Hillary Clinton’s crass appeal to “hard-working,” white voters, along with her big victories in mostly white states like West Virginia, risk making this race about race. Lower-class white men, once overwhelmingly hostile to Hillary Clinton, have rallied around her. Unfortunately, it took a black man to rehabilitate this most hated woman. Barack Obama’s North Carolina victory last week, based on the large African-American vote, reinforced the impression of growing racial polarization. It is easy to blame America’s tortured racial past for this unfortunate development. But Republicans and Democrats are also guilty of stoking the race issue.
It is tragic that race now looms so large. In his magnificent national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama positioned himself to heal America’s great divides, not exacerbate them. Moreover, although Toni Morrison’s labeling Bill Clinton “our first black president” may have been one of the stupidest, and racially stereotypical, comments made during the whole Monica Lewinsky farce, no one can deny the once-strong ties between both Clintons and the African-American community. Throughout 2007, as Obama and Hillary Clinton gathered support, he seemed less like the “black candidate,” she seemed less like the “woman candidate.” Clinton’s problems were that she was “Hillary” and a “Clinton” not that she was a she. Obama’s obstacle was he was too green not too black.
Unfortunately, despite America’s tremendous racial progress, both political parties frequently make racial appeals. The elusive white, male, working class voter, sometimes called Joe Six Pack, sometimes called the Reagan (formerly Roosevelt) Democrat, has been subjected to steady if subtle racially-based appeals. Since Richard Nixon demanded “Law and Order” in 1968, too many Republicans have indulged in subtle racial demagoguery. The failure of the society – and particularly of liberal Democrats – to face the challenge of crime made it easier, but this politics of resentment has not just been a politics of fear. Fights over busing and affirmative action in the 1970s and 1980s exceeded the rational clash of interests, becoming irrational – and pathological. Ronald Reagan was not personally racist – and took great offense when he was accused of bigotry. But he was tone deaf to African-American sensitivities. I have found no evidence that he ever discouraged the Republican Southern white strategy, using crime, busing and affirmative action to gain white votes by stirring white fears.
Jack Kemp, the veteran Republican Congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee, stood out as the rare national Republican who wooed African-Americans. Describing himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative,” Kemp proved it as George H.W. Bush’s Housing Secretary. In visiting inner-cities repeatedly, constantly denouncing South African Apartheid, and recoiling at racist appeals, no matter how subtle, Kemp showed how to be a tax-cutting but not race-baiting conservative.
At the same time, the Democratic commitment to identity politics guaranteed that race and gender would become major factors in 2008, as they have been for decades. So much of Democratic politics is predicated on identity politics, treating individuals as part of their subgroup rather than as independent-minded Americans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have tapped into that consciousness. Obama has used his base in the black community, and the exciting prospects of becoming the first black president, just as Clinton has exploited her shot to become the first woman president.
Moreover, both have had major supporters quick to characterize standard campaign criticism as sexist or racist. The New York Times op-ed page has been particularly complicit here. The Times published a William Julius Wilson op-ed claiming that the Clinton campaign’s ad wondering who should be in charge at 3 A.M. was rife with racist allusions. The Times also published Gloria Steinem’s equally absurd lament that Hillary Clinton’s well-deserved loss in the Iowa caucus proved that Americans were more sexist than racist.
Identity politics demands a one-way street. Blacks can appeal to blacks, and perceive racism, even when it may not exist. Women are praised for reaching out to their sisters, and crying “sexism” if criticized. True, campaigns are about mobilizing key supporters and trying to turn any criticisms back on the accuser. But, as long as blacks, women or members of other groups perceive prejudice in the normal flow of campaigning, identity politics will breed Balkanization not unity.
This campaign has already demonstrated how emphasizing the racial component or gender appeals damages the body politic. American race relations and gender relations remain fragile. But in a polyglot democracy, subgroup appeals are inevitable. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis tapped Greek-American pride to raise Greek-American money in his bid to become the first Greek-American President. Twelve years later, Senator Joe Lieberman tapped American Jewish pride to raise American Jewish money in his bid to become the first American Jewish Vice President. These actions were less fraught with baggage, because the white ethnic immigrants who were perceived as so foreign when Al Smith ran for President in 1928 are today so much better integrated.
Barack Obama’s campaign testifies to the great racial progress achieved in twenty-first century America. But given some of the poison that has seeped out from the grassroots – or been stirred by his rivals – Obama’s quest for the presidency shows that America still has a long way to go. In fact, Americans no longer are even sure if they desire an America without any subgroup consciousness, which is hard enough to achieve, or the impossible dream of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too society where Americans have strong but only positive subgroup associations with no attending backlash or rival resentments.