Columns » Jay Barth

Food stamps, cell phones, and the lingering politics of race in Arkansas



We have reached a point where direct appeals to voters based on race are no longer effective vote-getters. All except the relatively small number of racial extremists recognize that such rhetoric is contrary to the ideal of equality and are repelled by demagoguery of the type that moved voters so powerfully in the middle decades of the last century.

That said, as evidenced in "The Race Card," political psychologist Tali Mendelberg's excellent work from several years back, race-based appeals still have the power to move large numbers of American voters. This is when the appeals are implicit rather than explicit. Such implicit appeals activate hidden racial stereotypes in voters without raising the sort of psychological red flags that scare them off.

The entrance of President Obama onto the national stage has activated a flurry of realpolitik uses of such group-based rhetoric and imagery in campaigns, as well as an upsurge of new research on the power of such implicit appeals. Some of that research has shown (unsurprisingly considering the race-scarred history of the region) that the efforts have particular effectiveness with Southern whites.

The two most visible Republican members of the Arkansas House delegation — Tom Cotton and Tim Griffin — are both engaging in just that sort of politics as they begin their campaigns, respectively, for the U.S. Senate and for reelection to Congress. Their appeals are racially tinged enough to move white voters, while maintaining plausible deniability about the troubling elements.

Cotton's favorite topic of the moment is the "Obama food stamp program." Cotton has become his party's media point person on the issue, having led the charge to break the SNAP nutrition program away from the farm bill and then to remove an estimated 3.8 million recipients from the program. He continually ties the nearly 50-year-old program to the current president. As Cotton put it recently in an NPR interview: "Mark Pryor voted for a food stamp bill. I want farm programs that are designed to help Arkansas's farmers without holding them hostage to Barack Obama's food stamp program." In their classic book "Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics," Thomas and Mary Edsall argued that a variety of social welfare programs became racialized after their creation or expansion during the Great Society era when African Americans were becoming more visible in American life; thus, taxes, social welfare programs, and race all became linked together in a politically potent "chain reaction." Front and center was the food stamp program, used continuously during the Reagan era as an exemplar of the "problem" of big government. It's back, with all its implied racial elements.

While Cotton's use of the food stamp issue is old school, Griffin's implicit racial appeal is a bit more creative. At his "Sweet Tea with Tim" community events over the last several months, Griffin has regularly attacked a program that he terms the "Obamaphone" scheme. Just as with food stamps, the program is not an Obama administration creation. Instead, it is a program, called Lifeline, that goes back to 1984 when the FCC began working to provide phone service for low-income Americans to aid them during emergencies and as they sought out employment. For the last 17 years, the program has been funded by a surcharge on all phone users. (It's in that list of charges on your monthly mobile bill.) Just under 200,000 Arkansans are served by the program, the majority of whom are seniors or veterans. With the demise of landlines, the program has shifted resources to providing cheap cell phones to recipients, and that is the special target of Griffin, who is the lead sponsor on legislation to outlaw this component of the program. The racial linkages to this program go back to a fall 2012 video trumpeted on conservative media outlets in which an African American woman from Cleveland wildly blares, "[Obama] gave us a phone, he's gonna do more!"; with that, she became the "cell phone queen," an echo of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen."

Fortunately, there is a recipe to undermine the effectiveness of these race-based attacks — to bring their racial elements to the attention of voters. Once the racial nature of implicit appeals is highlighted, researchers like Mendelberg have found voters are repelled as if the appeals were explicit in the first place. However, this is where Arkansas Democrats are caught in a trap. Noting the racial elements of the attacks inevitably means bringing up President Obama, perennially unpopular in many parts of the state. Arkansas Democrats would prefer to localize politics. To make Republicans pay the price for race-based appeals, however, it is crucial to expose the appeals for what they are.

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