Jonathan Martin at Politico is now arguing something very similar to what I said almost two months ago. Martin wrote today:
An Obama vs McCain race could be one of the most divisive in our history. Race will be a major factor in the divide, of course, but so will age and culture.
Strangely, he titles his post ”the great unspoken,” but surely people have been talking about this and polling on this throughout the campaign, and the factor of race in this election has been discussed so often that it makes no sense to say that it is ”the unspeakable” to talk about voters who simply won’t accept Obama’s candidacy because of his race. It was so “unspeakable” that Obama was addressing it directly at the San Francisco fundraiser where he made his recent blunder. Usually this is dismissed as unfortunate but electorally irrelevant, on the rather precious grounds that these people would never vote for a Democrat anyway, when polling among Democrats seems to show this to be false.
Back in February, I said:
If the “healing” in question is more intangible and concerns a change in attitudes, I submit that Obama’s election could very easily have exactly the opposite effect. Race, like ethnicity, becomes especially divisive in a community when it is politicised (and it is as divisive as it is because it is frequently politicised), because the contestation for power takes on additional, charged connotations of the status of an entire group of people. The outcome of the election takes on added importance: one outcome represents a breakthrough and an elevation of status, and another represents repudiation. When that is combined with ideological baggage that draws in larger national debates on policy, either outcome can be even more explosive. To draw on a recent example, the charge of a stolen election in Kenya became an occasion for ethnic violence because the election was contested by members of the two major ethnic groups. To crudely oversimplify, the Luos perceived the (rigged) election loss as one more in a long line of injustices they had suffered, and the Kikuyus saw the possibility of a Luo coming to power as a threat to their status. Democracy is inherently identitarian, and elections are contestations over which groups will hold more power than others in practice, so particularly in countries with strong racial or ethnic group identities the notion that a country is going to promote reconciliation through the election of someone identified with a minority group is probably mistaken. So I think we underestimate the potential for this year’s election to be an unusually divisive contest, and its aftermath may be even more so regardless of the outcome.
Some people got hung up on my use of Kenya as an example of what I was talking about, and that example is, of course, not strictly comparable to our situation, but the principle is the same. I think this will be compounded by the intensely biographical and personality-centered nature of the general election contest, which is perhaps even more true for Obama than for McCain, so that Obama’s personal victory or defeat will have become so freighted with other meanings that the election campaign and its aftermath could be much more contentious than any we have seen in decades. It might have one salutary effect, which is that it will make clear just how many people engage in identity politics and that it is a more or less inescapable part of mass democracy. It might even cause people to take a more skeptical or critical view of the virtues of mass democracy, and that’s always a welcome development. However, the bitterness the campaign may engender in the process may be quite damaging to political debate in the future.