Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obama and the Black Vote: Rebutting a Racist

My good friend Christina asked me for help.

Her acquaintance, a man I'd never met named Leon, had made the following claim about Barack Obama and the black vote:
Unfortunately Obama will get over 90% of black votes as long as he runs for president. If this was being done by white voters, then blacks would have been screaming racism, and rightfully so.
It is interesting that, according to Islam, the child goes according to the father, so that makes Obama Muslim. His father was Muslim from Kenya, his stepfather was Muslim from Indonesia. And I also find interesting that even Christian blacks voted for black Muslim. Right Christina?

Soon another friend, Aubrey, expressed agreement with Leon's opinions while adding a few comments of his own:

I'm just saying before this election less then 45% of the African American population turned out to vote... then the minute they find out there is a BLACK man running for office more then 60% of the population ended up voting.

As it seemed that this belief about Obama and the black vote was widely held, I figured I should rebut it. Unfortunately, I didn't have access to the post in which Leon made his comments, so I was only able to directly confront Aubrey. Here, unedited, is what I wrote to him:

While there was a slight uptick both in black voter turnout and black support for the Democratic Party in 2008 (i.e., between 5% and 7%), the increase was nowhere near significant enough to justify your assertion that "black people only vote based on race" (and before you complain that you never said that, you made a point of agreeing with the person who did). Here are the facts (for the sake of convenience, all of the statistics cited have been rounded):

1a. African-Americans have been a Democratic bloc for decades, thanks to a process that began during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency (when his New Deal programs helped millions of impoverished black people and received their appreciation) and reached its climax in the election of 1964 (when the Republican Party nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, a man whose opposition to civil rights legislation was the official sign that the GOP was jettisoning of black interests in an ultimately-successful effort to woo Dixiecrats and other racists). That is why, in the pair of presidential elections before the 2008 contest, the Democratic candidates received 90% and 88% of the black vote, a figure that Obama only increased to 95% in 2008. This rise, though not insignificant, is rendered less impressive when you take into account that Obama's share of the overall popular vote was 5% higher than that of the Democratic candidate from the previous election, a margin that black voters surpassed by only 2%. For more on that, see:

1b. Black voter turnout rose from 60% in 2004 to 65% in 2008. While this was in contrast to overall voter turnout levels, which remained steady at 64% between 2004 and 2008, it was consistent with a pattern of higher turnout among demographics that tended to be part of the Democratic base, including Asians, Hispanics, and women. For more on that, see:

1c. This is not to say that blacks didn't vote in larger numbers, or support the Democratic candidate at a greater percentage, than had been the case in elections when the Democrat wasn't a black man; both of those things are true. The data, however, suggests that although Obama's race was important to many black voters, it was hardly the sole or even decisive variable.

2. I'm tired of people acting as if Obama's inexperience means his supporters could have only gravitated toward him on the basis of his race. Plenty of presidential candidates have been backed by large and passionate movements despite their short resumes and/or ambiguity on the issues, from Abraham Lincoln and Wendell Willkie to John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Had I been able to respond to Leon, I would have repeated all of that before adding the following:

3. Apart from the fact that Obama's ability to be a good president wouldn't be impaired if he was a Muslim, the reality is that Islam does not pass down automatically through the father.

4. Even if being a Muslim was passed on paternally, both of Obama's parents had officially disavowed their childhood faiths by the time he was born (and atheism, I am certain, is not inherited).

5. Even if Obama had spent his childhood as a Muslim, either by default due to his father's background or because he had been deliberately raised that way, he was baptized as a member of the United Church of Christ when he was twenty-seven.

Now that I have addressed all of your points - and in a matter that is beyond reasonable dispute, since as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." - I have two questions for you:

1. Why were you so quick to believe that blacks only supported Obama because of his race?

There is no way you came to this conclusion based on objectively conducted research, since all of the relevant historical and statistical information contradicts it. Once that has been established, the only explanation which makes sense is that you have a predisposition to dislike black people and, as such, was naturally inclined to believe something that depicted them in a disparaging fashion.

Is this my way of calling you a racist?

Yes. The term "racist" is a strong one, but when someone reveals a prejudice against another race (prejudice being defined in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as "(1) a preconceived judgment or opinion, (2) an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge"), the term "racist" must be used.

2. Why were you so quick to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim?

That one I may just chalk up to stupidity.

Was I rude in my replies, both hypothetical and actual? Perhaps... but if our politics had more intelligent rudeness and less stupid civility, we would be a lot better off.

Liberalism vs. Conservatism

Three quotes from leading economic conservatives have been posted below. Please note that these statements did not come from members of the rightist fringe or from arbitrary figures. Each individual mentioned here was/is a key thinker either in the development of right-wing economic thought or in its subsequent justification.

