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The Politics of Attacking Tim Scott | RealClearPolitics


After a week of vicious personal attacks on Sen. Tim Scott, it’s time to step back and ask what’s really going on here. Why such ferocious pushback after Scott’s calm rebuttal to President Biden’s speech to Congress? Why are the assaults so nasty, so personal? What are the political implications?

One implication should be clear, but another is well hidden. The obvious one is the attacks are meant to keep Black voters firmly within the Democratic coalition. Condemning dissidents like Scott as “race traitors” implies that the only way to keep faith with Black America is to support Democrats and their progressive agenda.

This unified, enthusiastic support from African Americans is crucial for the party to win elections in purple states. Scott is challenging that unanimity. Donald Trump did, too, and made some inroads, but Scott is a far more congenial messenger. He’s a happy warrior with an impressive background and a record of accomplishment, personal and professional.

Related movements, such as “Blexit” (Black Exit from the Democratic Party), don’t have to be large to be politically important. Small inroads matter because our electorate is so evenly divided, so many contests are tight, and Democrats can win only if (1) Blacks turn out in very large numbers and (2) almost all of them vote Democratic.

That’s also why Democrats are furious about Georgia’s new voting law. Of course, they genuinely believe it is an obstacle to Black voting. But there’s another, equally important reason. They think attacking the law shows African Americans across the country (and many progressives) that the Democratic Party really cares about them and that Republicans are racist. This PR campaign has led to some ludicrous hyperbole, such as President Biden calling the law “Jim Crow 2.0.” That’s an insult to people who actually suffered through Jim Crow, who were denied the vote, education, good jobs, and dignity under that legal regime (which lasted from the 1890s until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act).

How does Sen. Scott threaten this Democratic coalition? Both by conveying his own views so effectively and by encouraging other prominent Blacks to join him. The more such voices, the harder it is to marginalize them as “tokens.” The more who speak out, the more socially acceptable it is for African Americans to vote Republican. The more traction this movement gains, the more dangerous for Democrats. Again, a small shift in this key constituency could matter.

One way to stop it is to make sure Black conservatives pay a high price for speaking out. The goal, like so much in modern American politics, is to suppress dissident views, to shame, humiliate, and cancel them.

That’s the message from those who condemn Scott as “Uncle Tim” or an “Oreo.” They are telling African Americans: If you challenge our agenda, we will shred you personally. That’s exactly what MSNBC host Tiffany Cross did on her show when she lacerated “the hollow institution that resides inside Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s head. No racism there, and apparently no sense either.” Cross added that she wouldn’t “argue with people Harriet Tubman would have left behind,” and that Scott’s remarks would “shame the ancestors and appease the oppressors.” Joy-Ann Reid, another MSNBC host, tweeted her approval. At their network, that’s what passes for intelligent commentary.

MSNBC is hardly alone. Leftist spokesmen have launched an avalanche of personal attacks on Scott and other Black conservatives. Faced with that prospect, it’s not surprising that other Black voices choose to stay silent, as do many white conservatives. The message to all of them: “Beware. We will come for you, too.” That’s how threats work.

What effect does this silencing have? It shows Black voters that their “true” leaders are progressives. At least that’s the goal. Oh, there may be a few outliers on the right — Clarence Thomas, Jason Riley, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and Robert Woodson — but they are condemned, as Scott has been, as servants of a white ruling elite. Tiffany Cross said so directly, calling Scott “a token,” “a clown,” and “a tap dancer,” who suffers from “Stockholm syndrome … repeating a false narrative about this country that makes conservative white people feel comfortable.” That’s not an argument. That’s a smear, drenched in racial stereotypes. Tap dancer?

If keeping African Americans snugly within the Democratic coalition is the main impact of these attacks, there’s a second, less obvious effect. Sen. Scott’s stature, seriousness, and personal history directly challenge the presumed moral superiority of educated white progressives, who like to congratulate themselves on holding the high ground on racial issues. It’s a painful blow, then, when Scott, Riley, Sowell, and others say, “Your policies are actually hurting us, and many are patronizing.” It’s demeaning, they note, to say that Blacks can’t learn math. It’s patronizing to say Blacks can’t figure out how to get an ID. Everybody else can. Scott and his fellow conservatives are using these arguments to knock progressives’ off their moral high horse.

It’s a horse that many educated, upper-middle-class whites love to mount, cracking the whip across their own backs. They seem to think self-flagellation is moral cleansing. They think government subsidies and other economic redistribution are at least partial reparation for America’s historic racial crimes.

Black conservatives do not deny the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow. Who could? What they deny is that

  • These evils still suffuse American society as “structural racism”;
  • White supremacy is the essential fact of our national history, which is criminal to its core; and
  • The best response to prior discrimination is still more discrimination, this time in favor of Blacks, with no end in sight.

Conservatives, whatever their race or ethnicity, reject that ideology, root and branch.

It is one mark of Scott’s success that both President Biden and Vice President Harris have been forced to renounce at least part of it. Responding to reporters’ questions, they declared America is not a racist country. They must have swallowed hard to say that since their comments undercut the dominant ideology of party activists.

Scott’s pragmatic conservatism poses yet another challenge for Democrats. It opens up a serious policy debate on grounds that do not favor the left. Why? Because it shifts the discussion away from past crimes, away from the ethics of redistribution, and toward the best remedies for racial inequality going forward. Shifting the debate to practical remedies leads to hard questions: Would more Great Society programs, like the ones Biden proposes, really help? At what cost? Will they work better than Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs? If the new ones turn out to be duds, can we terminate them, or will they be locked in forever as expensive entitlements? Is this entire agenda helping America heal or deepening its racial divisions?

The key point here — the one Tim Scott raised in his response to Biden — is that it is hardly the moral high ground to support public policies that don’t work. Debating that point forces progressives, Black and white, to defend the practical impact of their proposals and justify their costs. Republicans welcome that debate.

Democrats want to avoid it, especially while they are trying to ram through huge new programs and make them permanent entitlements. The Democrats’ position is: Let’s assume these programs will work well and that we can pay for them. Let’s assume they will help African Americans and other minorities since that is our goal. If you oppose these programs, then you must oppose their noble goals. In fact, you must want to perpetuate the very racism they are meant to address.

All these assumptions are debatable. And Tim Scott is debating them, which makes it easier for other Black conservatives and all other Republicans to do so, as well. That’s why Democrats see him as a political threat. They’re right to be concerned. Scott and his fellow Black conservatives have both the intellectual depth and personal stories to challenge African Americans’ near-total commitment to the Democratic Party. Equally important, their voices deny white progressives’ their cherished pose of moral superiority.

These are dangerous challenges for a party determined to pass big legislation with only the thinnest of congressional margins. That’s why Democrats are so eager to pummel Scott. They want to stamp out his ideas before they spread.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].




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