How Reagan Hoodwinked Poor White Voters Forever

Ronald Reagan | Credit: AP

Ronald Reagan | Credit: AP

Legal scholar and author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class“, Ian Haney López, explains how politicians use refined, racially coded messages — “dog whistles” — to manipulate white Americans in the voting booth.

López  speaks about how on the campaign trail in 1976, Ronald Reagan set into motion the very machinery that has been used to hammer the poor and those on welfare, to a point where social safety nets are nearly a thing of the past. Reagan was able to get middle-class white voters to support economic policies that helped corporations and the wealthy. At the same time, that machinery created the vast income inequality that we have today, which shows no signs of subsiding.

This clip is part of an interview with author Ian Haney López on “Moyers & Company“:


Ian Haney Lopez: So, we know Ronald Reagan used talking about welfare queens, but he also had this other stump speech that he would give. He would speak to his audiences and he would say, “I understand how frustrating it is for you when you’re standing in line at a grocery store waiting to buy hamburger and there’s some young fellow ahead of you buying a T-bone steak with food stamps.

Now, the first time he told that tale, it wasn’t some fellow, he said, “some young buck,” and the young buck was a rationally coded term that stood for a strong African American man and so that term… that moved from being a dog whistle to an outright racial provocation. Reagan backed off and he started talking about some young fellow buying a T-bone steak with food stamps.

Thank about the characters in this story. The first character is the person buying a T-bone steak with food stamps and that’s conjuring the image of the lazy minority who’s strong, who could work, but doesn’t want to work and prefers to be on welfare. But the other image is the you in that story, who Reagan’s talking to and the you, ostensibly, the voter, the hardworking taxpayer, the law-abiding American, that voter, that hard-working American implicitly has as racial identity and that’s white.

So, there you can see this racial narrative; you, Reagan, is saying to white audiences, “You’re being taken advantage of. There’s a third character here; government. It’s government, ostensibly, that’s taking advantage of whites, that is taking their money through taxes, and then giving it to these undeserving minorities. So what did Reagan suggest? He suggested tax cuts. You shouldn’t have to pay taxes to a government that’s just taking your money and giving it to minorities and, indeed, what did he do? He enacted tax cuts. In the first year of his tax cuts, a $164 billion went to American corporations.

Over the 1980s the Reagan tax cuts transferred a trillion dollars to America’s top 1%. Yes, voters got the tax cuts they thought were aimed at cutting off undeserving minorities, but, in fact, it was a politics that were showering money on the very richest Americans. We have to understand the way in which something has fundamentally changed in American politics.

We used to understand that the biggest threat in a political life was the power of concentrated money. The power of big money and of corporations to hijack the marketplace and hijack government. But now Republicans for 50 years have been telling voters the biggest threat in your life is that minority is going to hijack government. The government has been taken over now serves them. So when white voters vote against government, they think they’re voting against minorities, but, in fact, they’re to give over control of government back to the very rich, back to the big corporation.

There may be errors in this transcript.