The Weekend Wonk: Weaponizing the Worst in Us

May 26, 2018

UPDATED for Roger Stone conviction:


The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.   -W. B. Yeats

Above, Lee Atwater, famously ruthless political strategist for Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. He perfectly encapsulates the “Southern Strategy” – a 50 year campaign by the Republican Party to take advantage of white resentment, enflamed by the civil rights and voting rights movement, – mainly in the south, but effective among whites everywhere – to draw support to the GOP.


Effectively, the effort has been to weaponize the lowest and worst drives of humanity – Atwater et al hoped, to gain power for their clients.

We see the results today. Perhaps its less surprising now to see who Atwater was in business with.


Manafort, Stone, Atwater, 1986 – Click for Larger

Time Magazine, 1986:

The Slickest Shop in Town

Legally, there are two firms. Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, a lobbying operation, represents Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute, Herbalife, Angolan “Freedom Fighter” Jonas Savimbi and the governments of the Bahamas and the Philippines. Black, Manafort, Stone & Atwater, a political-consulting firm, has helped elect such powerful Republican politicians as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.


The political credentials of the partners are imposing. Charles Black, 38, was a top aide to Senator Robert Dole and the senior strategist for President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. Paul Manafort, 36, was the political director of the 1984 G.O.P. national convention. Roger Stone, 33, was the Eastern regional campaign director for Reagan in 1984 and is now one of Congressman Jack Kemp’s chief political advisers. Peter Kelly, 48, was finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985. Lee Atwater, 34, was Reagan’s deputy campaign manager in 1984 and is now Vice President George Bush’s chief political adviser. Alone among the firm’s partners, Atwater sticks to advising electoral candidates and does not lobby.

Environmental Politics:

The relationship between racial attitudes and public opinion about climate
change is examined. Public opinion data from Pew and American National Election Studies surveys are used to show that racial identification and prejudices are increasingly correlated with opinions about climate change during the Obama presidency. Results show that racial identification became a significant predictor of climate change concern following Obama’s election in 2008, and that high levels of racial resentment are strongly correlated with reduced agreement with the scientific consensus on climate change. These results offer evidence for an effect termed the spillover of racialization. This helps further explain why the public remains so polarized on climate change, given the extent to which racial grievances and identities have become entangled with elite communication about climate change and its related policies today.


Washington Post:

White racial resentment has stayed roughly the same

The figure (above) shows the average level of racial resentment among white respondents over time, from 1988 to 2016. A score of 0 reflects the lowest possible level of racial resentment, and a score of 1 reflects the highest.

This graph shows that racial resentment hasn’t fluctuated much over time. White Americans today are, on average, no more racially resentful than they were in 1988. 

But racial resentment now more closely predicts all other political opinions

But that doesn’t necessarily tell us whether racial resentment has become more or less politically powerful or influential. Racial resentment can remain the same — and yet at different times it could be more effectively defused or more potently channeled.

The next figure shows the correlation between racial resentment and several political orientations, attitudes and behaviors, including partisanship, ideological self-identification, voting for the Republican Party candidate, and attitudes about issues such as general government spending or favoring private or publicly subsidized health insurance.

Nexus Media:

What began as a way of trolling Prius drivers became a signature protest against America’s first black president — rolling coal. Drivers spend hundreds or thousands of dollars retrofitting their trucks so they can blanket cyclists, motorists and pedestrians with thick, black clouds of exhaust. “I run into a lot of people that really don’t like Obama at all,” one seller of coal-rolling equipment toldSlate. “If he’s into the environment, if he’s into this or that, we’re not. I hear a lot of that.” In some instances, the practice has taken on an explicitly racial tone, as drivers publish videos of themselves rollingcoalon Black Lives Matters protestors.

Why would anyone spend so much money to do something so hostile and self-defeating? New research offers some insight.

After Barack Obama took office, white Americans were less likely to see climate change as a serious problem, according to a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Politics. The study further finds evidence of a link between racial resentment and climate change denial. This is not to suggest that all climate deniers are racists, merely that racial resentment may, in part, be driving climate denial.

“There has been increasing polarization on this issue — and this is one thing my own research has been examining for a while — trying to figure out what are some of the root causes of this polarization,” said study author Salil Benegal, a political scientist at DePauw University.

Researchers have thoroughly investigated the link between ideology and attitudes toward climate change, finding that conservatives are significantly more likely to reject climate science, not because they misapprehend the facts, but because they are taking their cues from conservative elites, many of whom have close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Thus, while scientists have grown more certain about the causes and perils of climate change, attitudes toward the carbon crisis have become more and more polarized. While Democrats have grown more concerned about climate change, among Republicans, climate denial has become increasingly calcified.

Above – Hah! pwned you, libs!

Separately, researchers have studied how racial resentment among white Americans has worsened economic anxiety and driven opposition to welfare, Medicaid and other government initiatives. (As it happens, white Americans are the largestbeneficiaries of these programs.) Writing in the Washington Post, political scientists Adam Enders and Jamil Scottexplained that, while racial resentment has remained stable over time, “More and more, white Americans use their racial attitudes to help them decide their positions on political questions such as whom to vote for or what stance to take on important issues including welfare and health care.” They added, “Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency further strengthened the relationship between racial resentment and political attitudes.”

Benegal’s study links these two fields of research by asking if, and to what extent, racial resentment has fueled climate change denial. He began by examining the views of black and white Americans on climate change before and during Obama’s presidency, comparing Pew surveys taken between 2006 and 2008 with surveys taken between 2009 and 2014. Obama, who named climate change a top priority on the campaign trail, tried and failed to pass cap and trade in 2009.

