In 1990, Harvey Gant, the African American Democratic nominee for Senate, was on the verge of defeating one of the most notorious opponents of racial progress in the United States Senate: North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms.
In the last two weeks of the campaign, the Helms campaign turned up the focus of their campaign, racial wedge issues.
Trailing in the polls, Helms ran a racially charged ad called “Hands”.
The 30-second ad featured a close up of a pair of white male hands. With the sleeves of a work shirt and a wedding ring visible, the hands hold, then crumple up a piece of paper. The voice over: “you needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority.”
The tactic of racial division worked. Gant lost.
Only a year prior, Doug Wilder, was elected Governor of Virginia. He was the first African American elected to the office of Governor in the United States since Reconstruction.
At the time there was a belief that perhaps politics was changing and racial barriers were coming down. But in just one short year in the state next-door the politics of racial division had resurfaced and triumphed.
More than two decades later Obama won both North Carolina and Virginia in 2008.
The Gant and Wilder races, probably more than any other electoral contests, blazed the trail for Barack Obama Presidential success – especially in those states. Again we had reached a point when the United States seemed to enter a new era of post-racial politics.
But the dog whistle politics of the Grand Old Party has again raised its ugly head. In fact, since Obama’s election the Tea Party Republicans efforts to race bait have only increased over the last four years.
Republicans paint Obama, the only major party nominee to practice Christianity, as a Muslim. His place of birth is questioned despite the fact that his birth in Hawaii is indisputable. Romney repeatedly refers to the President as “foreign” and “different”. Obama’s patriotism is questioned. He is called a Communist and a Socialist and it is tied back to the father Obama did not know, who was Kenyan.
Team Romney embraces birther crazies like Donald Trump (Romney released his birth certificate before a Trump event in a pathetic attempt to reinforce Trump’s paranoia and associate his campaign with it).
Republicans invoke racial stereotypes when demagoging Obama, calling him the Food Stamp President is but one example.
As Republicans call up every racist play they have in their playbook for this election, they have turned back the clock to the days of Harvey Gant and Jesse Helms.
In reply to calls for W. Mitt Romney to release his tax records – following a tradition started by his father – Republicans have tried to muddy the waters by demanding Obama release a number of records that no candidate for President has ever released, including his college records.
The point they are trying to make: Obama was not a good student; he took a white kid’s spot in school. And they are trying to reinforce more conspiratorial points: they pepper their arguments with more concerns from the birther crowd (he was a foreign exchange student!) and the even more paranoid (he did not go to school!) – it’s an argument that Obama is the other with something for every part of the spectrum of haters.
The tactics are designed to tap into the emotion some Americans feel about bussing, integration and Affirmative Action. This dog whistle politics is designed to stoke white anger, fear and resentment in the same way the GOP used racial wedge issues in the past.
Not surprisingly, Romney’s candidacy is rejected by African Americans and Hispanics – they recognize the inherent racism of the GOP electoral strategy.
The basis of the GOP electoral strategy is to anger whites against Obama and block minorities from voting. With four years of opposing Obama at every turn and planning for his defeat this is the best they could come up with.
About Bill Buck
Bill Buck is a Democratic strategist, President of the Buck Communications Group, a media relations and new media strategies consulting business based in Washington, DC, and Managing Director of the online ad firm Influence DSP. He has over twenty years of international and national communications experience. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CBS Local.