Since the days of Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," the Republican Party has wooed angry whites with coded messages designed to play to racial prejudices -- and that pattern has come back strong in Campaign 2012 as the GOP seeks to rid the White House of a black Democrat.
Usually, the dog whistle comes in appeals to "states' rights" and allusions to "welfare queens," but sometimes the implicit becomes explicit, as occurred when former Sen. Rick Santorum blurted out, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
This comment was directed to white Republicans in Iowa, some of whom nodded knowingly, receiving the message that President Barack Obama wanted to take their hard-earned money and give it to shiftless blacks. It's a message as old as time in America and it apparently helped boost Santorum into a virtual tie with GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
However, Santorum quickly came to regret his caught-on-video frankness, realizing that many Americans find such blatant appeals to racial prejudice offensive. So, he proceeded to lie about what he actually said, claiming absurdly that he never said "black people" -- that he "started to say a word" and then "sort of mumbled it and changed my thought."
The word, in Santorum's revisionist tale, had come out something like "blah," not "black." Yet why the government would be so determined to give "other people's money" to "blah people" was not explained. Perhaps so the "blah people" could buy snazzier wardrobes or snappier cars to make them less "blah."
Thus, Santorum hoped he could have it both ways. The white racist voters in Iowa and in other states could hear that the ex-Pennsylvania senator wasn't going to use government programs "to make black people's lives better," while non-racists were supposed to believe that he simply stammered out a word that sounded like "black," but was really "blah."
Not to be outdone, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went beyond his usual disparaging of "food stamps" by adding a reference to the NAACP, in case some slow-witted whites didn't get the racially tinged "food stamps" message. After all, many struggling whites also rely on food-assistance programs, indeed a much higher number than blacks.
These crude appeals to racial bigotry -- often framed as a well-meaning desire to help blacks by ending their "dependency" on government help -- fits, too, into the broader right-wing narrative, that the federal government and its do-gooder programs are what's holding America back.
If only Washington got out of the way -- along with its regulations, its taxes on the rich and its social safety net -- then the entrepreneurial spirit of America would be revived and prosperity would spread from sea to shining sea, the right-wing message goes.
This message resonates with many Americans, especially whites, because it panders to their rose-colored personal mythologies that they and their parents climbed the economic ladder solely due to their hard work and grit. It's always an easy sell for politicians to flatter people by saying "you made it on your own."
Yet, for the vast majority of Americans, the reality is quite different. Especially after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government took the lead in creating the social and economic framework that under-girded the nation's later success.
Even right-wing icon Dick Cheney has acknowledged that the New Deal lifted his family from economic hardship into the middle-class -- and contributed to his own renowned personal confidence, which he ironically has put to use dismantling the New Deal. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Dick Cheney: Son of the New Deal."]
Government activism also wasn't a deviation from the Founders' "originalist" intent, as the Right would have you believe. Decisive action by a strong central government to protect the nation's interests was precisely what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind.
The driving goal of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was to create a vibrant federal system that could address national problems and make the new country competitive with -- and invulnerable to -- the then-stronger nation-states of Europe.