What would an Obama presidency mean for the left? In choosing economic, foreign policy, and campaign advisors, and in policy positions on social security, health care, and taxation, Obama has been a centrist. He has been vetted and aided by corporate campaign contributors such as Illinois’s Crown family, with its massive holdings in defense, development, and the financial sector. Internationally, we can imagine withdrawal from Iraq and possibly détente with Iran, but also a greater willingness to pursue Clinton-style “humanitarian” intervention. “Terror” might no longer define the age. The trans-Atlantic alliance—as the French and Germans intuit — could proceed on a more rational, multilateral footing. His supplicative address, immediately upon his victory, to AIPAC, the pro-Israel political action committee, suggests no departure from the destructive establishment consensus on Israel-Palestine. Domestically, it’s harder to say. A deepening economic crisis could drastically curtail his perceived options unless he develops the political ability and will for massive cuts in military spending. He opposes social security privatization and advocates higher taxes on the very wealthy. His economic advisors tend toward behavioralism, with a penchant for legislative, regulatory, or taxation mechanisms to encourage socially and individually efficacious economic behavior. He understands that a universal, single-payer healthcare system would be the most rational one, but seems convinced of its infeasibility. He would begin to repair the damage done to regulatory and scientific agencies, where matters of health, safety, environmental protection, and social welfare have been defunded, or politicized according to a conservative anti-regulatory agenda, and he would change the rightward direction of the judiciary. Obama’s defenders on the left view every move toward the center as simple political expediency: wait until he’s elected, they suggest, and he will get real. In both parties, historically, the executive swerve from campaign positions has been rightward. A leftward shift would indeed be something new.
Centrist policy positions notwithstanding, the campaign has generated a popular enthusiasm, particularly among young people, that has been largely dormant since Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign. Could that movement affect politics in this supremely depoliticized period? Does the race question make a difference?
Race has been central to U.S. domestic politics in the post-war period. The radical movements of the sixties, including the anti-war movement, took the lead from the surge of African American popular activism beginning in the 1950s, which achieved limited legislative and juridical recognition in the struggle for equality. Social and economic realization of those victories seemed, briefly, within reach, and consequent to that failure, the mass movement—centered on a politics of equality — gathered strength. In reaction, the manipulation and stimulation of white racism in service of an agenda set by the power elite created post-war conservatism, allowing the right a purchase on majoritarian populism. Beginning in the late 1960s, and deepening with the emerging crisis character of U.S. capitalism in the seventies, many in the white working class and white petit bourgeoisie became convinced that the gains they had won in the decades of struggle up to the sixties had hit a systemic limit, and that extension of those gains to other groups would only come at their expense.
This hegemonic compact—depending as it has on the paucity of political options presented to the working class — was won with difficulty and has remained unstable. Nixon was only able to consolidate his “silent majority” by nearly constant invocation of the spectre of open revolt — African American uprisings in Newark, Watts, and the dangerous emergence of powerful African American radical organizations and political leaders, all of whom became progressively more radical through their confrontation with U.S. power. Still, Nixon remained anxious about the fragility of that achievement. He did all he could to blunt African American radicalism, and to drive wedges between African Americans and potential allies in the working class or elsewhere. The Nixon administration’s expansion of Kennedy and Johnson-era affirmative action policies had multiple goals: to placate the old guard of the Republican party who largely supported civil rights, to avoid the urban riots for which Nixon had blamed the Johnson administration, and to exacerbate white working class resentment of African Americans, driving white workers into the Republican party. When the anti-war movement reached its height in the late sixties and early seventies, links between war protesters, the anti-poverty movement, and African American radicalism remained the government’s deepest fear.
We read now, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary, that racism is over—that his victory could represent a final chapter in the long struggle for civil rights and racial justice. It is a stunning claim, befitting a mass-mediated society whose civic discourse is dominated by the politics of spectacle and self-congratulation. The shameful statistics on African-American poverty, high-school graduation rates, salary levels, and health tell a very different story. Even more egregious is the criminalization and incarceration of African Americans in this, the most carceral nation in the world. In Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois the African American incarceration rate is eleven times that of whites, and in West Virginia, which became emblematic of Hilary Clinton’s appeal to white voters, it is seventeen times higher. While prison construction and the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans in the “war on drugs” continue unabated, inner-city schools deteriorate, and the dismantling of affirmative action programs further restricts access to higher education for African Americans, Latina/os, and other racial minorities. Nationwide, African American men are more likely to be incarcerated than to graduate from college. Not exactly the model of a post-racial state.
