The sanity of Chait’s “complete insanity” (race in contemporary American politics)

And yet, there is the liberal Jon Chait explaining that we must never impute racial motifs to such Republican themes  as “tax cuts” because, well, because that would be “insane”. These Republicans must be granted the benefit of the doubt because – well because journalists who call them on their doubletalk lose their jobs. Simple as that.

So “root_e,” in a post at his Tumblr blog “krebscycle.”

Chait’s statement on the “insane,” which directly precedes the paragraph on which I focused in my “Which came first…” post1, develops as follows:

[H]ere is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.

Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.

We can first note that, contrary to root_e’s depiction, Chait has throughout the article conceded, and not merely conceded but has insistently and extensively argued, that race is in fact (emphasis added) “the primal grievance” in American politics. He calls it the source of “paranoia” – i.e., a form of pathology or “insanity” – on both sides of the main American political divide, defined as between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and then, perhaps too cutely, states the main thesis of his essay: “And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.”

This statement about insanity could be called an insane statement. It is a paradoxical statement, contrary to reason if in a familiar way, as in the popular wisdom that “it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.” What is significant for our purposes is that Chait is calling this form or these twinned forms of insane thinking correct, so not really insane. The recognition of actual sanity is a “horrible” one because its implications are that liberals are right to believe that racism is pervasive and a powerful and perhaps indispensable motivating element of Republican politics, and that conservatives are right to believe that liberal charges of racism are made irresponsibly and destructively. Furthermore, this form of sanity will also require that we accept both of these two viewpoints as true, even though they appear to be mutually exclusive: If Republicans are always racists, then it shouldn’t be irresponsible to say so; if it’s ever irresponsible or insane to refer to Republican as racists, then Republicanism must sometimes not be racist. Our only alternative, one might say our “completely sane” alternative, will be, in Chait’s view, to accept the actual sanity of both of these two seemingly, but not actually pathological viewpoints, and furthermore to accept the sanity of proceeding as though they are not contradictory.

root_e focuses on the second part of the “insane” statement about insanity rather than on its paradoxically complementary relationship with the first part, as though Chait had written his feature-length essay solely and exclusively to illustrate, evidence, and prove the conservative thesis on liberal irresponsibility and destructiveness. As is clear already in the concessionary language of the quoted statement, however, Chait has done nothing of the kind. Nor, to address a specific charge made by root_e in two posts2 and repeated in an extended twitter colloquy3, has Chait sought to declare Paul Ryan innocent of the crime of intentional exploitation of racist sentiment. During a discussion of the history of Republican use of “racial subtexts” (“[a]nd not always as subtexts”), Chait refers directly to Ryan as follows:

When the House Budget Committee releases a report on the failure of the War on Poverty and Paul Ryan speaks of a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working,” you can conclude that the policy report is mere pretext to smuggle in the hidden racial appeal.

In short, Chait does exactly what root_e interprets the statement on insanity to preclude. It would appear, therefore, that either Chait did not mean what root_e believes he meant, or that Chait is contradicting himself.

A close reading of Chait’s statement will, I hope, explain how we should understand Chait’s perspective, and in so doing clarify and sharpen key aspects of his argument about a or the central issue (or “primal grievance”) in contemporary American political life.

Chait’s statement on an insane approach to political discourse has three parts: predicate, thesis, and evidence. His essay develops the argument at length, but its key elements are present in the two paragraphs cited above. We can parse them as follows:

1. a) “Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and, b) “even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.”
2. “Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane.”
3. “Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”

Chait is in my view rightly held to be among our clearest and most thoughtful liberal-left writers, but the un-clarity or perhaps the rhetorical excess in the above statements open them to root_e’s interpretation. Sentence #1 has two parts, and the result is some ambiguity when sentence #2 refers “this analysis,” and calls it “insane.” It is not clear from the immediate context whether Chait means that both the first and second parts are insane. If “a” is false, and Republican politics are not fundamentally racist, then the analysis would indeed be completely wrong and perhaps based on insanity. However, sentence #2 could still be a true  statement – the analysis summarized in #1 might stand as “insane” or irresponsible and destructive, or false as a whole – if “a” was true, but “b” was false.

root_e appears to take the position that Chait must believe both parts to be false, but it seems clear to me, on the basis of the essay as a whole as well as on a reading of Chait’s work over the course of years, that he believes that “a” is probably or possibly true, and certainly arguable, but that “b” is untenable or “insane.” His use of the word “completely” in number #2 tends, however, to suggest that he may mean that  the analysis in whole and part, or thoroughly and “completely,” is “insane,” supporting root_e’s reading. I believe it is much more likely, however, that Chait is writing imprecisely or colloquially when he modifies the adjective “insane” with the adverb “completely,” intending to mean “very” or “extremely” or “utterly” insane. #1 is not thoroughly insane, for Chait, but adopting #1 in its entirety would be, for him, utterly insane.

