The Last Three Weeks: Anxiety about the Economy vs. Anxiety about Race

With three weeks left to go, the election appears to be a battle of titans: anxiety pitted against anxiety. Anyone who still thinks campaigns are "debates on the issues" (e.g., whether the newly unveiled McCain economic plan is better or worse than the plan released the day before by Obama)--or the corollary that presidential debates are primarily arguments between two opponents about their policies and positions--should watch the dial-testing CNN conducted during the presidential and vice presidential debates, which the cable network has run at the bottom of the screen during each debate. The dials indicated where undecided voters were moved positively or negatively by what the candidates said.

When the candidates lapsed into wonk-speak, Washingtonese, or a detailed discussion of what is most on voters' minds--the economy--the dials flat-lined. The dials moved, however, when the candidates moved the voters. They shot up when the candidates used a colloquial turn of phrase that conveyed a point well (not "you betcha!" which didn't move anyone anywhere but down), brought something important but abstract close to home by relating it to the lives of real people (e.g., when Obama talked about the "mortgage crisis" faced by policemen or firemen at the end of the month), used a memorable turn of phrase (e.g., Obama's comment that the terrorism that came to our shores began in Afghanistan and Pakistan and will end there), or used a rhetorical device such as repetition that makes a phrase "sing" (as when Biden repeatedly used the phrase about McCain, "he's not a maverick," in a rhetorical flourish). They skyrocketed when the candidates revealed something about themselves that spoke volumes to voters about who they are (as when Biden choked up as he took ownership of parenthood away from Sarah Palin, leading the dials immediately to hit the ceiling for women (and for men about a second and a half later, after they'd reassured themselves that Biden's display of emotion and their own response to it didn't make anybody gay). In the last debate, what was supposed to be John McCain's favored setting--the town hall meeting--turned out to favor Obama. Why? Because it put him in a setting much closer to the stump, where he seems to feel more comfortable displaying his emotional intelligence, rather than the more traditional debate and interview formats, where he seems to feel more comfortable displaying his general intelligence--and it put him eye to eye with his audience in the room and around the country, leading him to respond more personally and personably.

Of course, the rationalist could argue that this year demonstrates more than ever that "issues" are what drive elections. And in some ways, of course, that's true. The economy is the issue that is driving voters to Democrats, and it's what's driving Republicans to distraction. They broke it, they own it.

But "the economy" was far and away the major issue on voters' minds a month ago when McCain and Palin were ahead in the polls. It wasn't until the financial crisis hit, people who had felt secure began to worry about hanging onto their jobs and homes, and the middle class saw their assets cut by a third that "the economy" went from an abstract concept to a source of tremendous anxiety (and anger) for the average voter. And it wasn't until Obama began telling a coherent narrative about the economy--that what we have witnessed is the direct result of a radical ideology that says that if you just remove the shackles of prudence and morality from the wealthiest individuals and corporations, we'll all prosper--that his poll numbers began to soar along with his rhetoric and stabilize like his demeanor. He had a message, one that aroused emotion and resonated with voters, and McCain didn't and couldn't, because, as Obama told the story (with the help of McCain's own self-description as the great deregulator), McCain was part of the problem, not the solution.

In the remaining days of this election, I suspect we will see a contest that has been emerging for months between the anxiety generated by economic circumstances and the anxiety, anger, sense of grievance, and hatred generated by a concerted campaign to make Barack Obama as different, black, and "other" as he can be portrayed. That campaign began nearly two years ago with the Muslim smear on the Internet, the references to his middle name (for months Ann Coulter and others were regularly referring to him as B. Hussein Obama) that recently became commonplace at McCain and Palin rallies until it was clear that they were creating so much fear and loathing among the conservative base that they were starting to backfire with Independents, the morphing images of Obama to Osama, and the story that he didn't believe in the Pledge of Allegiance and had sworn into the Senate with his hand on the Koran.

