The more I think on the Obama campaign, the less I think of my preferred candidate and the more I think about the party and the course of American politics in my life. My intended post on "the South" in the liberal political imagination is changing on an almost daily basis as a result of this electoral season. What I had once seen as a mostly academic argument between two sets of political thinkers and strategists has taken on a life within the primaries. Knowing I am being too reductionistic here, the anti-Southern faction regards the legacy of slavery and racism an intolerable stain upon the nation, one that prevents progressive governance, and so must be spurned as irredeemable. "F*ck the South!" you can read in blog after blog when the topic comes up. With this primary campaign, I think we are getting a picture o what that stance concretely means when used as political strategy. It means campaigning on racism.
With every electoral victory of his opponent, Obama has intensified his cries of racism and increased his own overtly racialized claims. Casting common phrases, such as a roll of the dice, as racist code. Claiming that his opponent did not shed a tear for the black victims of Hurricane Katrina. Sneering that his opponents supports were Archie Bunkers. Sampling Malcolm X's anti-white rhetoric in Mississippi. The more he is challenged on basic issues such as economic policy and electability, the more he escalates his rhetoric of race.
His speech the other day had a peculiar theme: America's racist past can only be laid to rest by voting for Obama, which would prove that his accusations aren't true. What Obama does with his rhetorical strategy is turn something salutary - a proud vote by the African American population for a competitive AA candidate - into something corrupting - that a failure to vote for him is nothing less than an expression of (white) racism. The fundamental reason you typical white folks aren't voting for me is because you are driven by racism. He presented a peculiarly bastardized version of John Edwards' Two Americas; the enlightened one who will vote for him and the retrograde one which will not. And, by virtue of this speech being made in a primary campaign, the division is one that runs through the Democratic Party, not a marker of distinction between Democrats and Republicans.
This argument reversese forty years of principled, painful, exhausting battles done by the Left to overcome the crippling bigotry that once was ubiquitous. These very battles are the ones he disdainfully dismissed in his interview with the Republican paper in Reno. He returns the Democratic Party to the state it was after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, as though nothing had happened in the party or in Democratic politics since 1968.
Why is his rhetoric so corrosive to the Democratic Party? He has crossed the line from condemning racism as such to declaring individual Democrats to be racists, making this the core of his campaign strategy. Rather than praise the successes of the party in combatting bigotry, he flings reckless smears that his opponent is nothing but a racist, foregrounding that as the common ground for AA support of him and deliberately fanning the flames by casting a possible defeat as white machinations to deny the just rewards of a black candidate. As I said in my earlier post about his legitimacy problem, Obama won't admit that there is any legitimate way to defeat him (perhaps because he himself does not utilize legitimate means and thus projects his own questionable tactics onto others) and, thus, any defeat must have been a dirty trick engineered by the racists in the party.
It is an incredibly incendiary assault. To fail to vote for him is to be racist, an "Archie Bunker." That image is invoked not because Archie was dumb but because he is the American cultural icon of racial bigotry. The growing fury at Obama for placing the party in this position gets turned again as racist backlash, deliberately using the fear of AA anger instrumentally for his own gain - gimme the nomination or your convention will be 1968 combined with the Rodney King riots. The MSM, bless their evil little hearts, are salivating at the thought.
This corrosive narrative is a cold and brutal campaign calculation in accord with Obama's continually demonstrated contempt for anything or anyone who denies him what he wants. He has accomplished what the Republicans alone could not do, split the party itself on race. The Republicans peeled away those who were racist - read your Krugman - and Obama has declared any who oppose him to also be part of that group, rejecting the innocence of any act (she'll do anything to get elected, it's all calculation) that can be twisted into a racialized mode.
Looking at this from a party standpoint, there is political need for acknowledging foolish but not ill-intentioned trespasses, such as Obama's own moronic words about his grandmother, so that errors may be forgiven and cooperation secured. Such a space must also be established so that we can clearly identify what is too much, too far, too destructive, too deliberate, to be forgiven. Finally, there has to be political room in which there can be legitimate disagreement about policies and approaches. If your opponent is not simply someone who holds a different opinion or who has come to an incorrect stance, but is in truth a "monster," beyond the pale of the civic community, then there are no grounds upon which you can cooperate. There is only capitulation. You make enemies of people who should be allies.
Political judgment is missing from the Obama campaign (and the DNC stance) in their calculation that "we" all know the rhetoric and strategy is "just politics," except that you have just declared that I am the moral equivalent of George Wallace in 1968.
The Democrats have already fought those battles and have nothing left to prove.