Alexander Hamilton when discussing the ideal structure of a democratic government:

"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they therefore will ever maintain good government."

Ludwig von Mises when praising Ayn Rand's message to the working class about the wealthy:

"You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you."

Rush Limbaugh on the tendency of liberals to feel sympathy for the poor:

"The poor in this country are the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples. The poor feed off the largesse of this government and give nothing back... I'm sick and tired of the one phony game I've had to play and that is this so-called compassion for the poor. I don't have compassion for the poor."

So what are the tenets of economic liberalism? A dishonest or ill-informed conservative (and most conservatives, by the way, are neither of these things) would argue that we're socialistic (a charge that I debunk here: or that we love the idea of big government (which I debunk here: Someone more familiar with the origins of the economic liberal philosophy, however, would point out that our ideas were given their best articulation by the president who did the most to champion them.

Franklin Roosevelt in the "Economic Bill of Rights" section from his 1944 State of the Union:

"It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education."

Herein lies the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism on economic questions. It is not, as pundits are wont to say, a situation in which the two sides agree as to ends but differ about the means. When right-wing leaders make their policy proposals, they draw their views on the poor from Rush Limbaugh, their views on the rich from Ludwig von Mises, and their views on the role of class in democracy from Alexander Hamilton - with, of course, massive campaign contributions from big businesses and other wealthy donors lubricating the process of persuasion when necessary. Left-wingers, on the other hand, continually strive to actualize the vision voiced by Franklin Roosevelt sixty-seven years ago.

These are the stakes. We must never forget them.

Obama's Legacy

A little more than twenty-eight months into his first term, there still exists a prevailing consensus that Barack Obama doesn't have very much to show for his presidency. As one of my friends recently put it while praising Obama for his initiatives toward a Middle East peace process, "I think he's starting to get ahead of the 8-ball finally. He's been doing a lot of reacting for the first 2.5 years..."

While I have certainly been highly critical of Obama on many occasions, I realize that it is important to credit our leaders when they deserve it as well as assail them when they come up short. This is especially true of liberals, who in numerous ways have yet to recover from the 1960s "crisis of confidence" (Jimmy Carter's term) that caused them to view all "establishment" political figures - past and present alike - with rigid cynicism. That such skepticism is valuable in holding powerful men and women accountable is beyond question; at the same time, an excess of jadedness not only creates a simplistic mindset as distorted as the right-wing's unthinking adulation for its leaders (which leftists correctly lampoon), but also makes it harder for liberals to develop the kind of political solidarity which is crucial to success in a pluralistic democracy.

All of this would be irrelevant if Obama had indeed neglected to do very much during his presidency. Even a brief scan of his achievements, however, will show that this is manifestly not the case. In his first twenty-eight months as president, Obama...
- Pushed through two stimulus bills that prevented the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 from worsening and has since led to a gradual recovery.
- Ended the war in Iraq.
- Repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
- Imposed new regulations on Wall Street banks so as to prevent a repetition of the 2008 economic meltdown.
- Imposed new regulations on credit card companies so as to end exploitative practices on consumers and/or homeowners.
- Avenged the September 11th attacks by reversing Bush Administration policies and seeking Osama bin Laden in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, eventually resulting in the terrorist's assassination.
- Passed a revolutionary health care reform bill that, among other things, prevents insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, outlaws annual and lifetime coverage caps, provides Medicaid coverage to all families and individuals with incomes up to 133% of the poverty level, provides subsidies to low income families and individuals to help them afford health care insurance (while placing a fine on those who refuse to purchase it), and creates health insurance exchanges to help individuals and small businesses compare different plans and determine which are ideal for them.

That, by the way, is the short list.

What makes these accomplishments even more significant is how they compare with those of Obama's predecessors. On domestic policy, the last president to match or surpass Barack Obama was Lyndon Johnson, whose legacy includes most of America's major civil rights legislation, the War on Poverty measures (viz.,
the Job Corps, VISTA, Project Head Start, etc.), the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the implementation of programs to help individuals with low incomes afford housing, the elimination of restrictive immigration quotas that limited the number of non-white groups that could live in America, the founding of education assistance to provide financial aid to poor public school districts and low-interest loans or scholarships to working class college students, and the passage of the late-twentieth century's most important environmental protection laws (viz., the Wilderness Preservation Act, the Water Quality Act, the Air Quality Act, etc.) Similarly, the last president to equal Obama's achievements on foreign policy was Jimmy Carter, who granted amnesty to conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, crafted the first lasting peace agreement between Israel and one of its hostile Arab neighbors (Egypt), ended decades of conflict in Central America by giving the Panama Canal to Panama, and engaged in painstaking negotiations that led to the freeing of American hostages captured by Iran with a minimal loss of life.