Obama entered political life in Chicago in the heady period of the 1980s, when, on the heels of the dismal and disappointing achievements of the Carter administration, opposition to the Reagan presidency reactivated some of the earlier energy on the left. Harold Washington—one of the post-sixties’ most extraordinary political figures and one of Obama’s early heroes—was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, and by 1986 had defeated his opponents in government and permanently reshaped Chicago politics. Jesse Jackson, another of Obama’s 1980s heroes, who had also been inspired by Washington’s election, ran for president in 1984. That campaign gave birth to the Rainbow Coalition, which sought to form a counter-hegemonic bloc of all those who had been victims of the Reagan revolution: African Americans, Latina/os, small farmers, youth, lesbians, gays, and sectors of the labor movement. Jackson’s 1988 campaign, with an expanded Rainbow Coalition of the Reagan-era disaffected, won thirteen states in the Democratic primary, and showed that the sixties promise of a new hegemonic coalition was not dead. But Michael Dukakis defeated Jackson in the primary, and Dukakis’s loss to George Bush I in the general election was marked by one of the last overt electoral mobilizations of white race fear: the Willie Horton advertisement. Devised by political consultants who were central to the neo-conservative putsch—Larry McCarthy, Roger Ailes, and Karl Rove mentor Lee Atwater— the widely circulated television advertisement featured the menacing face of an African American felon who, released from prison on a weekend furlough program, committed multiple rapes and assault. This was what the Democrats would bring to America.
The reaction to the ad contributed to the final discrediting of the Nixon-era strategy of overt race baiting. The presidency of Bill Clinton, “America’s first black president,” as he was acclaimed by some African Americans before he jettisoned his most important friends and allies within that community, further eroded the Democratic party’s rather paltry commitment to racial justice, with cuts to welfare and other social services, a policy continued under George W. Bush with little opposition. Evocation of the politics of race had attenuated on all sides, but with little symbolic or real gain for African Americans.
But if it is indeed ludicrous to claim a post-racist United States, what has the Obama candidacy revealed about the state of race politics in the country, and how have Obama and his opponents deployed the politics of race? Staking out a “new” politics beyond the sixties—Jesse Jackson had identified with that earlier period—Obama has made no moves to resurrect the class-based politics of the Rainbow Coalition, sticking to a rhetoric of national inclusivity and healing. But neither has he evoked the middle-class African American politics of representation, with its delinking of race and class. Obama’s politics are neither classed nor de-classed; their temporality is that of the pre-political. But race has been an unavoidable aspect of his campaign, and the Clinton campaign seemed inexorably drawn to its overt and subliminal deployment. Obama most directly addressed race in a March 18 speech—“ More Perfect Union,” (text and video at http://www.barackobama.com/2008/03/18/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_53.php). The speech was a rare moment of directness and historical complexity spoken against the anodyne waves of obfuscation that usually fill public discourse on issues of consequence. The punditocracy was surprised by the speech’s popularity—regular Americans, they had reasoned, were too stupid for that sort of thing. To less astonished commentators, the speech suggested that this campaign could be different, that it might offer relief from the trivial and the platitudinous.
