Race and the 2008 Election

Posted: May 14, 2008 12:01 AM
Race and the 2008 Election

Race, the yet unclosed scab that has run deep through our history, is about to be discussed as it never has been in a presidential election. In fairness to the United States, racial attitudes (or man's view of the "other" man) is a universal phenomenon that in most countries either goes unspoken or results in straight-out ethnic cleansing and murder. Here in America, in our earnest striving toward perfected tolerance and equality, we loquaciously agonize over our shortcomings -- and it is good that we do.

In this unprecedented election year, we run the risk of having two conversations: a polite public one that uses euphemisms or evasions about race and a nasty private one that is likely to dredge up the worst within us -- the conversation that won't be on television but will be on the Internet and on the subway and wherever people congregate to chat. I would argue that the more honest the public conversation is the less virulent the private one will be, and therein lies the path to maximum civic hygiene. Little drives people crazier than hearing official and public balderdash spoken (or worse, silence) about subjects that are cared about deeply.

And therein, I respectfully dissent from the comments last week by my friend and former Reagan White House staff colleague Peggy Noonan, who argued that it was "vulgar" and destructive of the body politic to talk about race. (She referred specifically to Hillary Clinton's "white people" remark. Peggy left open, sort of, the right of "bloviators" and hired hands to raise the dirty topic, but by implication, she suggested that no decent commentator would do such a thing.)

Vulgar? Yes, I will give Peggy that. But democratic politics is inherently vulgar. The first two definitions of vulgar in my dictionary are "of or associated with the great masses of people, common; spoken by or expressed in language spoken by the common people, vernacular."

Peggy always and deservedly will be on the short list of great White House speechwriters. Her specialty was (and is) the lyrical, the poetic, the allusion to the best, the sweetest and the finest that is America. And no chord of democratic music should be without those notes.

But those notes are not the full chord of democracy, and a chord with only those notes will not ring fully true to the public. There are also the gritty, contrapuntal tones that portray the edginess and tension of life. So that, for example, Beethoven's innovative use of the discordant dominant seventh chord took his music beyond the aristocratic perfection of Mozart and into the revolutionary age of the people's passion.

So what are we to make of the fact that Obama's African father causes him to be seen as the first African-American or black nominee for president? I would argue that being black -- somewhat like (but more intensely) being a woman, being very ugly or very beautiful, being different in any demographic or cultural way -- tends to induce one of two abnormal responses. For a few, it is straight-out bigotry. ("I'll never vote for a black, an Irishman, an English dog, a pretty boy like Romney, a Jew, a woman, etc.") Those votes are lost to rational debate.

But for a larger number of voters, there exists some extra resistance to voting for someone who, on the surface, seems different. This is race (or other demographic) consciousness, but not straight-out bigotry. For these voters, they need more evidence to convince them that this seemingly "different" kind of person is, under the surface, pretty much the same as the voter.

For Hillary, being a woman was a resistance factor for some. Some people think that women are less likely to be able to deal with military matters, foreign policy, etc. Hillary smartly decided to confront that resistance by going on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate to prove to the doubters that she was as tough and able to deal with such matters as the toughest men. On that count, she succeeded. Her candidacy has failed (probably) for many other reasons, but not because of her demographic "disadvantage."

For Obama, as voters are starting to look for evidence either to confirm or to refute their early suspicion of "otherness," he has offered mixed evidence. Personally, the way he carries himself and speaks, his calm reasonableness, his admirable wit and charm have worked to his favor. But his associations, his San Francisco statement, his wife's seeming anger at America tend to confirm for some that he is in fact not a sufficiently typical American. These might be factors even if Obama were Anglo-Saxon. But it is foolish to deny that the suspicions are more focused because of his race. On the other hand, it is not all race. For example, if Colin Powell were running, his lifetime of famous and gallant military and high government service would lower the resistance factor that the lesser-known and lesser-accomplished Obama is facing.

The next test for him is to avoid having his policy proposals seem so radical (almost in a European semi-socialist way) that he will be seen as "other" not only by genetics but also by philosophy. For Obama, radical policy will be even more electorally dangerous than it was for George McGovern.

Let's have an honest conversation -- with neither rankle nor euphemism.