This distinction may seem trivial or the parsing may seem insanely close, but understanding the distinction is, I believe, essential to understanding Chait’s larger argument, and furthermore for understanding why Chait’s argument tends to undermine key aspects of the left-liberal political project as Chait understands it. root_e takes the position, a position that Chait seems clearly also to hold, that statements like Paul Ryan’s recent one to Bill Bennett on “the culture of poverty” affecting “the inner cities” are “coded messages” that rely on residual white racism for their effectiveness. What Chait seeks to emphasize, however, is that treating “even the most abstract economic appeal [as] a sinister, coded missive” makes public political discussion as a “sane” or reasonable discussion impossible: “If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism,” he writes, “and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.” To focus the statement even further, we could say, “If conservatism is racist, and racism must be extinguished, then conservatism must be extinguished, not treated as ‘legitimate,’ and eligible for equal discussion.” Or: A very large and powerful popular faction in American public life must be politically “extinguished,” not simply debated. Extinguishing the unspeakable “white racist interest” from public life would appear, however, to be impossible or very difficult, precisely because that faction is dominant or potentially dominant in American life.4 It or its idea or its motivating power can perhaps be worn away over time, a possibility that Chait contemplates and clearly approves, but, for now, white racism remains practically ineradicable, whatever our success in eradicating its direct political expression.

Put differently, if extinguishing conservatism, defined as always objectively racist, is impossible, or, at best, is impractical for the foreseeable future at acceptable cost, or is undesirable because harmful in other ways (because a conservative interest needs to be expressed and considered), then we would have before us two alternatives. The first, deemed wholly and foundationally unacceptable in our era, would be to accept a “white” racial interest as a legitimate or potentially legitimate position in political discourse. The second would be to retain our taboo on white racist terms of reference. Doing so will require, however, that we discuss conservative ideas, for instance on levels of taxation or small government or “the inner cities,” on their own merits, not necessarily to the exclusion of potential disparate impacts on racial or so-called racial groups, but not under the assumption that discovering  motivation according to such disparate impacts, indicating the possible or even likely “objective racism” of proponents of particular views, will be dispositive.

To Chait, the second option seems like the “sane” option, thus his #3: It is, after all, quite possible to discuss a proposal on taxes without reference to what, under an objective socio-economic analysis of political passions, may motivate all or most of those strongly, or emotionally or irrationally or prejudicially, in favor of it. We would address whatever proposal in relation to accepted, most likely utilitarian terms of reference: the greatest good for the greatest many. It is even, for that matter, entirely possible, as it has been since ancient times, to discuss what we now sometimes call a “culture of poverty” without reference to race. Our liberals would answer our conservatives as though the latter were operating entirely in “good faith,” and vice versa, with everyone setting aside doubts or even absolute certitude to the contrary.

To root_e, agreeing to argue on the basis of such a mutually agreed upon, or equal or fair, observation of the taboo against expression of a white racist or racial interest amounts to unilateral disarmament. He might say that racists do not deserve fairness, but to act on that basis consistently would mean to pursue an “unfair” political discourse or a discourse without presumption of good faith – an illiberal discourse whose uses were entirely subordinate to the successful prosecution of a power struggle against a designated enemy that would have to be overcome or destroyed, in other words with whom no public “space” truly worthy of preservation could be sustained. In short, it would appear that he will have to be prepared to re-ignite or escalate and, presumably more important, to win a “race war” against conservatism. The evidence appears to be that Americans at this point, on all sides and among all significant constituencies, generally prefer to endure, or find it sane to endure, other losses or inconveniences, including a weakening of the argument against the Republican conservative agenda in whole or part, or an inability to pursue its complete de-legitimization.

Notes:

  1. On Storify here, archived here. []
  2. White Man Speaks with Forked Tongue” and “Jonathan Chait’s Insane Denial of Republican Racism” []
  3. Dialogue with root_e on objective vs rhetorical racism,” to be posted and archived at this blog after annotation []
  4. …the underlying justification for the taboo. []

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  1. So, what does it say that under the first African American president, black unemployment is at legendary levels, as the fact
    that the same administration, displays the same wage gap, among female employees they presume to detect in the wider community,

    this evil iteration of Candide, is very silly.

  2. Charlie Rangel, the fellow who failed to declare a million dollars in taxes from properties in the Dominican Republic,

  3. So Heidegger, being a nazi bureaucrat cannot be held against him, but race neutral economic policies are themselves racial, nice hat trick.

    • Not sure H quite qualified as a Nazi “bureaucrat,” but there are very few who don’t in some way hold his Nazi collaboration against him, and even fewer who will admit it. As for the theory on economic policies, it would be that in America there are no truly “race neutral economic policies.” To re-phrase my argument, the problem for a liberalism that sought to embrace that theory is that if everything is race, then race itself is neutralized except practically as a principle of dissolution of the liberal-democratic state or end of the liberal project.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "The sanity of Chait’s “complete insanity” (race in contemporary American politics)"
  1. […] Jonathan Chait generously tweeted out a link to my post on his complete insanity, we experienced a bit of a hiccup in these here parts on […]

  2. […] Beutler’s take on Chait’s Insanity seeks a middle ground between “Racism Is All” and “Shut Up About Racism,” […]

  3. […] Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence,” which I had not read before writing on “The Sanity of Chait’s “Complete Insanity,” are as […]

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