Jimmy Carter stirred up controversy recently by saying Barack Obama’s opponents are primarily motivated by racism. His comments provoked far right talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh (himself no stranger to controversy) and other conservatives to attack Carter for using race to shut down debate over the president’s agenda. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd sang a similar tune earlier in the week about the current climate in America. Both pointed to posters and drawings that depict Obama as a witch doctor or make reference to his Kenyan roots, with some even calling him the new Hitler. Whether or not one agrees with Dowd and Carter, racially-inspired slogans and cartoons were indeed present at the Tea Party in Washington last Saturday, along with an even more disconcerting sign that read “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy.” These types of depictions deserve to be condemned and repudiated as being unrepresentative of the spirit behind the demonstrations. Unfortunately, very few, if any, spokespersons or organizers of the protest have come out to set the record straight.
A number of prominent Republican leaders have adeptly argued against too much government, huge deficits, rampant debt and Obama healthcare plan. All are legitimate issues over which to call a peaceful demonstration. But no one has said a word against the marginal fringe. Where are Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney? (The same argument could have been made against liberals and their indulgence of the more zealous factions of the American left during the George W. Bush years.)
The Obama administration has adopted an activist agenda to deal with the economy, health care, the environment, and international issues. Economically, it has intervened in significant ways—through large-scale stimulus spending, the nationalization of certain companies in key industries, and bailouts for the financial sector. None of these ventures have enjoyed unanimous support—nor should they. It is far too early to judge the results of these initiatives. Furthermore, the rise of the Tea Party movement should not come as a surprise. Indeed, Obama seems to accept it as part of the democratic process. He has not attributed the stridency of the protests and the occasional hate mongering of some protestors to racism. It is to his credit that he has not alluded in any way to the race card.
That a former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner such as Jimmy Carter has chosen to do so is not a mundane occurrence. It is easy to fall prey to Carter’s logic when confronted with the behaviour of some protestors. But Carter’s point is an oversimplification. Last November, Obama won the election with 53% of the vote and his approval ratings have actually returned to that level of support despite the opposition. In other words, we are nowhere near a rejection of Obama as president. For the time being, the debates are over differing policies and agendas, not race. However, I can sympathize with Carter’s view when I consider that RNC chairperson Michael Steele and the GOP’s talking heads have chosen to demonize Carter and his comments rather than condemn the protestors who carry overt racist expressions. If Carter felt he had to speak out, it is because of the vacuum created by the silence of the Republican leadership and protest organizers.
I applaud Carter`s courage, even though I disagree with his attributing the bulk of anti-Obama anger to racism. Carter is not the problem. By speaking out, he has demonstrated once again how the Republican party is currently straying from its basic values and not providing a much needed alternative to the Democrats.