Thursday, February 28, 2008

Obama, Race, and White Men

I had a frankly disturbing conversation with a family member last night that indicates to me that Barack Obama might have problems if he defeats Hillary for the nomination and proceeds on to face John McCain in the general election. This relative is nominally a Democrat (though he supported Perot on at least one of that Texan's Quixotic runs in the 1990s), but he's also pretty conservative. And last night while we were talking on the phone, he asked me what I thought about the presidential race. I indicated my support for Obama, at which point the floodgates opened up. My kin had not done "a lot of research" but "things that he's seen on the internet," mostly in the form of emails he has received from his other conservative white make buddies has led him to believe that he cannot support Obama. Naturally these email rumblings are the half-baked conspiracies and meaningless yet somehow portentous symbolism of the red meat right: Obama took his Senate oath on the Koran, attended a Madrassa, refuses to salute the flag and of course does not wear the flag pin on his lapel. These issues range from the flat-out wrong to the idiotic. They have nothing to do with whether or not he ought to be president.

My relative, of course, claimed to have an open mind about things, but he did not. His talking points were the same twenty minutes into the conversation as they were when it started. And this is what Obama is going to be up against when it comes to a vast swath of conservative whites, even those from his own party, but especially from Republicans and Independents: No one will flat-out say why they really won't support Obama, which is that he is a black man, but rather will instead come up with any excuse other than race to allow them to do what they are disinclined to do. John McCain is going to get a lot of votes from people who would never overtly say that they do not want to support a black candidate, but who do not want to support a black candidate. My relative's rationale for not liking Obama is akin to the reasons why he does not like Tiger Woods: "Just a feeling," "he seems arrogant" (this from someone who loved Larry Bird, hardly the humlest of athletes), "there is just something about him." This is racism with plausible denial.

David Paul Kuhn has an article at real Clear Politics that argues that men will represent a vital swing vote in this election, and that right now Clinton and Obama are splitting this vital constituency. he goes a long way toward complicating the idea of white men as unreconstructed racists, but as with any assessment like this one, Kuhn fails to take into account that it will only take small percentage of these men who actually are uncomfortable with the idea of a black President (or a woman) to defect to McCain when they otherwise would have voted Democrat this year to swing things to McCain. It will not take a whole lot to swing enough of my working-class family member and his friends away from Obama because of that "feeling," and the concomitant willingness to buy all sorts of crazy theories to help rationalize those feelings. In our generally split electorate all it will take is a relative handful -- maybe one out of every ten -- of the people who open their email accounts and hear that Obama took his oath of office on the Koran to use that as their safety outlet to forswear Obama's candidacy without acknowledging the true driving force behind their willingness to believe so readily easily refutable rumors and innuendo.

To his full credit McCain has rejected this sort of politics. But much will be done in his name come the summer and fall. It remains to be seen whether the many good things happening with Obama's campaign will be able to overcome the prejudices that only a fool, a bigot, or a naif could deny still exist in American society.


mgarc said...

I think that Obama is the right candidate. I feel that McCain's age will hinder him and honestly my overall feelings lean toward Obama. This Koran claim is comical in a way...

Tom said...

Good points all. I wonder if the racism vote you are talking about will be offset somewhat by the folks who vote for Obama in part because it will be confirmation for themselves that they are not bigots. Nixon was convinced he lost in 1960 for that very reason.

Damn, this is going to be a fun campaign if Obama gets the Democratic nod.

dcat said...

Tom --
That's a good point, but a lot of more worrisome data indicates that people will tell others that they voted for the black candidate but in the secrecy of the voting booth will pull the lever for the white dude. But I do think that Obama has a hope precisely because we are not the country we once were. I don't see racism being a huge subtext, but I see it playing a role among that vaunted constituency of people whose opinions we are supposed to respect because they cannot make up their mind between two plainly different candidates in a general election.


dcat said...

MGarc --
McCain's age will certainly be another subtext of this election. I really hope that democrats don't try to work that nerve -- it's a loser, and it will backfire.
The Koran accusations would be comical if they were not so insidious.


Donnie Baseball said...

I think it will be a problem on many levels. We are already seeing some of the strategy that will be used as a way to play the race, culture and religion cards without explicitly stating it by using Obama's middle name of Hussein.

I am from Ohio and there is a ton of the internet and email sleaze being bandied about. A family "uncle" is a Jewish male concentration camp survivor. A staunch Democrat, who I have always held in high esteem because he tends to be more considered than the average person (perhaps due to his life experiences). He had been supporting Obama throughout, but sent in his absentee ballot for Clinton because he got a number of emails from friends suggesting that Obama is really anti-Israel, anti-Jew, and a closet muslim with the inference being that he somehow tied to anti-american interests.

I suspect that there are a number of people who will say they are supporting Obama in public but when they get to the ballot booth will pull the lever for Clinton or McCain.

Steve Dunkley said...

My Wife is terrified that if Obama wins the nomination or becomes president, someone will shoot him. I suggested that if that happens, the assassin will probably come from the tolerant south. We are now not talking!

You know if you would just rejoin the empire, disband the Supreme Court, go to a parliamentary system, dismiss the state governments and choose a monarch, none of this would matter any more - I'm just sayin'

dcat said...

Donnie B --
On Israel, Obama passes muster with Marty Peretz, for goodness sake. There are times when Peretz makes Ariel Sharon look like a peacenik.

Steve --
I think that fears of assassination are on a lot of people's minds. the one good thing is that it's pretty damned hard to get to a sitting president, and even before that Obama has quite the security detail. Not that such protections make him unassailable, but we have to believe that the Secret Service has thought of the angles on this.

Best --

GoodLiberal said...

Isn't this known as 'The Bradley Effect'? The GOP always go for character first in election campaigns- the vast majority don't bother to delve into policy detail. EJ Dionne has a column in TNR saying that Obama 2008 is akin to Reagan 1980- they will try and define him as out of the mainstream, but that the mainstream is so discredited that it won't wash.

This is going to be a hell of an election...

dcat said...

GoodLib --
I saw that piece as well, and tend to agree. But the one thing that bothers me is that we are increasingly hearing the "socialist" "communist" meme in reference to Obama, which is fucking idiotic, but idiots tend to be unaware of their own idiocy. It's funny how conservatives are singlehandedly bringing calling people fascists or communists right back into fashion. I expect that classiness to do nothing but accelerate in the weeks to come.


Donnie Baseball said...

I know of Obama's cred on Israel, but for some reason even in the face of facts, people still defer to hints, allegations and smear campaigns.

Like the "Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11" scam that way too many Americans continue to buy into.

It doesn't make a ton of sense, but then politics and race seldom do when it comes right down to it.

dcat said...

DonnieB --
Sorry to be so late in responding. I agree -- rationality rarely has little to do with the political process, unfortunately. it is this irrationality (or a cynical willingness to capitalize on it) that allows the unfounded smears to gain traction.