Friday, June 27, 2008

Race And The Race For The White House: One Perspective

The topic of this post arose from a response to my asking people to submit things for me to write about. It came in two forms. One, from an anonymous poster, asks if I thought the US was ready for a black president and if Europe was ready for black political leadership. It also came from Frema, who asked a similar question but without mentioning Europe.

I will deal with the US first and then give my thoughts on this topic as it relates to Europe generally and European countries individually.

My short answer to this question is that we are more ready now than at any time in 0ur history. My long answer is more complex, naturally.

Looking back at the primary season, about seventeen and a half million people seemed perfectly willing to vote for a black man's nomination as the candidate of the Democratic Party. Those people, I am sure, had all manner of reasons for voting for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton or John McCain (or any of the other candidates, remember them?) This, naturally, raises the question of why people vote (or not). That is a discussion for another time, but I may in future write a piece on rational ignorance, strategic voting and irrational voters. Let's just assume that people had their reasons and voted (or not) accordingly.

What does this say about our "readiness" for a president of color? To me, it says that, for a lot of people, this notion has made timely intersection with a candidate that is viable. The way I stated this may seem like two sides of the same coin, but I see some difference in the issues. This difference leads me to some general conclusions about a possible black president and specific conclusions about Barack Obama himself.

First, general conclusions. The timing for "something different" in Washington could not have been better. The outgoing administration has suffered defeat after embarassment after blunder (seemingly) since sometime in 2002. The popularity of President Bush among the American people is dismal and has been on a precipitous slide for some time. The latest reading of the president's approval rating puts him at 23%. To give you some historical perspective, that is the same approval rating that Richard Nixon had on the day he resigned in 1974. Then there is everything else that people lump into their perception that the country is headed in the wrong direction (a nebulous term, but one that pollsters use a lot). That percentage stands currently at 78%.

So, it seems, that people are ready for a president who is not like the one we have now. If you consider that over thirty-five million people voted for either Obama or Clinton in their states' primaries, you must also consider that all of these people were ready and willing to support a candidate who was not a white man.

It seems to me, therefore, that people would willingly support a non-white president. Does this mean that racism is no longer an issue in politics, that we have entered a post-racial age in America?

No, sadly, race is still an issue in our society and politics and will be for some time to come. The gravestone of racial politics will not be erected by Barack Obama if he wins the election.

What has changed, however, is also something that I think is encouraging. Now, as you all know, I am naturally a cynic when it comes to most things, and none moreso than politics. I am tempted to say that people's support for Obama comes not from their affinity for him and his policies, but for hatred of the Republicans; that white people supporting Obama are doing it as a sop to their over-burdened consciences so they can stand up and truthfully say they voted for a black man for president; that black people will vote for Obama regardless of where he stands on the issues. There may be (some) truth to a lot of this.

On the other hand, it does seem that, at least among Democrats, there seems to be less and less people who would respond to any rhetoric that would even hint at racial intolerance. Actually, I think this is more and more true of American politics in general. It seems that playing the race card leads increasingly to a busted flush come election day.

So, to review, it seems that in general, the US is ready for a black president because of long-term changes in our political culture. Race is still an issue in American political life (currently there is one black senator and forty-one black members of the House), but it seems that right now, people are willing to accept the fact that a black man could be our next president.

I said earlier that I would make some specific points about Barack Obama. This is mainly in the form of a disclaimer:


Or, for that matter, an endorsement of John McCain.

If you want to know who I support, I will either go third party (as I have since the mid-term elections in 1998) or I may not vote at all (more on this when I write about all that rational ignorance seems to make a lot of sense).

Looking at his stands on the issues, I don't think I agree on much with Obama. I won't go through point-by-point, but it seems to me that his ideas smack of the sort of big government, tax-laden, misplaced altruism and failure to understand individual liberty that has become (in one way or another) entrenched in American politics from all perspectives. Personally, well, I've never met him, so I don't know, do I?

In summation, therefore, while I think that the US is perfectly ready for a black president, I personally don't think Obama is the man. Remember, though, the former are general conclusions that apply to the system broadly; the latter, differently, is based on my personal political ideology compared to that of a presidential candidate. Don't confuse the two.

I would be interested to hear your comments on this issue. This debate can (and should) go on.


the indefatigable mjenks said...

How many of those 17 million that you cited were willing to vote for a black man and how many were voting simply to vote against Clinton?

Will Shannon said...

I allude to this problem when I talk about people and their motivation to vote (or not).

As I said, that goes into the area of strategic voting (not picking your first choice) and the countervailing concern of rational ignorance (the notion that, despite your strategy, your single vote rarely matters so it is not worth your time to care about elections).

Perhaps I will write a piece on this in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I guess I should have signed my name rather than be the anonymous poster who asked about Europe. My blogger function isn't working for some reason, so I've been having to post things like that

I really appreciate your thoughtful commentary. I would say that you are right that it seems to me a lot of factors alligned that created an overwhelming desire for "change" by the electorate. Perhaps race became a subconscious or consious marker for that ill-defined change.

All of it though shouldn't overlook what I think is the really impressive campaign run by the Obama camp or the less than impressive campaign run by Hillary.

I also think that Obama too often smacks of big government nonsense, but it is fascinating that the Obama campaign has taken on a life of its own. In some ways its messianiac. I would guess that perhaps race (and not being a baby boomer) became a sort of visual marker that identified him with "change" in a broader sense. Ill-defined, amorphous change to be sure, but change nonetheless. For the first time we won't have to sit through a canidate describe what he did during the Vietnam War, whether he was a hippie, or where he was during the civil rights movement and that is certainly refreshing.

I think Obama's race became a visual signifier that was so "unthinkable" even a decade ago (clinton v. bush) that it can't help but signal a break from the past. The very inconceivablity of an African-American president in the past means that Obama was able to craft a narrative around himself that encompassed a radical change and radical break with the last eight years.