McCain's negative ads have played on the Muslim theme by invoking "domestic terrorist" William Ayers, so that unconsciously all the elements are active to turn on just the right networks: black Muslim, terrorist, not one of "us," not to be trusted. McCain's team did their homework: They knew they couldn't pin "lazy" or "angry" on him because he didn't fit the stereotype (although they found a way to turn his confidence and ability to draw large clouds into "uppity"--explaining the odd early comment of Karl Rove placing Obama in a country club smoking a cigarette, a seemingly bizarre characterization of someone who until the last two decades wouldn't have been allowed in a country club). But it's hard to imagine they weren't well aware of the research by Harvard social psychologist Mazarin Banaji and her colleagues showing that unconsciously Americans (particularly white Americans) associate "American" with "white," so they went directly for Obama's Americanism and patriotism, as conservative press outlets joined in (e.g., the National Review asking for his birth certificate). The recent attack on ACORN (a group McCain praised profusely while speaking at an Acorn event two years ago) is yet another attempt to inject race into the election, by suggesting that poor black people are trying to take something they don't deserve (sound familiar?) and that Obama is really "one of them." Conservatives are even trying to suggest that the mortgage crisis is not the fault of rich white bankers but is really the fault of ACORN for pressuring lenders to give mortgages to (black) people of limited means and of uppity black people who bought homes above their station.

And those are just McCain's negative ads. As I laid out over three months ago, McCain's first "positive" ads of the general election were already playing on unconscious racial attitudes and the theme of "who's the real American?" much as Bob Corker used the theme of "who's the real Tennessean?" (i.e., who's "one of us"?) to win his Senate race against Harold Ford, Jr. in 2006. McCain's first ad, "The American President," ended with the words, "John McCain: The American President Americans have been waiting for." Not too subtle--what does that make Barack Obama? Un-American? Anti-American? African-American?--but the usual room for plausible deniability that could allow him to charge "black man crying racism" if Obama were to challenge it in a way that was not carefully crafted to prevent that move. McCain's second set of "positive ads"--and the theme of his campaign ever since, from the convention to the signs at the dais and in the background at his rallies and stump speeches--is "Country First." So what is that saying about Obama? Who would he put first? Terrorists? Maybe. Black people. Without a doubt. No one ever challenged McCain on what contrast that slogan was intended to make with Barack Obama (although he started the "celebrity" charge at the same time, also allowing plausible deniability--that Obama is an opportunist who puts his own political ambition first).

This kind of stealth campaign had the potential to be politically toxic for Barack Obama. He dodged the bullet once in the Democratic primaries with his brilliant speech on race in response to the Jeremiah Wright episode. And if current economic circumstances hold, barring another terrorist attack on American soil, it is difficult to see anything McCain or the conservative 527s could throw at Obama that could override people's concrete fears about making their house payments or paying for their kids' college when a third of their college funds just vanished in the last month. But the worldwide financial meltdown has already led the price of gas to drop dramatically, relieving one of the most immediate pressures on most middle class families. And although it is almost safe now to reserve those high-priced, nonrefundable hotel rooms in Washington for the Inauguration, three weeks is a long time in American politics. It's a particularly long time when voters in the center are now leaning toward Obama but many express a vague "unease" about him--and when the other side has spent 40 years perfecting efforts to create and feed that unease.

So what's happening when voters say they are "uneasy" with Obama and then offer one seemingly thin rationalization or another for what they are feeling (e.g., maybe it's really true that he's a Muslim, maybe he doesn't really love his country, maybe he'll put black people first)? We greatly oversimplify the race issue when we describe people as either racist or not racist. Years of research in psychology and neuroscience suggest that you can only understand the concept of prejudice if you add the qualifier "conscious" or "unconscious." Most Americans are not consciously racist. In Georgia, we polled voters months ago as to whether they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who explicitly said that in this country we don't discriminate against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Even including sexual orientation in that statement in a conservative Southern state, fully 85 percent of voters indicated that they would be more likely to vote for that candidate--including the majority of Republicans. They weren't lying. Nor are the millions of Americans who deny negative feelings toward black people (and may even consider themselves liberal or progressive) but for whom brain scans suggest fear responses when they are presented with subliminal imaged of black men (i.e., images presented too rapidly to be seen consciously but slowly enough--in hundredths of a second--for their brains to process). Although some of the "Bradley effect" reflects what psychologists call "social desirability effects"--the desire, in this case, not to seem prejudiced (particularly if people intuit that the pollster on the other end of the line is black)--the fact that prejudice is socially undesirable and something people would want to hide speaks volumes about how far our conscious values have changed over the last 40 years.

What's far more dangerous to Obama in the polling booth--unlike the caucus, where discussion and eye-to-eye contact activate people's conscious values--are unconscious associations to race of which people are largely unaware. It isn't surprising that the voters most likely to express "unease" with Obama are over 50 or Southern. Anyone over 50 in this country (particularly but certainly not exclusively in the South) grew up in the days of explicit, unabashed racism. But at least as importantly, the templates voters who are now over 50 formed in their minds of "how things are"--and by extension, how things "ought to be"--is that black people were virtually always subordinate (and in the South, if they weren't, they were "uppity").

