Something is wrong. Perhaps the trouble lies with me, though I think it lies elsewhere and that I’m not the only one experiencing this creeping sense of dread at a point when I should feel ecstatic. Fighting off the scourge of political cynicism has been a more formidable challenge in the past few months than any previous point in my life. I am wrestling with trying to figure out why. Bear with me, dear reader, as I work through what is at the base of this thorny problem.
It is a complex matter to be sure. Some of the reasons are political, some are economic, and some, no doubt, are deeply personal. At the heart of this political malaise, however, lies a new and potentially dangerous political style I call Rovian Identity Politics, after Karl Rove. This RIP involves a perpetual campaign, saturation media coverage, an insecure nation and identity-cleavage-based appeals (or wedge politics, more commonly).
Republicans succumbed to this approach almost completely during the George W. Bush years. What’s new here is the worry that RIP may soon catch on with Democrats as well. None of this will benefit African Americans or the agenda of inclusion and social justice to which most black voters are committed.
This troubled feeling is ironic on multiple levels. On the one hand, we are in the midst of a campaign and candidacy for the presidency of the United States of Barack Obama’s which is the most hopeful and inspiring we have seen in more than a generation. I should be elated now that he has the delegate votes to secure the nomination. Yet a bitter, often ugly nomination battle lingers on because rather than concede, Hillary Clinton last night laid out a case for her claim to the nomination. I’m in the age cohort that witnessed jarring events such as the King assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the anti-war protests and the Watergate scandal. Yet, I’ve never lost faith that the dream could and would be rekindled.
Part of the reason for my creeping sense of pessimism now is that from a very early age, politics and world events have held a special fascination with me. Always. I don’t know why. In elementary school I annoyed my classmates and pleased many a frustrated teacher by being the one student who could not only name the president, vice president and my state’s two U.S. senators, but also every major cabinet secretary and our local congressman. And as part of this fascination, I have also had a fundamental optimism about the capacity of the Democratic process and of government to be a force for good. Inchoate and naïve when I was a child, of course, but this belief has been ever present and quite durable. Or so I thought.
I find it hard to muster that optimism that used to come so naturally. As we reach the end of the primary season and what turned into a deeply-bruising fight between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, I’m more worried than ever before that the sense of wonder, engagement and great possibility I’ve always had about our politics has finally begun to dim. I often now dread reading the front page of the New York Times or checking out CNN and MSNBC online for fear of the day’s news.
Bear in mind, that the most pronounced influence on my political sensibilities can be traced to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. This movement and its pre-eminent leader brought to the world a lasting lesson in grassroots mobilization, moral courage, faith and the possibilities of American politics. As such, the story of King and the civil rights movement is not just a tale of militancy and protest against injustice. It is not just a tale of anti-racism, anti-poverty and anti-war struggles. It is centrally and positively a tale about a politics of inclusivity, fairness and social justice.
And I do remember vividly the day King was taken from us. I was in school in a Southern California suburb. Early in the afternoon I was summoned to the main office to find not only my younger brother (two grades behind me) but also my older brother standing there at the counter, the latter there even though he attended a high school several miles away. I was shocked. He said he had come on the urgent mission to take us home from school immediately because “Brothers are about to go crazy now that they’ve killed Dr. King!”