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The Cure For Guilt

To date, most of the discussion of Obama–on the part of those who favor him and those who are uncertain or skeptical–has been impressively race-neutral.  In the absence of evidence, Beinart’s focus on race, and his dismissal of white support for Obama as an odd kind of racialism, are not a public service. ~Cass Sunstein

Yeah, Beinart, what’s wrong with you?  I mean, what does Beinart think?  Does he think that every story that has covered Obama has started with the background statement, “the son of a white mother and a Kenyan goat-herder” or “the mixed race son of a white American and a Kenyan raised in Indonesia and Hawaii” or opens with the theme “Barack Obama’s compelling story is the meeting of two worlds divided by race”?  Well, actually, he would pretty much be right.  Every narrative that talks up Obama as a “new” kind of black candidate, and every column that questions his black “authenticity” all pay homage to Jackson/Sharpton style of politics of race-hustling as they recognise the established pattern from which Obama is deviating.   This is the style that many white people find so dreary and obnoxious, and this is the style they have come to associate with black politicians, so many respond to Obama with joy and relief: “At last, a black candidate who doesn’t talk about being black!  He doesn’t try to make me hate my ancestors–I think I like him!”  As I have said before, I really don’t understand this attitude

The relatively positive response to Obama across the spectrum is actually the fruit of a generation of imbibing egalitarian attitudes that purport to make race a secondary or irrelevant distinction.  Because Obama purports to transcend or unite races through his bland optimism and his personal history, he can pose as the “uniter” of American politics in spite of his far-out left-wingery, since a great many Americans have received the message that race is one of the great stumblingblocks in American history and Obama superficially appears to be someone who can help to fix part of this.  That he can speak in a religious, universal idiom undoubtedly helps advance this image of Obama, because that idiom provides a common point of reference for many whites.  Plus, by showing support for Obama they can demonstrate that they, too, are helping to heal the divide, etc.  Having been exposed for many a year to preppy white liberal self-flagellation over the plight of minorities, I find that this entire explanation sounds entirely plausible. 

Because Obama is “different” from the old style and because–according to some of his more trenchant critics–he isn’t black the way black people with long family histories in this country are black, he does not carry the baggage of that heritage and does not feel obliged to bring it up all the time.  Having been appropriately sensitised by decades of political moralising about race, most white Americans desperately want to see black success stories because they have internalised, at least to some degree, the feeling that past injustices have so crippled black Americans that they are somehow indirectly to blame for their problems.  These success stories–especially immigrant or second-generation success stories–also contribute to a sense of national pride and a confirmation about the “land of opportunity.”  Obama’s story tells them that they, white Americans, can stop blaming themselves.  When Obama paid tribute to the trailblazers in the civil rights movement for paving the way that allowed him to be where he is today, he was right in more ways than one: one of these ways is that without a traditional regimen of instilling self-loathing and guilt in white Americans, a black politician who does not traffic in guilt and blame would not seem to be the exceptional figure that the media have now made Obama to be.   

All of the mainsteam media cooing and oohing about his candidacy has been anything but race-neutral.  Race-neutral?  Are you kidding?  How many times have you heard that Obama will be the “first serious black contender for the White House” (what makes him a serious contender, when he stands no chance of winning very many primaries, still remains a mystery to me)?  You have heard this many times.  Everything positive that has been said about Obama has been  implicitly acknowledging that “we like Obama because he isn’t like traditional black candidates.”  That I basically agree with Beinart and argued very much the same thing as he did before he wrote his article doesn’t change the facts that the coverage of Obama’s candidacy has been anything but race-neutral.

The fact is that a suave, inexperienced Senator of no particular distinction would not receive this kind of superstar treatment were it not for his race and the novelty of his candidacy.  He receives such attention in excess because the media believe they have found at last a nationally viable black candidate to become the nominee of a major party.  You can lament this or praise it or dismiss it, but what you can’t do is pretend that it isn’t happening.  John Edwards was, in terms of government experience, actually a little behind where Obama is now when he ran for President and received a fair amount of attention, but he was never the subject of a media phenomenon characterised by such embarrassing overkill as we have witnessed over the past two months.   

Related query: doesn’t it trouble Mormons and blacks that their respective potential “firsts” in ’08 are someone with badly compromised records or someone seriously lacking in experience?  Is it not a liability for these communities that their most prominent representatives in politics right now are almost certainly overhyped, overexposed and unable to match up to what are inevitably going to be excessive expectations of success?  Doesn’t it bother Mormons watching the Romney campaign that their most public political representative stands accused of blatant waffling and pandering on a whole range of issues and that, in effect, the first real potential Mormon nominee is likley to go down in flames as a flip-flopping fraud?  The risk here is that they do not represent the pioneers who are leading the way for others, but may in fact make future candidacies from their communities even less likely to win if they fail.

Looking back at my pre-election predictions about Obama’s intentions about running, I am embarrassed to admit that I got it wrong.  Back on 16 October I wrote:

Obama does not want to become the John Edwards of the future, and therefore will not run in two years.

Obviously, that was not right.  I do stand by my prediction that Obama ’08 will fail.  I don’t say this to be particularly hard on Obama–lots and lots of no-hopers are going to fail.  Let’s be clear about that much–Obama is a no-hoper this time around.  He may be an interesting no-hoper, but he is one nonetheless.  His campaign’s failure is entirely predictable, which is why it remains hard for me to understand why he is running this time.  In the next cycle, he stands a good chance of being up against a weak incumbent, no matter which party wins in ’08.  In the cycle after that, depending on his performance in the intervening years, he might very well stand as the heir presumptive to the Democratic nomination.  Rather than a hard-scrabble, desperate insurgent campaign to unseat HRC, which will probably succeed in knocking the nomination over to someone else entirely, he might have a chance to be virtually given the nomination in ’12 or ’16.  (The even more hyped-up expectations for a later Obama campaign would be so great than not even the Aesir could live up to them.)  A true Machiavellian would let the next chump handle the aftermath of Iraq and then step in afterwards.  As it stands, Obama is going to go into this election in wartime with all the foreign policy experience of an international relations major.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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