Barack Obama accuses John McCain of playing the race card. Most voters seem to think it is Obama who is playing the race card, but he is actually doing something rather different. He is playing the racist card.
There is a difference. The race card - as most people tend to define it - is about appealing to people on grounds of race: don't vote for the black/white/Jewish/etc. guy. Obama is trying to paint his opponent as a closet racist.
It is an important difference. I am not sure there is a race card in American politics today - not in the country as a whole. In certain districts there might be, but not nationally. In saying this, I am not claiming that there are no people who are racist. I am simply saying that that there are more people - many more people - who are repelled by racism than attracted to it. Appealing for votes on racist grounds would attract a few and repel a great many more. It would be tactically stupid. And, by the way, would be tactical lunacy when your opponent is both black and well known. The fact is that the tiny number of people who could not stomach a black president are not going to vote for Obama anyway. McCain does not have to appeal for their votes: just as Ted Strickland and Ben Cardin didn't have to.
It is often argued that the Bradley-Wilder Effect - in which opinion polls seem to exaggerate the appeal of black candidates - is evidence of substantial closet racism in the US. It is evidence, so it is said, of the effectiveness of the race card. I suspect it is evidence of the effectiveness of the racist card instead. People who are not supportive of Obama's candidacy ony anyone of a number of grounds feel reluctant to tell opinion pollsters this, because failing to support Obama is considered akin to racism. Thus opinion polls greatly exaggerate his support. This is especially true outside the hardcore Democratic vote. The media seem happy to report that Obama has a strong appeal to swing and cross-over voters. They ran with this narrative throughout the primary campaign. But the evidence of the way people actually vote show that this is not so. Obama lost the primaries and only won in the caucuses, where the electorate was restricted to hardcore activists. He also tended to lose swing states, winning in states where as a candidate in the general he is assured of either victory or defeat.
So, there is no race card, but there is a racist card. You can accuse people of racism and there is no acceptable response. No evidence is requred the accuser and none is accepted from the person accused. It seems to some self-evident that anyone who is accused must be guilty. It reminds of the words put into Deputy Governor John Danforth's mouth by Arthur Miller in "The Crucible":
"In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims — and they do testify, the children certainly do testify. As for the witches, none will deny that we are most eager for all their confessions. Therefore, what is left for a lawyer to bring out? I think I have made my point. Have I not?"
In the traditions of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, a crime which cannot be proved is one of which the accused must be acquitted, even at the cost of acquitting the guilty. But with racism, as with witchcraft, it is considered essential to simply change the rules of evidence: an accusation is considered sufficient proof of guilt.
(As an aside, it is worth noting, that despite the brilliance of his play, Miller's political analysis is naive in the extreme. He wrote "The Crucible" as an analogy for the McCarthy hearings, failing to distinguish the fairly obvious difference, that communists are real and witches are imaginary. In the 1990s he came up with the even more absurd analogy: to the prosecution of Bill Clinton. Communism may be real, but it is still possible to falsely accused of it. Perjury is not only real, but Bill Clinton was demonstrably guilty of the crime, so the analogy with Salem is pathetically weak. Not only that, he made the comparison at a time when falsely accusing people of witchcraft was, itself, back in vogue. Janet Reno is a much better analogy for John Danforth than Ken Starr ever was).