This is not to say that one shouldn't be critical of Obama's shortcomings and errors. He should be faulted for the fact that Guantanamo Bay remains open and the Afghanistan War rages on, that the health care reform bill didn't include the public option that would have made it truly comprehensive, and that his economic stimulus bills weren't large enough to bring the economic recession to a speedier close. Like Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama's many successes have not been unaccompanied by important failures (e.g., Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, Carter was inept in handling America's economic and oil crises and reneged on his vow to decriminalize marijuana). At the same time, just as Johnson and Carter are viewed more kindly by today's historians than by their contemporaries, so too is it likely that Obama's presidential tenure will be lauded once it is viewed through the clear lens of hindsight rather than the haze of our current political firefight.

Of course, it would help the liberal movement if, every now and then, its leaders received their due while they still had the power to do something with it.

2012 Predictions: Romney, Cain, et al.

Had Mike Huckabee decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination next year, the odds are pretty good that he would have gotten it (see: Now that Huckabee is out of the race, the Republican Party finds itself in a position that has become increasingly rare in American political history – i.e., one in which, long after political conventional wisdom has decided which candidates could be considered “frontrunners” and which should be deemed “dark horses,” that hierarchy is suddenly and drastically overhauled. When this has happened in recent history it has either been because a candidate widely considered to be a frontrunner has unexpectedly decided not to run (viz., Mario Cuomo in 1992) or because a frontrunner was unexpectedly taken down by a debilitating scandal (viz., Gary Hart in 1988). Indeed, as indicated by those last two examples, such events have traditionally occurred not to Republicans, but to their brethren on the other side of the aisle.

So who will Republicans pick to run against Obama? With Newt Gingrich compromised by his personal life, Ron Paul too radical to ever expand his base in the GOP beyond its staunch libertarian wing, Tim Pawlenty too bland to make a favorable impression, Rick Perry too prone to faux pas (viz., his arguments about Texas secession), and both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmman widely deemed to be unelectable, only two options remain:

Mitt Romney.

There can be little doubt that Mitt Romney is the undisputed frontrunner. He has many outstanding advantages, including an excellent record in the business world as a shrewd entrepreneur and fixer-upper, which will endear him to economic conservatives and independents; an image as an ideological moderate, one facilitated by his tenure as governor of Massachusetts and his refusal to cater to the GOP’s more extreme groups like the Tea Party; wide name recognition from his last bid for the Republican nomination in 2008; stalwart support among influential conservative leaders like Rush Limbaugh; strong showings in two of the Republican Party’s four earliest primaries (New Hampshire and Nevada); and, most important of all, a loyal and financially well-endowed fundraising base that contains many of the party’s richest and most powerful donors, all of whom see in Romney the type of plutocratic leadership they yearn to again find in Washington since their last champion, George W. Bush, left the White House.

That said, it cannot be denied that Romney’s candidacy has several major flaws. His support as Governor of Massachusetts of a health care reform program very similar to the one put in place by Barack Obama will undeniably hurt him among the party’s base of diehard conservatives, perhaps more so than is currently evident in the polls (surveys suggest that most Republican primary voters aren't aware of this aspect of his record and would think less of him if they knew about it). In addition, his flip-flopping on social issues like abortion and gay rights will hardly endear him to a party that has become increasingly intractable on questions of cultural policy. Finally, there is the fact that, as a Mormon, a wall of intolerance – much of it unspoken, some all too blatant – will engender suspicion among Republican primary voters, particularly those affiliated with the Christian Right.

It is important to note that none of those hurdles are insurmountable. Because Romney is considered to be ideologically and economically "safe" among the financially well-heeled contributors who serve as de facto leaders of the Republican Party, he has more than enough resources to compensate for the aforementioned deficiencies. That said, effectively dealing with them will require Romney to win the primaries by pandering to right-wingers in ways that may compromise his political viability in the general election. This could prove fatal to him if he makes the same mistake as John McCain and, in the name of uniting his party with a running mate from the hard right, winds up politically shooting himself in the foot with another Sarah Palin.

Herman Cain

There are several reasons why Herman Cain could win the Republican nod:

1. His preliminary showings in the polls are not only surprisingly strong for someone with so little name recognition (between 8% and 10% and ranked either fourth or fifth among the candidates), but show great likelihood of growing as he becomes more widely known (the same poll that gave him 8% also indicated that only 33% of Republican voters had even heard of him, with a whopping 24% of those who knew of him giving him their support).

