Through a Glass Darkly

Black and white supporters of Barack Obama are voting for very different presidents

Ethnicity Features North America Obama US Politics

American Politics has always been rich in surprises, but surely none has been as great in recent decades as the sudden emergence of Barack Hussein Obama as the Democratic nominee for the presidency – and, if one is to believe the American media, the virtually consecrated victor in the November election.

Obama’s stunningly rapid journey from extreme obscurity – until about four years ago he was a fairly junior state senator in the Illinois legislature – to worldwide prominence sheds considerable light on changes that have taken place in the nominating process over the past four decades, as well as the secret turmoil that has afflicted the Democratic party since Bill Clinton left the White House nearly eight years ago. It also brings to light the crucial role of the African-American electorate in selecting Democratic candidates, and forces almost to the surface some of its hitherto somewhat private ideological notions.

First, the selection process. Before the 1970s Democrats chose their candidates for president and vice-president at a national convention, where the delegates were largely elected officials who had already proven their vote-getting abilities. A handful of states did hold primary elections, but in those days their results were generally not regarded as necessarily significant indicators of broad party or public support. (The one exception was John F. Kennedy’s victory in the primary in West Virginia, because, as a Catholic candidate, he was shown to be able to carry an overwhelmingly Protestant state. Even so, Kennedy’s father’s money, generously distributed among West Virginia’s indigent, helped things along nicely.) Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was the last candidate to be selected by a convention – in 1968, and not without considerable resistance from the more militant “bases” of the party.

After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, the Democrats appointed a commission led by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota to revise the rules of candidate selection. In the future all states would hold primary contests; whoever won a majority of the delegates would automatically win the nomination. In subsequent years these rules have been tweaked to make sure that certain demographic groups are given disproportionate (or proportionate, depending on one’s point of view) weight in delegate selection. The kinds of people who sit on the convention floor now are greatly different from the party bosses, mayors, senators and governors of yore. They are younger, more urban, more affluent, more female and more black. Many fewer have ever actually campaigned for office on their own.

But the matter is even more complicated than that. When one speaks of Democratic “primaries” one is really referring to two quite different processes. One is an election in which all registered Democrats are allowed to go to the polls to cast their ballots for one of a number of candidates. The other, however, is a caucus, in which those Democrats so motivated can go to the equivalent of a town meeting somewhere in their state and, by voice or hand vote, opt for one of a list. Needless to say, this process puts a premium on ideological fervour and sensitivity to group pressures. Nonetheless, Democrats in a surprisingly large number of states hold caucuses rather than real primary elections; one of them is Iowa, which holds its contest first, in early January. As it happens, Iowa has the most left-wing Democratic party in the United States (its Republican party is also among the most right-wing). In choosing Obama over Hillary Clinton earlier this year, the Iowa Democrats made him a star overnight. His campaign suddenly picked up speed – and unleashed oceans of money from New York and Hollywood, as well as from thousands of small contributors on the internet, a tide that eventually sustained him to victory.

Mrs Clinton has argued, with some justification, that she won many of the primaries where voters went to the ballot box, whereas Obama tended to win caucuses, where the more extreme (or “out of touch”) elements of the Democratic party tend to prevail. She has also pointed out, quite correctly, that most of the primaries she won (Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, New York) are far richer in electoral votes than the states where Obama typically prevailed. If Obama should lose to John McCain there will be pressures – particularly from the camp of the former president’s wife – to revisit the way primaries are organised. Presumably Mrs Clinton would return to take advantage of such changes for the 2012 election cycle – after all, she really has nothing else in her life to do.

Obama’s emergence is not merely the result of the oddities of the selection process, however. Over the past four years the Democratic party has been secretly agonising over the prospects of a Hillary Clinton candidacy. The harsh truth is that since entering the Senate in 2001 Mrs Clinton consistently had the highest negative ratings of any Democratic politician in the United States. Over the past eight years the number of people who told pollsters they would not vote for her “under any circumstances” consistently oscillated between 49 and 51 per cent. Indeed, Mrs Clinton was resented and disliked by a plurality of the electorate sufficiently large to cause nervous Republicans to regard her – until Obama’s recent nomination – as their only hope for victory in the 2008 elections.

