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The Triumph Of P.C.

Again, Sullivan seems to be misunderstanding the origins of mainstream conservatives’ special new contempt for Obama.  Sullivan describes it this way:

But to go from this to the vicious attempt to portray Obama as a fraud, an actor, and another phony politician is a sign of the hard right’s nervousness. When you listen to Sean Hannity, you hear someone who looks at Obama and sees every racial fear he has ever had about black Democrats personified. The difficulty of making distinctions between, say, Sharpton, Jackson and Obama is just too much for him. 

Leaving aside discussing what intellectual tasks are too difficult for Hannity (our time here on earth is limited, after all), the portrayal of Obama as a fraud is not a sign of nervousness.  There is something else going on here.  As I’ve saidbefore a couple times, there is a dynamic of disappointment and competition behind mainstream conservative attacks on Obama: his optimism and Americanism must be shown to be fraudulent, because they compete the competing mainstream conservative version of these things, and the assumption that they are fraudulent inspires feelings of disappointment and anger towards a liberal whom they had once hoped would be respectable and respectful of their views.  They and Obama are closer to one another than probably either side would like to admit, which is why you see so much pious sermonising attacking Obama from the left about the “racism” of his church while trying to find excuses to pin anti-Americanism on him with such dubious controversies as the flag pin.  In a related way, “pro-Israel” conservatives cannot, must not, admit the possibility that Obama is also just as “pro-Israel” as they are, because that would mean that there are alternative ways to be “pro-Israel” other than theirs.  This is not exactly nervousness, but the arrogant sense of superiority that any P.C. inquisitor has for his target, who does represent a challenge but whom they are quite confident they can destroy politically. 

His mainstream conservative critics’ attacks are operating at several levels.  The first is actually an expression of disappointment.  There was a time when many mainstream conservative pundits treated Obama as a refreshing departure from what they had become used to hearing from the left.  Viewed as cynically as possible, this started to collapse once he began winning most of the contests because he now became the main threat, but there was a more substantial reason for giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in the early months.  The ferocity of the turn against Obama was partly a function of discovering things that any halfway interested observer could have found out about him or his associates a year or more earlier, but which they had never bothered to find out because they did not take him seriously.  The intensity of the reaction against him was the result of feeling that Obama had not lived up to the image, much of which they projected onto him, of Obama as an acceptable liberal politician (i.e., he became acceptable, because he seemed to be taking their views seriously, and anything that suggested that he was a more traditional liberal would destroy that image).  It wasn’t just that many of them were learning about many of the details of his background for the first time (having taken the superficial, patronising view of the candidate that many of his supporters also adopted in early days, derived from little more than a brief bio sketch and his 2004 convention speech), but that some of them actually believed the hype that he was moving “beyond” race and old ideological fights.  In one sense, they took Obama’s campaign rhetoric far too seriously, but simultaneously misunderstood what he meant by talking about “turning the page.”  But this conception of “transcendence,” which some of his supporters have seemed to share as well, was always bound to meet with disappointment, because it was never realistic and was something constructed by political observers more than by the candidate himself. 

Even with all the good will and right intentions in the world, no politician can move “beyond” race or ideology in any case, and mainstream conservatives were even more bitterly disappointed to find that the “post-racial” candidate held fairly conventional liberal views on social policies related to race.  Modifications to affirmative action that would move it towards a class-based system of preferences do not strike most conservatives as a major concession, and may actually appear more undesirable.  The “conversation” that these critics want to have is one in which Obama concludes that conservative views on affirmative action, crime and all the rest are basically right, and so the disappointment with Obama ratcheted up after his Philadelphia speech, which quite a lot of mainstream conservative pundits decried as both dishonest and revealing of the “real” Obama.  The “conversation” mainstream conservatives seem to have wanted was for everyone to stop having any discussion of race, when it has become quite clear that Obama is not interested in that.  Of course, the condescending view of white resentments, like the later “cling” remarks, were always going to provoke harsh criticism, and rightly so in those cases.  

The pile-on is not simply intended to thwart Obama, but to serve as an example to others, which is what this kind of thought policing is most concerned with doing.  One constantly hears cries on talk radio and elsewhere from white conservatives that there is a double standard of treatment, but instead of following that complaint to its logical conclusion–the policing of thoughts and words is what is truly damaging and unacceptable–they opt instead to hammer away on Obama after having spent decades complaining about the very same policing.  The goal is to take ownership of the tools of thought policing for their side to augment their policy arguments and the record of their preferred party, because it is only through this kind of intimidation that can mask the record of stunning failure of the last eight years.  Liberals should be familiar with this, since they have done much the same thing for decades.  So employing these tools may be a sign of the weakness of one’s arguments, but it is not a sign of nervousness.  Indeed, I expect that mainstream conservatives today are feeling much more calm about the prospect of an Obama nomination than they have at almost any time before now.  They assume that these tactics will work to sink his candidacy, and they are probably right.  Ironically, in the remarks Obama made earlier this week about Wright he accepted the logic of the very methods that will be used throughout the year to defeat him.  Instead of breaking out of the “smallness of our politics,” which are made as petty as they are because of this kind of thought and speech and association-policing, Obama succumbed.

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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