Speaking in Tongues

All my friends are so small town
My parents live in the same small town
My job is so small town
Provides little opportunity

— John Mellencamp

Republicans have long been adept at speaking in tongues—but not in a religious sense. The party, since Ronald Reagan used the language of individual rights to criticize the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts during the mid-1960s, has relied on code to create a solid southern voting block.

One might assume that, given the changing national demographics and mores, the party would cease its manipulation of the language and make an effort to appeal to a more diverse constituency. After all, non-Latino whites are expected to become a minority in the country within the next couple of decades.

Assuming that, however, would be foolish—as the party proved at its 2008 national convention in St. Paul, Minn., and repeatedly on the campaign trail.

The party spent much of its three-day party bashing so-called elites by painting Democrats as “cosmopolitans” and making light of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

Consider Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s line during the her acceptance speech at the convention. The Democrats “seem to look down” on her experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, so she wanted to “explain to them what the job involves”:

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.

“We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.”

The Palin speech—like the speeches by other Republican luminaries at the convention—was designed to plug into that old racial bugaboo by setting up a false contrast between small towns and urban centers.

Palin, who has served as governor of Alaska for less than two years, was working from an old Republican script that has used the notion of an idyllic small-town past as racial code. Basically, small towns in this script are filled with hard-working people (read whites) who have traditional American values; the unstated contrast, of course, is with cities, which must then be filled with the opposite of hard-working (white) people.

Celebrating small towns, in this way, is the same as defending states’ rights, which was a way for segregationists to limit their use of racially charged language while still appealing to the hardcore racists that made up their constituency.
The party’s assault on community organizers works the same way, as code to the Republican base.

New York Gov. David Paterson, the first African-American to hold that office, said in September that repeating the words “community organizer” during the convention was Republican code for “black.”

“I think where there are overtones is when there are uses of language that are designed to inhibit other people’s progress with a subtle reference to their race,” he told WCBS television.

He’s not the only one who views the GOP’s attempts to turn “community organizer” into an insult. Even Chris Matthews views these attacks this way—and no one has ever accused him of being the deepest of thinkers.

Matthews said Republicans were using “community organizer” as a “bullwhip” and wondered if the phrase was “the new ‘welfare queen.’” (

“Bullwhip” is a perfect word.

I’ve written elsewhere of the impact that race is likely to have on this year’s campaign, given that we are witnessing history—the first African-American to represent a major party as its presidential candidate. There remains a significant minority of likely voters, according to the polls, for whom Obama’s race is a factor—about one in six whites in one poll said they believed that Obama would favor blacks if elected.

Stanford University political scientist Shanto Iyengar told the St. Petersburg Times in September that the historical trends — “the anti-Republican climate in the country” — should favor a Democratic ticket and that the race should not be close.
“The fact that the race has been much tighter than that, even before the conventions and vice presidential picks, suggests that there’s some kind of drag on the Obama candidacy,” he said. “My suspicion is that it has to do with his race.”

Consider the disparity among black and white respondents to a September ABC/Washington Post poll. It found that 71% of white men and 65% of white women have a favorable view of John McCain, compared with just 50% and 52% for Obama.
The numbers are not as stark as they might have been in the past, but the difference remains startling—and it means the GOP is likely to continue speaking in tongues through Nov. 4.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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