Before the 2008 election, Benegal said, there was no significant difference between white and black Americans on climate change, when controlling for partisanship, ideology, education, church attendance and employment. In the years after Obama took office, the views of black Americans stayed roughly the same. White Americans, however, were 18 percent less likely to see climate change as a very serious problem.


Atwater died young of cancer.
It’s said that in his last days, he repented the ugliness of his political life.

Washington Post:

Atwater’s “deathbed confession” remains controversial to this day. Many interpreted it as a renunciation of the political decade he had helped make possible. “Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something stirring in American society,” he said. “It was a sense among the people of the country — Republicans and Democrats alike — that something was missing from their lives, something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what ‘it’ was. My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.”

For many readers, there was a credibility problem. He’s been a bastard all his professional life, said his critics, and now we’re supposed to believe him when he says he really loves us?

Make no mistake: Lee still believed in the power of negative campaigning. “I prefer to call [it] comparative campaigning,” he said. “Negative makes it sound as if you’re beating up on the guy for no reason, which is different from choosing symbolic platforms, like the Pledge of Allegiance or the furlough program in Massachusetts, upon which to make compelling comparisons between candidates.” No, Lee wasn’t apologizing for that. “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me.”

Was that an apology? With Lee Atwater, it’s better to think of it as emotional damage control.



5 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Weaponizing the Worst in Us”

  1. lracine Says:

    Interesting read. I had not realized the links between Manafort and Roger Stone.

    I don’t think you can get a good understanding of a forest by solely looking at select pieces of it (my critique of the research).

    “History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

    Great visions of prosperity and stability
    Reduce unemployment
    Promise of Strong Government
    Promise of Strong Military
    Appeals to Patriotism
    Blaming Political Parties for the countries problems leading to if the parties can’t work together get rid of them….
    Fear of communism
    Appealing to leading industrialist for political and financial support… think Koch… both then and now…
    Exploitation of the population’s fears

    These are all attributes that have been documented with the rise of the Social Democratic Party in German 1925, almost a century ago.

    We live in interesting times……

  2. Abel Adamski Says:

    The EPA’s increasing hostility toward the press, explained
    Why are EPA guards shoving reporters?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Why did Nazis, banana republic dictators, and now Putin do the same, even “”pushing” some of them into an early grave? MAGA! and ITMFA!

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    Calmity vs. Calamity
    While you read this, keep in the back of your mind that climate catastrophe first and most is affecting poor people of color in countries other than the United States.

    Not understanding the reasons and mechanisms, I’ve asked a few times for Peter to post more on the claim that there’s a correlation, even a causal effect, between racism and climate denial. This article is a good step in that direction. I think one small bit of the explanation is that climate catastrophe will first and most affect poor people of color.

    I’ve kept hearing different strategies about convincing people who don’t want to be convinced about climate catastrophe. The most common one is to not tell the truth. Of course it’s never said that way; it’s always couched as ridiculing fear-mongering, and the aspect of ”truth” is conveniently left out of that frame. Yes, telling the truth on this subject is likely to engender fear. The obvious solution is to tell the truth about climate and then tell the truth about our society’s fear of fear—and then to fix all the problems. Our society’s causation of our intensifying ecological collapse has to be dealt with immediately. It’s looking more and more like our society’s fear of its own emotions will have to be dealt with to get it to face that calamity, so avoiding fear and the truth with is is bad; it’s falling into the same trap that’s contributing to the calamity.

    Another piece of advice I’ve heard coming out of the anti-truth argument, although again, it’s never couched that way, is that we should communicate about climate cataclysm through personal interest stories about people affected by climate change. But so far, climate change is mostly happening to poor people, mostly of color, and a lot of children and women—at least the ways that can be shown with video. Our society is arranged in a series of concentric circles. At the center are rich white men; each circle out is less like them, less rich and powerful and seen as less deserving of riches and power, and increasingly exploited and objectified by those at the center.

    Putting poor women of color on screen to talk emotionally, in foreign languages and funny accents about how climate change has affected them, and then accenting that with the abstract, intellectually demanding science of climate change and its explainers—smart people hated and resented in a perversely also anti-intellectual culture, triggers damn near every prejudice that motivates the US. Racism, classism, misogyny, fear and hatred of weakness, anti-intellectualism, desire to destroy nature… The increasingly strong and more reinforced links between all these things—those isms, climate denial, political conservatism, etc. means we’re even less likely to be able to elect women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans in the future, although the Trump-triggered activism on the left and push back against voter suppression and gerrymandering may overcome it. But it can’t overcome the outrage and resentment from the minority, it will only intensify it.

    All the problems pointed out here are linked because of their common psychological origin—attachment disorders, lack of other resources that force people to resort to splitting and projecting, including the split between the narcissistic self and the objectified and exploited world, etc.. Unless we recognize and treat this as a psychological illness we’ll never get beyond it, and as climate catastrophe worsens, the effects and the engendered resentment will push us, as crises and fear always do in a basically conservative, patriarchal society, toward autocratic governments, superstitious cults, and more of the prejudices and isms. It will push us relentlessly to self- and universal destruction. The first step toward avoiding that is to understand the problem—the psychological problem.

  4. […] pointed out the strong correlation between climate denial and, for instance, racism, many times.Same story with Misogyny, homophobia, and a host of other social […]

Leave a Reply to J4Zonian Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: