Spreading the aspersions

Having joked about this earlier, I might as well jump in after Ross on John Judis’s contention that McCain intends the “spread the wealth” and “socialism” tropes to roil up the old racist associations with welfare. Judis says he things the phrase “is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe ‘spreading the wealth’ as giving their money to blacks.” Noam Scheiber agrees.

I agree with Judis that welfare would be more popular and generous in America if it didn’t, in its public image, involve white people giving their hard-earned tax dollars to lazy black people. (This is emphatically not to say that critiques of welfare are inherently racist, or that welfare doesn’t have the problems critics ascribe to it.) But I still think that Judis and Scheiber have gone a bit loony on this one. Why? Because McCain isn’t using the word “welfare.” “Spread the wealth” and “socialism” simply aren’t “welfare.” They muster literally none of its deep associations, not because the tropes don’t share substantive features, but because “socialism” and “spreading the wealth” haven’t been part of the old discourse of, well, welfare. I’ll even stipulate something that Judis and Scheiber seem to take for granted, that GOP crowds are teeming with people itching to discharge some tribal animus, to locate an Other and marginalize it, but that still doesn’t get us anywhere near the scenario they’re envisioning. It leaves us only with a revved up crowd that, upon hearing these supposedly loaded terms, are left scratching their heads and saying, “‘Socialism’? ‘Spreading the wealth’? My reptilian Republican brain tells me that these are code words, especially because Senator McCain keeps using them so insistently and clumsily, but I can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be code words for.”