Last February, in a tremendously funny, but unfortunately very prescient, comedy bit on the Daily Show, John Stewart and Larry Wilmore, the show’s “senior black correspondent” dissects the challenge Senator Barack Obama will have in navigating the tricky racial terrain of American voting. First, Wilmore brilliantly exposes the lunacy that is identity politics in the liberal universe by discussing how the African-American community cannot support Obama because he is not “black” because he is (with a straight face) part Kenyan. Then, Wilmore cautions Obama to play down his appeal to black voters otherwise white voters will be turned off – because in the overall scheme of things:
“the last thing a black candidate wants to be seen as is the black candidate… for every three black votes you get, you scare away five white votes… do the math, black support is only worth three-fifths of white support…”
Observing the last few weeks of the increasingly bitter Clinton-Obama face-off and you begin to wonder if the Clinton strategy is pulled right from this bit. Margaret Carlson first detected the stratagem in a Jan. 17 article, noting the subtle but repeated reference to Obama’s teenage drug use by Clinton surrogates, followed by the rhetorical back and forth over MLK and LBJ, amounted to an underhanded pulling of the race card. Carlson wrote, “Once the race card is on the table, no matter who puts it there, it's impossible to put it back up anyone's sleeve. … For Clinton's campaign, it was Mission Accomplished, intentional or not. Obama was now the black candidate. … Obama may look back on the first two weeks of 2008 as the time when he lost the nomination to Clinton.”
Written just before the Nevada caucuses, Carlson provided the first half of the story. After the Nevada vote, Lisa Schiffren at the National Review added “Why would Hillary think [employing racial stereotypes] is smart politics? Because it works. … There are 35 million black Americans — and 150 million American women, about a third of whom are reliable Democrats. You do the math.” Similarly, Pat Buchanan noted the rewards of the strategy by reviewing the basis of Clinton’s win in Nevada – Obama lost the Hispanic vote and, “equally ominous,” he lost both the white vote and the women's vote by a three-to-two margin. Obama’s large majorities in the African-American vote amounted to little. With their large Hispanic populations looming in the upcoming Feb. 5 Tsunami Tuesday primaries, Buchanan argued Clinton can safely lose African-American heavy South Carolina only to capture delegate-rich Florida, California, New York and New Jersey and then sew up the nomination. Former Clinton advisor Dick Morris even predicted Hillary Clinton will retain the African-American vote in the fall because “blacks will even likely feel guilty about rejecting Hillary [after she went hat in hand to them trying to out-civil rights Obama] and will be more than willing to support her in the general election.”
For all the self-righteousness liberals exhibit when decrying the alleged Republican “southern strategy” of “coded” appeals to racism, they have proven far more astute practitioners of this gambit than anyone could have ever conceived.
For all intents and purposes, the Democratic derby is essentially over unless Clinton errs tragically or Obama lands a devastating counter-punch. Mickey Kaus writes Obama can “escape his electoral ghetto,” by re-establishing his trans-racial appeal, by declaring his intent to transform affirmative action into a class-based system of preference. Obama has indicated as much; endorsing school choice and vouchers is another. Obama demonstrated toughness during the Jan. 21 debate in South Carolina and did not seek status as an aggrieved victim as Bill and Hillary Clinton are so inclined to do, but if he cannot overcome their street fighter tactics, his candidacy is finished.
There are a number of considerations should Clinton defeat Obama on the basis of such ruthless maneuvering.
First, watch for Clinton to begin aggressively assembling the coalition Buchanan had discussed – whites, especially women, and Hispanics. Obama has succeeded in some outreach, but there is little time to overcome the damage done. Steven Malanga, senior editor at the City Journal, posted an exceptional article with insights into the growing discord between the African-American and Hispanic immigrant communities. Malanga notes expectations were initially high for a black-brown "rainbow coalition," but the indulgence of black elites of liberal allies on open immigration has caused resentment throughout the community. But the African-American community must be cautious - if the Clintons have demonstrated anything, it is that friends are expendable. Ask Lani Guanier. In a cruel twist of identity politics and the long-time marriage between the Democratic Party and the African-American community, Hillary and Bill Clinton seem prepared to supplant one minority for another in their quest for the presidency. Once Clinton’s state-by-state primary victory margins begin mirroring the national poll averages prior to Iowa, Clinton will then begin making conciliatory gestures to Obama and healing the bruises from this fight.
Second, Hispanic voters are a key swing voting bloc now and for all the conservative wailing and gnashing over McCain, he is the Republican candidate with a liberal record on immigration, and thus, he could be conceivably be competitive for the Hispanic vote if he is the nominee. Alternatively, McCain or another candidate could press proposals to counter illegal immigration as a means of peeling the black vote away from the Democrats. If liberal and African-American elites persist in pressing for open immigration policies or even amnesty, they encounter a serious risk of alienating a black community increasingly dissatisfied with the societal and economic dislocation presented by illegal immigrants. Moreover, conservatives could pointedly argue how liberal immigration policies are unjust and are fundamentally an affront to their struggle for equality. Imagine the potency of exposing how liberals are eager to extend benefits and rights to illegals immigrants only recently arrived at the expense of Americans who were denied their constitutional rights for over a century. The conservative movement, and the Republican Party by extension, has to decide on an immigration policy soon if it is to counter the Clinton strategy and remain competitive for the growing Latino vote, because at the end of the day, whatever stands on curtailing illegal immigration conservatives take will be depicted by liberal Democrats as nativist.
Third, is Morris correct? Will the African-American community stay in the Democratic fold after such a horrendous betrayal? It’s hard to tell. After all, where else can the liberally inclined African-American community go? The Republican Party has labored for decades to garner just 20 percent of the African-American vote to no avail. But after the 2000 election and Hurricane Katrina, it is very unlikely the African-American vote will go Republican for a long time. Furthermore, successful African-American politicians and their machines are closely integrated with the Democratic Party and an independent venture would be stillborn.
Beyond 2008, a more fundamental and longer-term transformation may have to occur and a betrayal by the community’s allegedly most erstwhile allies – indeed, its “first” black president – may be just the catalyst.
In White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, recounts how the African-American bid for equality ultimately foundered because a key to successfully constructing a black identity and consciousness entailed a condemnation of white American society and all of its values – including adherence to societal norms, family cohesiveness, and the work ethic – as racist mechanisms for restraining the black man. Steele notes this condemnation may not have succeeded if it had not been for white liberals contending they had been guilty participants in this construct. In doing so, liberals enabled the “victim” posture assumed by African-Americans to be the basis for their claims on preferential privileges in a newly integrated society, while at the same excusing African-Americans of culpability in their own regression. Instead of condemning a black fathers’ abandonment of their families, white liberals set up a generous welfare state. Instead of holding African-Americans to equivalent standards in education, African-Americans are pressured from achieving scholastically for fear of being identified as “acting white.” Black empowerment was illusory because white guilt indulged segregation and pathology by refusing to “blame the victim.” As deviance was defined downward, the African-American community was further handicapped and segregated and dependent on their liberal allies and the practice of identify politics.
But identity politics has not produced the gorgeous mosaic espoused by some, but the balkanization and cleavages predicted by many. Liberal good intentions and guilt has evolved into liberal Machiavellian machinations and cynicism. Worse, it has left the black population impoverished with little to show for it except a small quota of representation and community mores at odds with achievement. If the African-American can recognize the liberal mindset of identity politics for the philosophical and political plantation it is, they can then herald a new era of political empowerment, national integration, and ascendancy based on individual achievement and meritocracy.