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Obama the “socialist boogeyman”

So the McCain campaign won’t let go of Joe the Plumber. He’s still being trotted out in speeches by McCain and Palin. They mention again and again how Obama wants to “spread” Joe’s wealth.

Aside from the condescension (yet again) implicit in McCain’s reduction of Joe to a stereotype (and leaving out any of the frenzied investigations into just who Joe really is), I want to look a little closer at what the Joe the Plumber rhetoric really means.

Joe, of course, is white. He’s from Ohio, a state connected with middle-American whiteness, as opposed to the cities that McCain likes to emphasize in reference to Obama (“I don’t need any advice from a…Chicago politician!”).

The city is black; Middle America is white.

Joe the Plumber’s purported wealth is used in conjunction with his whiteness: Joe is just a plumber, just an average guy, but he’s going to be taxed more under Obama’s plan. The subtext, of course, is that your “average,” white, hardworking guy is going to be taxed to give money to those who don’t work hard.

Joe appears to be your neighbor, the guy down the street, the guy you could be if maybe you put in a few more hours. Joe is used to emphasize the class difference between white and nonwhite folks.

Racism has been used to break up class solidarity in this country. Any awareness of class is of course “socialism” and “class warfare.”

Obama can’t mention this on the campaign trail, and the only candidate who did really emphasize it was the white guy, John Edwards. It never became a winning issue for him, though it might have been different if he wasn’t running against two political rock stars, Clinton and Obama.

For Obama to talk about class would be to emphasize in people’s minds that class = race. To be black is to be assumed to be part of the underclass.

It’s why Fox News referred to Ivy League-educated, very married Michelle Obama as Barack’s “baby mama,” and mostly got away with it. “Baby mama” means something other than just an unmarried woman, though. It relates to the picture of the welfare recipient: black, female, having babies so that she can get a government handout.

White people who are otherwise held down by their class still have someone to look down on: the black welfare mom, the illegal immigrant, etc. So when McCain mentions welfare on the campaign trail, he’s not just talking about Obama’s economic plans, which haven’t included any attempts to save welfare programs from Clinton-era gutting.

He’s reminding his audience yet again that Obama is black.

When he says “spread the wealth,” in conjunction with a picture of Joe the Plumber, it is implicit that Joe the Plumber is white and that the wealth would be going to those who are not white. Just like “Chicago politician,” and of course “terrorist,” “Joe the Plumber” is a dogwhistle to the base.

The attempt at associating Obama with Bill Ayers is an attempt not to group Obama with sixties radicals, but with Muslim, middle-eastern terrorists. In this way too, it is a racialized dogwhistle.

But the more the economy sinks, the less impact foreign affairs have, and so McCain had to find himself an economic scare tactic to match his foreign policy scare tactic.

The problem with dogwhistles, though, and with McCain’s ever-increasing reliance on them, is that they only appeal to the base. The further we get from the Cold War, the less impact the word “socialism” has on the average American, just as the further we get from 9/11, the less impact the word “terrorism” has.

And while the economic is failing fast, fewer and fewer Americans are worried about comparing themselves favorably to those worse off than themselves. They just want to make sure they’ll have jobs next year, next month, even next week.

7 thoughts on “Obama the “socialist boogeyman”

  1. I could not agree more. Whiteness is over valued to stop poor whites from aligning themselves with poor POC. It is a classic divide and conquer tactic that is largely ignored. These so-called code words are quite clear and I believe it is erroneous to refer to them in that light. They are simply not as a blatant as saying Nigger but constitute the exact same thing.

  2. I’ve been thinking aa lot about the use of “socialism” as a scare tactic/boogeyman. Hadn’t thought about it in the context of race though (stupidly).

  3. This is off-topic and is related to commenting issues on SJ’s blog “Season of the B****h.”

    Starting on 10/24/2008, I have tried multiple times to publish comments on SOTB only to find that they were not published, despite no message appearing regarding moderation queues or blocking.

    So I suspect that there might be something wrong with the moderation software on SOTB, which SJ might want to look into. The last published comment on SOTB is dated 10/24/2008 (preceding my attempts), and all subsequent OPs on that blog have no comments whatsoever.

    I mention this because SJ indicated that she would appreciate commentary on her series on Sarah Palin on SOTB (mentioned on the blog “Feministe” in comment #16 in the thread under the OP “Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday” dated 10/26).

    I myself plan no further comments, but I thought SJ might want to test her moderation software on her own blog in order to allow comments to be published.

    I publish this information here, off-topic, because I am unable to publish it on SOTB.

  4. Yeah. You really see it start to come out in the base bloggers, the not-so-subtext, that is: the word “welfare” is invoked a lot more frequently, for instance. And then you throw in the shit about “wah, people are only endorsing him/are afraid to REALLY criticize him ‘coz of ‘reverse racism'” and it becomes pretty obvious what’s going on. Whatever angle they try, it always boils down to “he’s dark! and thus SCARY!!! BE VERY AFRAID, ‘REAL AKA WHITE AMERICANS'”

    And if he himself wasn’t black, it’d be the same old dogwhistling about–well, remember how it played out with Bill Clinton? He was “trash” and a “traitor,” and he’s still giving all your hard earned blah blee to the undeserving etc. etc. etc. the way “bleeding heart liberals” always do. It’s just upping the ante; the narrative is always the same. You deserve it: “they” don’t, and they’re gonna steal it all away from you.

    They are really also trying to invoke past reliable redbaiting: “red under every bed” worked well enough a zillion years ago (although that, too, the John Bircher rhetoric, always was bound up with racism, of course, and much more blatantly: anti-semitism is always under the “urban, cultural elite, Hollywood, bleeding heart” etc. rhetoric ). Trouble is, the “Evil Empire” is only a distant memory or even ancient history for a lot of people, and the attempts to elide the “washed up 60’s radical” with 9/11 only works among the rabid base.

  5. oops, cut myself off: I was starting to say something about how the old line is about how the “cultural elite/bleeding heart (which is, again, code for CommiePinko Jews” is out to take “your” (i.e. Joe Real White American) money and give it to Willie Horton and the welfare queens; and earlier on of course they didn’t even need the relative code of “welfare queen,” they just–well, hi there, George Wallace really -wasn’t- that long ago, was he.

  6. Thanks Sarah, you do a good job here of explaining some of the many ways that the McCain campaign valorizes whiteness without calling it that, and also denigrates non-whiteness, again without identifying race. I’ve noticed that the recent terrorist plot, involving two young neo-Nazis, isn’t being called a “terrorist plot” in most cases even though the death of “innocent civilians” was an explicit part of the plan. And that’s gotta be because the plotters are white. I don’t think news-workers usually KNOW they’re doing that; in most cases, they’re just following unconsciously absorbed rules for the racialized cast of characters who appear on that stuff they put on the air in order to draw our eyes to the really important programming (the commercials).

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