The idea of a black president unconsciously rubs those old neural networks the wrong way, even for many whose conscious values lead them in the opposite direction. Add to that the fact that anyone who has driven by any of our inner cities has seen the squalor, the drug deals, the working-age men hanging out during the day, the teenage mothers--and the young black men hauled away in handcuffs every night on the local news. Now add to the unconscious residues of 300 years of overt racism, the early templates of racial hierarchy laid down in our neural networks, the images white people regularly see of black inner city culture (or that they move to the far suburbs to avoid, and then become even more removed from their shared humanity with the people who live downtown), personal experiences--having been or felt passed over for a job to make way for a person of color, having been mugged by a young black man, or having had one of your children bused to a scary part of town--and you have a wealth of negative associations most white people harbor toward black people, even if they wish they didn't. You can ask people all you want with conscious polling questions, and you can get creative by asking what "their neighbors" think and feel. But fundamentally, you're asking people conscious questions about unconscious processes, and they are as capable of reporting what's happening in the unconscious circuitry of their brain as they are of what's going on in their liver.

So what are those weak Obama "leaners," including union members who should be overwhelmingly supporting Obama based on their interests, doing when they generate seemingly ad hoc explanations for their gut level unease? They are doing exactly that: trying to come up with conscious ideas to explain their unconscious sentiments. It's a phenomenon social psychologists call "self-attribution"--the attempt to explain our own thoughts, feelings, gut-level reactions, and behaviors. When we don't have privileged access to processes in our own minds that we think we have, we use our intuitive theories of ourselves to explain what we're feeling. And more often than not, those explanations are wrong, particularly when they lead to an attribution that would offend our conscious sensibilities, in this case, the attribution that perhaps we're more prejudiced than we'd like to believe.

So what is the best way to respond to voters who are not overtly racist, do not want to be prejudiced, but could be swayed by unconscious attitudes or stealth attacks to veer off from pushing "Obama" to pushing "McCain" when they pull the curtains in the voting booth?
The last thing you want to do is to call them racist. That will evoke defensiveness and anger, and for good reason: They are not, in fact, consciously racist. They simply have a gut-level unease brought on by months of racial stealth attacks against Obama and years of unconscious associations to African-Americans.

Unfortunately, the standard Democratic response is based on the wrong theory: that people are either racist or they aren't, and that on issues that arouse strong or conflicting feelings, the best course of action is avoidance--just don't talk about it. This has been the usual Democratic response on social issues such as abortion, guns, gays, and immigration, and it hasn't been effective. (It's also unnecessary: some of the most experienced pollsters in the country and I have recently shown progressive and Democratic candidates can win by 10 to 20 points nationally if they simply articulate their principles in an emotionally compelling way.)

For example, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, who has orchestrated an extraordinary campaign and whose ability to mobilize and organize volunteers, staff, and voters alike will have as much to do with an Obama victory in November as anything else if something dramatic doesn't change the dynamics of the election, recently had this interchange with Steve Inskeep on NPR:

MR. INSKEEP: Mr. Axelrod, one other thing I want to ask about, a lot of voters that we interview and that we read about seem to just now be coming to grips with the idea of a black candidate for president. Do you think that racial concerns have made this race a little closer than it would otherwise be?

MR. AXELROD: You know, I really don't. I think that if there are voters who are motivated that way, they are unlikely to have been voting for the Democratic nominee anyway. I think this race is opening up right now, because people are beginning to focus on who represents change and who does not.

MR. INSKEEP: Although, let me -- if I could interrupt you, just because --

MR. AXELROD: I don't believe that at all! I have a very positive view of what's going on in this country right now. And I think Senator Obama's received a great -- he's been received well all over this country; support all over this country and it's growing every day.

MR. INSKEEP: Sorry to cut you off a little bit, just time is short, and I want you to hear this tape from Tina Graham. She is a white Democrat we interviewed last week in southwest Virginia. She doesn't like John McCain at all, but is not sure that she can pull the lever for Barack Obama.

TINA GRAHAM: (From audio tape.) Until he was nominated to run for president, I never really thought about whether or not that I was racist or whatever you want -- however you want to put it or whatever. It's just the fact that I think that he will represent them and what they want and what they need and stuff and forget about -- you know, they're his people; they're his race.

