Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama,, Wright and the culture wars

One of the reasons Barack Obama has so much appeal to younger voters is his ability to seemingly transcend the noxious culture wars that have dominated our politics since the days of Vietnam. Instead though Obama is being dragged down by the culture warriors, his campaign undermined by the very issues that he was supposed to move this country past. Andrew Sullivan spoke to this phenomenon this morning,

One response to all this is to despair. We're seeing many of the worst aspects of America's culture war come back to target the one politician who had the chance to get us beyond it. It is no accident to me that Wright is of the Vietnam generation that bequeathed us these divides; and it is no accident that the Clintons will eagerly pivot off it; or that the far right will exploit it; or that Obama's tolerance for a man like this for so many years will hurt him.

I think Sullivan is on point when he calls out Wright and the entire Vietnam generation and makes note of how they have poisoned our political discourse. I do think though that Sullivan is being far too polite when he refers to the Vietnam generation "divides." Obama is being smeared using good old fashioned racial politics.

Sullivan cites the Clintons as chief beneficiaries, and they are benefiting now but the kind of post-Vietnam racial politics that are at work here have been birthed and nurtured by the modern Republican Party. Nixon's Southern Strategy is alive and well. Reagan and Lee Atwater carried it on and George W. Bush employed it against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina Republican Primary. I know Sullivan doesn't have the self-awareness to actually admonish his hero Reagan for his Atwater driven racial politics but you can't admonish the current situation and gloss over the nasty details. Here's Atwater anonymously describing the Southern Strategy,

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger , nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger.

None of this though is to excuse Wright and his more odious view points. He is a professional provocateur. His short-sighted behavior has perhaps critically damaged the one short term hope there was for transcending this type of politics.

Jeremiah Wright is but another symbol of the horrid racial politics that have been at the core of the Republican Party for almost 40 years. The Party sought political power by exploiting racial wounds amongst southern whites, and they succeeded. It's going to take more than a transcendent African-American presidential candidate to heal the divides that the Nixon, Reagan, Atwater and Rove have opened and exploited but I think he's our best hope.

1 comment:

rusty said...

some very good linkages made here, Tim. let me add a few others.

Wright is also proof positive that the mix of religious ideology and "democratic", political discourse is a particularly toxic one.

One of my few questions about Obama is the sincerity of his religious conversion. I know he wrote a book about it and I know one has to profess religiosity in order to succeed in politics. But come on. His story is so very, very rare. A child who is born into an areligious, multicultural family with roots in 3 continents, not one atheist fathers, but two, educated at the world's best liberal institutions, surrounded all the while by people who represent the best things about humanism, and he somehow has a massive religious awakening in, of all ages, his 20's?

I think Obama has another opportunity here to reframe an important discourse like he did with the race speech. It is going to be much more difficult and risky this time, but he needs to put this issue to bed RIGHT NOW and give himself a bump. I don't know if he has it in him, but we need something from him on both Wright and Religion in the public sphere more generally. And if he doesn't get his act together soon he risks ruining both his candidacy and his party. If he really is what his supporters proclaim him to be, he needs to keep rising above - no matter how impossible that task may be as the race wears on.