2. He has deftly pulled off the trick of having impeccable credentials as a bona fide conservative (which, as indicated by many of the 2010 Republican primary contests, is increasingly considered to be mandatory) without yet coming off as so extreme as to alienate independent and moderate voters. This is especially useful in a race in which the other major candidates are either viewed as ideologically suspect (e.g., Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich) or too strongly associated with right-wing radicalism to ever be elected (e.g., Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul).

3. He is extremely charismatic, as suggested by the fact that Republicans viewing a recent candidates debate in South Carolina declared Cain to be the winner. This gives him an edge over the other two solid conservatives who might otherwise supplant him for the nomination (i.e., Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty), as well as over the man who can otherwise be considered the frontrunner, Mitt Romney (more on that below).

4. His strong business background will strongly appeal to Republican base voters. As the brief Donald Trump boom and ongoing strength of Romney's candidacy both demonstrate, the conservative idealization of business success is so significant that many are quick to deem a solid corporate background as, in its own right, a qualification for higher office. For some this comes from a belief that people who have "made it" in business possess the leadership qualities necessary to perform well in any sphere; for some it comes from a notion that the business world is somehow purer and/or more efficient than the public sector; for some it's based on the belief that businessmen will best understand which policies are conducive to economic growth. Either way, this is clearly a variable that Cain will have working to his advantage.

5. His race will provide conservatives with a means of neutralizing one of the sharpest criticisms levied against them. The notion that many conservatives are motivated by racism certainly has a great deal of merit, as shown by everything from the rhetoric of Tea Party leaders and the signs at Tea Party rallies to the prevalence of racially-tinged conspiracy theories about Obama's religion and place of birth,
polls that show a correlation between racism and right-wing ideas, and the very history of the modern Republican Party itself (particularly in its transformative years, 1964-1980). At the same time, those in the right-wing who are not driven by racial animus may feel especially compelled to firmly debunk such notions, while those who harbor such motivations will feel drawn to Herman Cain as an example of "one of the good ones." While that desire would not cause them to support any black candidate (it is doubtful, for example, that Colin Powell would fare well among them), it can certainly help put one with Cain's other compelling qualities over the top.

Cain's only significant drawback is his lack of political experience, mainly because it would raise questions about his capacity to serve as well as make him prone to the kinds of gaffes that more seasoned pols are trained to avoid. While the second variable could prove lethal to his ambitions, the first will be offset in the eyes of many Republicans and independents (a) by their belief that Barack Obama wasn't qualified, (b) by their ingrained suspicion of government, politicking, and "Washington insiders," and (c) by an overall dissatisfaction with Obama's performance and a desire to replace him. In short, it is not inconceivable that Hermain Cain could become the first non-political presidential candidate since Wendell Willkie in 1940.


Although a great deal of verbiage has been spent here explaining the potential behind Herman Cain's candidacy, that doesn't mean I think he is most likely to walk away with the Republican Party's top prize. As I've mentioned in previous op-eds, presidential nominations are ultimately determined by the outcomes of each party's initial primaries, which for Republicans in 2012 includes four states - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Polls strongly suggest that Mitt Romney will dominate the contests in New Hampshire (due to its proximity to Massachusetts, his strong grassroots operation and fundraising campaign there, and his overall popularity as a business whiz and moderate) and Nevada (again due both to his image as a moderate and his excellent business record, as well as that state's large Mormon population), which guarantees that he will at least be one of the finalists for the top prize. The only variables preventing him from having the nomination locked up are his relatively weak showings in Iowa and South Carolina. As such, one of two things will happen:

1. Conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina will find themselves unable to unite behind a single alternative. Since Herman Cain is the only candidate with the qualities necessary to unite the right-wing of his party, a failure on his part to do so would likely splinter conservatives amongst himself and Gingrich, Bachmann, Palin, Paul, Pawlenty, and possibly Perry. That, in turn, would cause Romney to win one or both of the other two states, and with them the nomination.

2. Conservatives will unite behind Herman Cain, thus bringing him victories in Iowa and South Carolina and putting him in a position to challenge Mitt Romney in the subsequent primary states. Of course, even then Cain's victory won't be assured; as his profile rises, more detailed attention will be paid not merely to his inexperience, but to the specifics of his political views, which will cause him to cut a more radical profile in the public eye that could improve Romney's perceived electability by contrast. Then again, should Cain weather those factors, he could also find that his conservative purism and ability to racially neutralize Obama will work to his advantage, while his strong business career will offset one of Romney's most important political assets.

In short, Mitt Romney is the favorite for the presidential nomination next year, most likely with a conservative running mate from a swing state and/or demographic bloc (Senator Marco Rubio of Florida comes to mind). If there is to be an upset, however, the underdog most likely to be responsible for it is Herman Cain.