allow Mexican trucks to come into this country.'" There it is: If some congressional Democrats (not to mention Republicans) are worried about unlicensed Mexican truckers (and uninspected Mexican trucks), then they must be bigots.

Aside from the stunning shift in GOP rhetoric, there are a couple of other ironies here that are too good to pass up. We all know now that shortly after the 2002 election Lott would use the occasion of Strom Thurmond's birthday to announce to the world that he still believes in racial segregation. Another potent irony is that Mexican drivers would later become an issue in the California recall election, when a certain white Republican action hero would demonize undocumented Hispanic (as well as non-Hispanic) workers who want to drive legally. It was surely not lost on voters that his opponent was Hispanic. To someone visiting in a time machine from the 1990's, it might appear that Arnold was in for a multicultural ass-kicking. Fortunately for the Terminator, Political Correctness was safely in his cell.

The GOP has been deploying Political Correctness quite a bit lately, in the fights over Bush's judicial nominees. They have a great racket going. First they find a far-right wacko judge who is Black or Hispanic. Predictably, Democratic Senators try to use their constitutional "advise and consent" powers to block nominees whose views and decisions they find repugnant. At this point, GOP apologists can employ a brilliant rhetorical strategy. "You can't oppose her," they proclaim with feigned shock, "she's Black!" When the nutjob nominee happens to be white, Republican flaks claim that Democrats are anti-Catholic, anti-Baptist, or anti-whatever.

In a just world, this charge would be met with gales of laughter. Conservatives are doing exactly what they used to accuse liberals of doing: Claiming that a person's membership in an oppressed group trumps substantive concerns about how they would actually do their job. The world isn't quite that just, but still the tactic has not been very effective for the GOP, in the sense that the nominees have been successfully blocked.

Have the Republicans scored a more subtle victory, however, by expanding the arguments that they can use and restricting the ones that Democrats can use? The case of the driver's licenses would have been a perfect chance to point out that Arnold's politics weren't as fresh and moderate as they appeared to be. Nevertheless, the Dems held back, probably fearing a white backlash.

We seem to have reached a rhetorical stalemate. It is difficult for either side to deploy the rhetoric of race and gender effectively anymore. Practically speaking, this means that the GOP can continue to carry out policies that are bad for people of color (not to mention everyone else in the lower 99%) and for now the Democrats have to take it. The Republicans know, however, that they are sitting on a demographic time bomb. People of color will get more and more power, and will remember which party was there when it counted.

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