Obama’s speech followed the release of a series of videos and quotations from Jeremiah Wright, head minister at Obama’s church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, on the African American south side of Chicago. Like many of the large African American churches of national significance, Trinity is a center of the “social gospel,” and sermons commonly mix the spiritual and the political. The church has been in the forefront of both radical and reformist movements for racial justice, and has profoundly shaped African American political rhetoric. One member of Wright’s church, asked about Reverend Wright’s supposed radicalism, said “I wouldn’t call it radical. I’d call it being black in America.” Mainstream opinion intuits that there is indeed something radical about being black in America, and that, doubtless, makes for some of the uneasiness about Obama. After over thirty years of depoliticization, 2008 is certainly too early for a truly radical politics in the electoral sphere. So Obama’s opponents jumped at the opportunity to link Obama to a religious mentor who had been quoted as saying “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Or, on the September 11 attacks: “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
Uncontroversial as these lines may seem to an outsider, they are not allowed in mainstream discourse, and contributed to insinuations that the Obamas are not really Americans. Obama had a long and close relationship with Wright, so repudiating him wasn’t an option. What to do? The speech, which took critical distance from the more intemperate of Wright’s remarks, made the forceful point that racism had long distorted U.S. political and social life, suggesting that the realization of hope and change — and these words have been the signature of his campaign — would require a direct confrontation with the legacy of slavery and insitutionalized racism that kept African Americans down: segregated and inferior schools; exclusion from home-ownership, unions, professions, and wealth accumulation in general. White Americans, even white racists, also lived with that legacy, and with the flawed process of its attempted overcoming:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Speech text from the campaign website: (http://www.barackobama.com/2008/03/18/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_53.php)
Wright’s error—and Obama’s analysis of this error was at the heart of his speech—was in his apparent belief that white racism was unalterable. Obama saw this as the understandable product of an earlier period whose politics he would transcend. Obama would distance himself neither from Reverend Wright nor from his white grandmother, who he said “on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Racism has done its work so thoroughly, he suggested, that direct confrontation was imperative, in order to finally transcend its distortions and deformations, and to begin the real political work.
The likelihood of that confrontation has now diminished. Wright, in a series of public appearances in late April, allowed for a few provocative sound bites on September 11, AIDS, and Louis Farrakhan. Obama could then in good conscience make his public repudiation, lamenting that Wright was not the man he had once known. Wright’s April speeches were impressive expositions on the history of the black church, liberation theology, and the social gospel, and it must have been obvious to Obama that the purportedly offensive sound bites had distorted Wright’s intent. Still, they allowed Obama to cut himself loose, without shame, from a man whom Clinton and the Republicans would have doubtless used to destroy him by making him “too black”.
The “race” issue could not go away. Why would it have been so offensive if, as right-wing rumors suggested — without foundation as it turns out — Michelle Obama had indeed used the word “whitey” to refer to white Americans? The answer is related to the discomfort with Jeremiah Wright —white Americans want to be an unmarked category. The idea that they could be objects of a black gaze, viewed as a “type,” or somehow implicated in whiteness as a political project is deeply threatening to the ideological dominant of individualization and self-determination. One consequence of the generally salutary effects of surface anti-racism or “political correctness” is that white identification—no longer readily available as a public, positive discourse, has free play in the vast territory of subliminal politics. The fear that Barack or Michelle Obama are “too black”—and the Obama campaign itself has drawn attention to this discourse—reflects in part this white uneasiness with whiteness. The Obama campaign has, with a rare delicacy and suppleness established itself as the electoral season’s moral arbiter and conscience on questions of race, while greatly underplaying race in the campaign. At the same time, the campaign appears capable of mobilizing the African American electorate to an unprecedented degree, which could produce a landslide victory in November.
In distancing himself from the “divisive” politics of the sixties, Obama seems to be part of an emerging consensus in post-political America, reflected also in Richard Perlstein’s recent best-seller Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, the establishment left’s definitive account of post-war conservatism. In this view, the right’s strategy of “positive polarization”—the cultivation and directional shaping of rage and hatred—was enabled by the “extreme” politics of the African-American and anti-war left in the sixties. For a rational politics to emerge—Clinton came close but was too “hot”—something must be done to neutralize this legacy of rage.
Obama’s efforts to inaugurate a new consensus, transcending sixties radicalism and neoconservative reaction, might indeed be a sure path to electoral victory—not so difficult an achievement given the unpopularity of the Republican party and the glaring weaknesses of the McCain candidacy. Still, if an Obama victory allowed a popularly-sanctioned address of racism and its socio-economic effects, it could help neutralize the most potent weapon wielded by those forces that arose to contain and suppress sixties politics of equality and liberation. The popular energy the campaign seems to be mobilizing might also portend something new. Americans, surveys tell us, want government responsiveness to popular will. Although a majority identify as moderates, they want progressive solutions to crises in healthcare, education, social security, and the environment. Nearly forty years of crisis, scarcity, and reaction have made unimaginable and threatening a politics of egalitarianism and social justice—these remain at present low on the list of majority priorities. Race has been the key element in the consolidation of that reaction. But that is not an historical invariant. A new coalitional energy, whose contours were visible in the sixties, and briefly in the eighties, could become imaginable again, whether an Obama presidency heeds or ignores its gathering strength.