Race and "Racial McCarthyism"
The battle over John Ashcroft's nomination to be Attorney General early this year has set in motion an important - and twisted - debate. The issue: whether it's legitimate to criticize public figures on the basis of their statements and actions related to race. The controversy over the Ashcroft nomination and subsequent debate highlight how a right wing counteroffensive against so-called "racial McCarthyism" is delegitimizing liberal race-based critiques of public figures.
Neutralizing Ashcroft's opponents
President Bush's nomination set off a heated battle over Ashcroft and his political history related to race. Initially, liberals harshly criticized Ashcroft, focusing primarily on his opposition to the nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench and his statements in an interview with Southern Partisan magazine. Conservatives quickly claimed that opponents of Ashcroft were unfairly accusing him of racism.
But most never went that far. Democratic politicians and other liberals have offered a number of different, more limited criticisms of White's defeat and Ashcroft's role in engineering it:
Moreover, no public accusations of racism were made by Democratic politicians at Ashcroft's Senate confirmation hearings, as Nicholas Confessore pointed out in the American Prospect. Yet the accusation that Ashcroft's opponents were saying Ashcroft was racist kept Democrats on the defensive throughout the hearings and helped ensure Ashcroft's confirmation. What happened?
In short, Ashcroft backers used a complicated set of rhetorical techniques to take control of the debate. These were aptly demonstrated by Rich Lowry in the National Review Online. Lowry begins by claiming that "the charges of racial bias... came from all liberal quarters". He cites three examples of these "charges of racial bias": the Jackson and Clinton statements above plus a 1999 accusation of racism against Ashcroft by Rep. Maxine Waters. Note how different these statements are - Clinton alleges differential treatment by race and gender, Jackson criticizes a political appeal to race, and Waters says that Ashcroft acts "like a racist". Yet Lowry defines them as essentially the same - accusations that Ashcroft is racially biased. And racism, he says, has a clear definition - "animus against individuals or groups based on race". Therefore, according to Lowry, Ashcroft's opponents are saying that John Ashcroft dislikes black people in his heart.
This rhetorical trick left Ashcroft's opponents reeling. By most accounts, Ashcroft is a decent person who does not personally hate people on the basis of race - and no one can definitively prove otherwise (hence President Bush: "This is a good man; he's got a good heart"). But this does not mean that Ashcroft should be exempt from criticism for capitalizing on racial animus and being indifferent to civil rights in his political career. As Confessore puts it, "The problem is that the language of race in America is too cramped to adequately describe this brand of indifference. Terms like racist, bigot, and Nazi can't suffice; they imply questions of character and intent that are unanswerable."
In the end, Ashcroft's supporters created a standard that is effectively insurmountable, precluding race-related criticism of the more ambiguous political appeals, statements and positions that constitute the vast majority of American politics. Ashcroft's confirmation was therefore a major conservative victory in the debate over race.
The racial McCarthyism counteroffensive
Some conservatives didn't just defend Ashcroft, however. They initiated an offensive that seeks to demolish the legitimacy of criticisms of appeals to race by public figures. Specifically, it seeks to establish the standard of race-related criticism used by Ashcroft supporters, with all its slippery logic, and delegitimize what is perceived as a looser standard of "insensitivity" (read: anything that falls short of an admission of prejudice). The rhetorical bludgeon uniting much of this push is the accusation of "racial McCarthyism".
David Horowitz, a conservative writer and activist who often focuses on racial issues, pioneered the use of the racial McCarthyism charge in the current debate. The term dates back to at least 1979, but was not used in its current form in a major newspaper until 1987, when Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute employed it in a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times. It popped up occasionally over the years, most recently in a 1999 Horowitz column.
In January, however, Horowitz deployed the term on the Fox News show "Hannity & Colmes" and again a few days later in an instructive version of his Political War strategy newsletter for Republicans. Horowitz lists "REPUBLICAN ATTACK LINES" to defend Bush nominees including "Ashcroft: This is racial McCarthyism". Given that Political War offers strategic advice, it's clear that Horowitz is seeking to capitalize on the power of the McCarthyism charge, which creates associations with paranoia, witch-hunting and false accusations. Then, in his January 22 Salon column, Horowitz writes: "Not since the heyday of Sen. Joseph McCarthy has there been a demonization of whole categories of Americans or a national witch hunt on a scale like this..."
Lowry first picked up on Horowitz's rhetoric in a February 5 article in the print edition of the National Review, where he argues for the character-based definition of racism and condemns a standard of "insensitivity": "[W]hat is at stake in this nomination is an attempt to define racism down, to institute in public life a new racial McCarthyism that would disqualify any public official who is merely accused of racism, and render conservatism itself a form of de facto racism..." Lowry's February 6 National Review Online article detailed above was also titled "Functional McCarthyism".
The term spread quickly. On February 22, Rep. Dick Armey sent a widely publicized letter to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume in which he wrote, "I believe there is a phenomenon in American politics today that could justly be called 'Racial McCarthyism' or 'reverse race-baiting'". By March 19, Horowitz claimed in Salon that McCarthyism was "a tea party" compared to the angry protests he was facing during speeches on college campuses. He published an op-ed about his experiences in the Arizona Republic on March 22 titled - guess what? - "Racial McCarthyism". Since his January 4 appearance on Hannity and Colmes, Horowitz has used the term on ten national talk shows.
The proponents of this rhetoric have clearly made progress in delegitimizing race-based criticisms of public figures. Even if irresponsible charges of racism are sometimes made, this counteroffensive is worse. Beyond its tortured logic and emotional countercharges, the rhetoric implies that judging public officials on the basis of their actions is illegitimate without irrefutable proof of malicious intent. Instead, we should rely on unverifiable assessments of the official's character offered by other people in power. At its core, this is profoundly anti-democratic.