The sudden appearance of Barack Obama seemed at first a miraculous solution to the party’s problems. He was a fresh face, charismatic and charming, without a long list of enemies (truth to tell, without a long list of much of anything except degrees from elite schools and a rather unimpressive career as a law professor at the University of Chicago). More importantly, he was technically black – actually the issue of a white American mother and a Kenyan immigrant who deserted his wife shortly after Barack was born. For decades now, liberals in the United States, and particularly left-leaning Democrats, have been dying to find a black candidate for the presidency who did not scare the pants off them. Obama seemed just black enough – he had established his political base in Chicago’s large African-American community – and just white enough (he speaks Standard American English) to fill the bill. The fact that he had been in the US Senate for less than four years – half of which he has spent campaigning for the presidency – did not seem to bother them. He represented a ready-made escape hatch for those who feared being dragged down to defeat by anti-Hillary sentiment.

Even more important, Obama brought to the table the Democratic party’s largest single constituency – and its most reliable. In many states blacks constitute as much as 40 per cent of the Democratic vote, and their churches make up an informal but vital network for getting people to the polls. Under some circumstances the black vote can make Democrats competitive in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and even Georgia, all of which normally go Republican in presidential years. Combine this constituency with liberal elitists in the affluent suburbs of American cities and university towns and you have a singularly sophisticated political brew. The Clintons underestimated the potency of this coalition to their peril. Perhaps the defining moment of the primary season came when Bill Clinton arrogantly wrote off Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary by comparing it to Reverend Jesse Jackson’s earlier feat in the 1984 race. By so doing he committed the unpardonable sin of questioning Obama’s “post-racial” credentials, offending the candidate’s black and white supporters in equal measure (although for quite different reasons).

Just as a blind pig occasionally finds a truffle, Bill Clinton not only struck a nerve but happened upon an inconvenient truth. Obama – with all his poise, eloquence and dexterity on the campaign trail – would never have been a competitive candidate for the nomination were he not black. But the Obama the whites are voting for and the Obama the blacks are supporting represent entirely different visions of America. The whites are seeking absolution from the sins of slavery and racism as if nothing had happened in the United States since the Civil War, regardless of desegregation of the armed forces, the civil rights movement and affirmative action (racial preferences), in force now for nearly four decades. There is also a snobbish cachet to voting for Obama, particularly among young people. It is a way of proving one is not a “redneck” or “low class” but enlightened and progressive.

Black voters see Obama’s candidacy in a different light. As far as most African-Americans are concerned, the narrative of American history is one long, unrelieved ordeal of slavery, racism and discrimination. There is much truth in this version, but it is not the whole truth, since it omits everything that has occurred since the passage of the civil rights law of 1964, the voting rights act and court-ordered reapportionment of congressional districts to ensure a certain number of black members of the House of Representatives. It also passes over the multiple ways in which blacks since the 1970s have been given jobs or admission to elite universities for which they were not always fully qualified. Even so, African-Americans still see themselves as a persecuted minority. The failure of the black community to replicate success from one generation to another, or to address its deficiencies in family life, education, crime or drug addiction, is instead laid entirely at the door of the white “power structure”. This is what black talk radio rehearses on a daily basis across the United States. Americans got a whiff of what this ideology sounds like when the sermons of Obama’s minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, surfaced earlier this year.

Thus, for African-Americans a black president of the United States is nothing more than a down payment that white America must make – not to prove that it is not racist but that it is not as racist as blacks tend to think it is. The notion held by many of Obama’s white supporters – that his election would constitute a definitive resolution of the racial problem in the US – would be considered by American blacks to be utterly naive and laughable. It is perhaps a striking indicator of just how far apart the two races in America remain that these contradictory visions within the Obama camp have gone largely unremarked.

Needless to say, unless Obama wins the election, almost no black person in the United States will recognise the validity of the result. But things are worse than that: even if he is elected, any opposition to any of his programmes will be considered prima facie evidence of latent or disguised racism. In either case, there is little evidence that the Obama candidacy is pointing the United States in a “post-racial” direction or anything resembling it. What the black community – and, for that matter, the white liberal community, including almost all the media, which clusters around Obama’s banners – seems not to have noticed is that the United States is slowly becoming far more multiracial than in the past. Hispanics have become the largest single minority in the United States, surpassing blacks by two percentage points and still growing. Other non-white communities are also expanding, particularly the Chinese and Indians. (The Indian-American community, nearly 1m strong, is the most prosperous minority group in the United States, and its younger generation – best embodied by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican – are starting to enter the higher end of professions and politics.) While some Hispanics and Asian-Americans are Democrats and will vote for Obama, they will do so because they are Democrats, not because he is black. And in time they will find their own political voice, perhaps not as “minorities” at all but as Americans who happen to be one colour rather than another.

In that sense the Obama candidacy, regardless of its outcome, may represent a concluding chapter in the American drama, although not in the way its black or white supporters seem to think.