Is this progress?

Posted: Aug 24, 2004 12:00 AM

The national press has been dazzled by Barack Obama. "Obama energizes convention," read an Associated Press headline after his national debut at the Democratic National Convention. Obama "is a bright, handsome, charming and articulate embodiment of all the good things America imagines itself to be," fawned Washington Post columnist Williams Raspberry. "Go, Barack Obama!"

Even Illinois Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard confided to the New Yorker that "in Republican circles, we've always feared that Barack would become a rock star of American politics. Obama is an extraordinary man."

The wave of publicity almost assures that Obama will become the only black American in the Senate, and only the fifth black senator in history. This would seem to represent undeniable progress.

But it is also worth noting that many of Obama's policy positions do not mesh with the values of most black voters - who actually poll conservative and increasingly support issues that can only be described as traditionally Republican, such as mandatory prison sentencing, school prayer, school vouchers, and opposition to abortion and homosexual unions.

The conservative bent of the black American populace is coming into focus in local elections across the country, where a new wave of conservative black political leaders are gaining local and state offices. For the most part, they do not see America as fundamentally flawed because of its unfortunate racial history, or its capitalist economic system. They are more inclined to encourage choice and market-based approaches. Unfortunately, none has managed to achieve national prominence. So without Obama, there is no black candidate with real crossover appeal.

The point was crammed into the national consciousness following Obama's rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention. Properly understood, Obama's showing in Boston was a triumph not of public policy - remember, Obama's views diverge from black voters' conservative tendencies - but of performance.

Of course, performance matters. Over the last century, all of America's "great" leaders have shone as brightly for their performances as their leadership. Teddy Roosevelt was a childhood wimp who, as a leader, galvanized a fledgling nation around an image of masculine dominance and secular glory. A chronically ill JFK used television images to convey a sense of youthful vigor and sex appeal. Reagan gazed deeply into the camera lens and disarmed us with his confidence and that aw-shucks smile. Clinton surrounded himself with celebrities, appeared on MTV and played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

Get it? Our "greatest" leaders have also been our greatest demagogues.

For the first time since Jesse Jackson burst onto the national scene, a black man gets to play the role of American demagogue. This is powerful. This is alluring. This suggests something greater than politics; it suggests that our society is finally moving beyond social hierarchies left over from a shared history of slavery.

But I ask, is it progress?

Consider that Obama's chief opponent is Alan Keyes. Forgetting for a moment that Keyes has no substantial ties to Illinois, and that he seems to have inserted himself into the race merely for the purposes of self-advertisement, it is worth noting that his conservative value system - particularly his belief in school prayer, as well as his opposition to abortion and homosexual unions - is shared by a majority of the black voting public.

Keyes' real problem is this: He is a black Republican who has forcefully challenged the liberal theology that conditions all blacks to regard themselves as victims. For this he is labeled and disparaged by the Democrats - and the civil rights leaders they carry in tow - as a race traitor.

Meanwhile, Obama, who espouses a different value system than a large plurality of the black voting populace, is heralded as a symbol of racial progress.

Again, I can't help but wonder: Is reflexively voting for someone who does not share your value system really progress?