Friday, April 25, 2008
Why Can’t He Close the Deal?
Right after Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary, the pundits were busy dissecting the supposed “failure” of Senator Obama. The main question: “Why Can’t Obama Close the Deal?” Which means, given his big lead and his momentum coming out of the February and March primaries, why can’t he finish off Hillary?
The metaphor, of course, suggests that a presidential nomination is some sort of gunfight at the DC corral. But the metaphor notwithstanding, the reason Obama can’t eliminate his rival is simple: it’s called Racism. This nation always has, and arguably always will be the most racist nation on the planet. And by racism, I am talking specifically about racism against African Americans. The other forms of racism—against Asians and Hispanics and Pacific Islanders and East Indians and American Indians—can, and eventually will recede if not disappear. But the fundamental racism against those who were brought here from Africa as slaves, all the Emanicipation Proclamations and voters’ rights acts and affirmative action programs notwithstanding, persists to this day. It persists in patterns of living, it persists in patterns of education, it persists in the degree of punishment for crime, it persists in longstanding, deep-seated attitudes that are as American as apple pie.
Barack Obama thought he could transcend all this. He thought that his half-white background, his distinguished record at America’s most prestigious university, his stunning ability to speak the language of white folks better than they can themselves speak it, would neutralize all this. He thought that by not exploiting his blackness to garner votes, he could rise above petty racial politics and disarm the racists he must have known still existed in droves. And in a certain sense, and with a younger, more educated electorate, he has succeeded in this. At least partly.
Sadly, he ran into middle America. And middle America, not to mention southern and western America, have by no means risen above their instinctive racism. Which is to say, their resentment that some uppity Harvard-educated black man—and the one percent doctrine still holds for most Americans, i.e. if you’ve got even one percent African in your genes, you’re black—could actually lay claim to the American throne heretofore reserved for not just whites, but whites of a certain northern European background and skin tone. Preferably with names of only one syllable: Bush, Gore; or maybe two: Clinton, Johnson, Carter, Nixon. But Obama. Lord almighty, how could the Whitest of Houses contain a trisyllabic, fear-evoking name like that?
The proof of this, if proof is needed, is in the numbers. Hillary Clinton has won every large state with a strong rural or powerful working-class population: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and California (large parts of which derive, ultimately, from southern states.) They are also states that harbor immigrants and their children—those who have always been able to derive some comfort from the fact that, though they may be low on the class totem pole, at least they can always look down upon that population which remains permanently below them. To have a representative of that population now lay claim to the highest office in the land is simply too much to bear. He must be brought down. And if Hillary fails to knock him off his horse, we can bet that the Republicans—whose entire winning strategy, from at least the time of Nixon, has been predicated on winning these very same rural and working-class southern and Midwestern voters—will prove only too eager to play their favorite election game, race baiting. Think George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads. Think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.”
All this gives the lie to the constant protestations by American conservatives of their patriotic veneration for our founding documents: the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Declaration’s ringing phrase that “all men are created equal.” For when it comes to the privacy of the presidential voting booth, the phrase that really counts is the add-on by Orwell in Animal Farm:
“…but some are more equal than others.”
Anything that challenges, in a fundamental way, that “more equal” status will be met with savagery. And, as we have seen with the Jeremiah Wright ads, it already has.
To be sure, hope springs eternal. America could still right itself, redeem itself. But at this point, it seems to me, ‘closing the deal’ is going to take a miracle.