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.