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Shutdown Power Play: Stoking Racism, Fear of Culture Change to Push Anti-Government Agenda

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Co-authored by Rob Waters

At first it seemed mystifying that reasonable voices didn't prevail to prevent a government shutdown. The scorched-earth effort by the Tea Party caucus and compliant Congressional leaders to undo President Obama's signature accomplishment didn't seem smart in terms of outcome or politics. The anti-government zealots who picked this fight may well have miscalculated; at the moment their strategy looks like a failure.

But these folks are playing for the long term, building their brand and inflaming their base even as they infuriate the nation. They've also cynically played on--and reinforced--the racial fears of their followers and intensified the polarization of the nation. Senator Tom Harkin described the shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis as "one of the most dangerous points in our history...every bit as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War."

At first glance, Harkin's quote may seem extreme. But an analysis by Democracy Corps, a research group led by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and political consultant James Carville, makes his thinking understandable. Democracy Corps conducted focus groups with three groups of Republicans--evangelicals, Tea Party supporters and moderates. What's striking for the first two groups is how much their anger and political stance is motivated by a dread of the cultural changes taking place in this country and their fear and animus towards people of color and immigrants. Here are some excerpts from an analysis of the focus group responses:

"While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities...They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government...Big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes."

There is a desperate quality in the comments and attitudes of many interviewed in these focus groups: They feel under siege; they fear they are becoming the minorities; they feel their values are not reflected in the policies pursued by Obama and Democrats. Their feelings about Obama's race, his ancestry and his name, feed into this. They don't like the new multicultural America that Obama represents and feel marginalized and alienated. They hate him, too, because he has been effective and has built a political base among people who are not like them.

They feel, in other words, that healthcare for the poor is yet another 'bribe' to permanently consolidate people of color in the Democratic column. While we may see Washington as gridlocked, many of them feel that Obama has completely gotten his way and that no one has effectively stood up to him. If you have this perspective, and you see the demographic shifts occurring in this country, you may fear what happens when the US is no longer a white-majority nation. You may support election laws that discourage voting and adamantly reject any immigration reform that expands the number of people of color who can vote. And you may support any crisis, manufactured or not, that will bring government to a halt.

Recall that the term Obamacare was initially applied to the health-reform law by opponents as a way to link it to the man they hated and impugned with thinly disguised racial attacks. Remember the constant references to Barack Hussein Obama, the fabricated birth issues, the suggestion that he was a Muslim? For many of these folks, racism and hatred of Obama are inextricably linked. Calling the law Obamacare amounted to a dog whistle, a way to undermine the health-care law by linking it to a man under racial attack.

The flames of hatred and race are now being fanned by so-called leaders and the wealthy donors who bankroll them. Their shutdown has brought tremendous pain to people across the country but the biggest impact is on people of color, who make up 35 percent of the federal workforce, as our friends at PolicyLink have noted. If it continues, it could devastate low-income people who depend on food stamps and WIC to feed their families. But it also is harming people in red states like Utah, which has the highest proportion of federal workers in the country.

At Prevention Institute, we feel the need to speak up and remind people that government actually provides critical services to all of us. Our work is about forging policies that make our communities more equitable, our people healthier and our nation stronger. We need to make the case that expanding access to health care is good for everyone. We need to affirm the Affordable Care Act and the validity of the electoral process that led to it. And we need to stand up for diversity as a fundamental US value that makes our lives and our country richer. A more perfect union is at stake.