MR. INSKEEP: David Axelrod, that's a Democrat, someone who's sympathetic to your side. In just a few seconds that we have left, how does your campaign try to deal with voters like that?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think we're talking to voters all over the country about their circumstances and our economy and how they're going to fair in the future under our policies and the policies of the other candidate.

Axelrod's effort to keep the focus on the economy was the right strategy, but the problem with his answer is that it's manifestly untrue, as the audio clip he heard on the air demonstrated. Most voters know it's untrue, whether from what they've heard of a recent study showing that race could cost Obama 6 points, or from talking with their friends or listening to their own gut. His response is eerily similar to his response to a question about the Muslim smear in an interview last November with the Washington Post: "He (Obama) understands that there are scurrilous attack e-mails going on underground that distort his religious affiliation and worse, but his judgment is that he trusts the American people more than that." The strategy of avoidance didn't work, and Obama and his advisors finally had to change course a few weeks later when it was clear that letting the smears spin out of control for over a year had done tremendous damage to the campaign, which have left lingering doubts in the minds of voters long after most people consciously came to understand that Obama is a Christian (a phenomenon psychologists call the sleeper effect, in which neural tracks are essentially laid down by the original untruth but don't simply go away when people's conscious beliefs change).

So what is the alternative?

The same one Obama used to defuse the Jeremiah Wright controversy: talk truthfully and nondefensively about race, so that white voters on the fence will know where Obama stands and feel comfortable because he's comfortable.

Our better angels on race are our conscious values. That is the battleground for Democrats on race and racially tinged issues. The longer racial issues fester unconsciously, where Americans (including Democrats) harbor their most negative associations and worst fears, the more those fears and prejudices will come into play in the voting booth.

Let me give an example of what I mean. Suppose Obama were to hold a town-hall meeting with a predominantly white audience in a small rural town in North Carolina. And imagine that he began it this way:

You know, in an election year, there are a lot of offensive things said about both candidates. But this year, I have to tell you, the most offensive thing I've heard isn't about me or about John McCain. It's about you.

I've heard a lot of talk among the chattering class that working people out here in Hickory North Carolina won't vote for me just because I'm black. Now last I looked, I didn't see any of you rushing to stuff your KKK hoods into the back of your pickup trucks on your way over here.

Would it surprise me if some of you are wondering who I really am, what I believe in, or whether those stories you've been hearing are really true--that I'm really some kind of Muslim terrorist in disguise (and a pretty dumb one at that, who'd try to hide out for 20 years as a Christian in a church with a fiery pastor who ends up on television saying things you really don't want your pastor saying on television if you're running for president)?

Would it surprise me if some of you even set the bar a little higher for me because I have this funny name and I don't look and talk exactly like you? No. And I'll let you in on a little secret that I'll bet you know already. When a white politician goes fishing for votes in black parts of town, black people set the bar a little higher, too, and for just the same reason: They want to know if he's there to get their vote or if he's there to do right by them.

My guess is that what you really want to know about me is where my heart is. You want to know if I share your values. You want to know if I understand and respect the needs and values of people in your neck of the woods. You want to know if I'm going to represent all Americans or if I'm going to favor one group over another.

Well you know what? I think those aren't only fair questions, but I they're just the questions you ought to ask about someone who's running for President of the United States.

So what I want to do today is to answer some of those questions, and listen to yours. I want to share with you something about who I am, what my values are, where I came from, and what I care about, starting with my hopes and dreams and fears for my two daughters, which I suspect are pretty close to your hopes and dreams and fears for your kids. I'm running for president because I believe we have a sacred obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a nation and a world as safe, majestic, and bountiful as the one our parents and grandparents left us. I worry that that's not what we're leaving them right now. And I think it's time we changed that."

The best way to take race off the table as an issue is to put it on the table, make clear that you're comfortable talking about exactly what people are worrying about, and free yourself to stay on message on the economy. As Obama himself has said, a President ought to be able to multi-task.

I hope if race comes up in tonight's debate, Barack Obama will give an honest answer to the question of whether it may have an impact. Because the truth is that people want honesty from their President after 8 years of a "truth-optional" policy, and they want a President firmly grounded in the "reality-based community." The reality is that some small percentage of bigots will vote against Obama because he's black. As Axelrod noted, nothing Obama says is going to change that. And the truth is that most Americans are not Jim Crow racists. But the truth is also that a lot of Americans have fears that they can't voice. It's the job of a leader to voice those fears and allay them so he can get on with the task of winning their hearts and minds and then get going on the business they really care about: getting the country back on track.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, LLC, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.