I confess that, at a petty and vindictive level, it is vastly amusing to watch Hillary and Bill Clinton fight with Barack Obama about whether they are racist or not. Exploiting identity politics has been one of the cornerstones of Clintonian politics for two decades now. Both in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections (as well as in Al Gore’s 2000 campaign), nasty race-baiting advertisements on urban black radio stations in the closing weeks of the election campaign were a reliable method of turning out a maximum black vote.
Bill Clinton’s fabricated recollection of seeing black church burnings was another method used by the Clintons to attempt to induce blacks to vote on the basis of racial identity, rather than on the basis of issues and the actual characters of the Republican candidates against whom the Clintons were running.
Of course, the Clintons are not the only politicians who attempt to induce voting based on similar genetic codes, rather than on objective criteria. And Hillary certainly has exploited the genetic code of sex, as well as race. It is an old and proven method of corrupting the democratic process. When Hillary said in New Hampshire that she “embodied” change (by virtue of hoping to be the first female president), she again was attempting to get votes not based on the policy judgment of the voters, but rather on their loyalty to their genetic code (a bizarre and sad human trait).
It is a mark against the mainstream media that such explicit inducements to bigoted voting are not criticized harshly. If a man were to seek votes just because he was not a woman and if a white person were to appeal to votes on the basis of his white race, they promptly and correctly would be condemned for such base appeals. It should be no less worthy of condemnation if votes are sought on the basis of any other genetic details.
The upward trajectory of civilization has relied in substantial part on moving away from tribal or racial identity and toward reason and the individual. In its most virulent form, identity politics becomes genocide. American Indians, blacks, Jews, Poles, Armenians — so many peoples have been the victims of identity politics taken to its ultimate extent. Thankfully, in U.S. politics during modern times, it merely induces moronic decision-making in the voting booths.
What makes this current round of race-baiting political strategies distinctive, of course, is that Democrats are using it on each other. Usually, they reserve it for Republican opponents. And obviously, the Clintons started it with their disgraceful surrogate campaign targeting Obama as a cocaine user and perhaps dealer. This vulgar use of a crude racial stereotype coming from “our first black president” and his wife can only be understood as a desperation measure, as they faced otherwise sure defeat in New Hampshire.
They then followed up that negative identity politics with Hillary’s affirmative identity politics — playing up her femaleness to induce women to vote for her for that reason.
In its slimy way, it was smart politics. And in a surprising turn of events, while it may not gain Hillary the nomination, Obama’s ill-considered reaction to it may hurt his general election candidacy.
Just as the Clintons’ surrogates started it, Obama’s surrogates responded by playing their own race card against the Clintons. The feigned Obama-camp outrage against Bill Clinton’s use of “fairy tale” and Hillary’s reference to Lyndon Johnson is likely to be counterproductive for Obama. By playing the race card, Obama undercuts his best chance of winning in November. He had made a strong and admirable case until then that he was a man running for president who happened to be black. Now his campaign has taken on the attribute of a black man running for president. And given the nasty nature of identity politics, inducing racial thinking is not a positive for a black man in a country that is only about 10 percent black.
But at a tactical level, he has played his race card too soon. One of his greatest advantages in a general election campaign against a white Republican opponent would be the care with which the white Republican would need to avoid saying anything that might be misconstrued as racially insensitive.
But American voters are somewhat inured to black charges of racism — so many fraudulent of such charges having been made over the past generation. The deterrent threat of the racial charge is more valuable to Obama than actually making the charge, particularly if its first use is frivolous, as in this instance. Moreover, by emphasizing race, Obama runs the serious risk — both in his primary and general election campaigns — of minimizing his Hispanic vote, as Hispanic voters are somewhat resistant to supporting black candidates. And the more Obama runs as a black candidate, rather than a candidate who happens to be black, the lower his Hispanic support is likely to trend.
By misplaying the contemptible strategy prematurely, Obama may have helped his primary chances, but he has hurt his general election prospects.