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!"
The words stunned me. There had been no announcement at my school. I felt disoriented as he hustled us out to his car. I could see that the park across the street from our school was filling with hundreds of people; I could hear angry voices, and it did seem that some people had rifles. My older brother shouted for us to "stay down" in the back of the car as he raced out of the school parking lot and away from the gathering crowd in the park.
I remember a searing pang of horror and disbelief that King was gone. I really did not fully believe what I had just been told or what I was seeing around me as I watched people pour out of their homes in anger. That feeling was rivaled by the sense of frustration that people might respond to King's death by resorting to the sort of senseless violence he would undoubtedly have decried. If King was dead, I thought, there was still a mission and a vision and a right way to do things. This terrible event did not extinguish my political hopefulness, even at the age of 10.
I remember just as vividly the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The next day was to be a school day for us, and even though the primary results were not in yet, my younger brother and I had gone to bed shortly after 9 p.m. the night of June 5. I recall being pulled into sudden wakefulness at around 10:15 p.m. by my mother who had come into our bedroom and turned on the small black and white television set my brother and I shared. There, the three of us sat on the edge of the bed watching the depressing newscast from L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel that Sen. Kennedy had been shot just moments after giving his victory speech and leaving the stage. Even as a young child I recall feeling numb and without words. Everyone in our household had been so excited by Bobby Kennedy's entry into the presidential race that year. His was the voice of hope and different possibilities in the face of an unpopular war and tremendous social tumult over the rights of blacks and women.
Coming so swiftly in the wake of King's assassination, the loss of Bobby could also have been grounds for giving up. But, in hindsight, I still felt the tide of history was on the side the dreams that King and Kennedy had articulated so powerfully. Pessimism did not hold sway. Not with me.
By the time of the Watergate scandal, I was in high school. Thanks to my involvement in speech and debate tournaments I devoured Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Reportmagazines each and every week. Though I did not yet have a driver's license when it all began, I understood the significance of the deeds of Donald Segretti, E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and "the Cubans;" I understood the significance of Judge Sirica's rulings, of John Dean's testimony, of the resignations of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; and ultimately of the rise of figures like Sam Ervin, Peter Rodino, and Barbara Jordan. I consumed books like Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, and Theodore White's Breach of Faith. I truly understood the threat to the Democratic process and, ultimately, to constitutional governance represented by the actions and aspirations of the Nixon White House.
As polarizing as those times were and as wrenching as the build up to Nixon's resignation in August 1974 had been, politics felt as it always had for me: invigorating, fascinating and ultimately a path to the good.
If we leap past the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the Iran-Contra scandal, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the Clinton impeachment hearings and get closer to the present day, then it is clear how much has changed. Deep, structural changes in the way our politics plays out have occurred. These changes have, collectively, done more to damage our civic capacity than I had heretofore realized. It has made us, I fear, unusually vulnerable to demagogic appeals by overly ambitious politicians.
Let's consider the key institutional changes that have taken place. One is the declining importance of political parties as meaningful organizations and the rise of individual candidates as the primary political commodity. The expansion of corporate power, the steady weakening of the labor movement and, shall we say, the thorough-going professionalization of other potentially progressive groups such as the civil rights and women's rights organizations are key factors.
The rise and success of a right-wing, intellectual political sector is one further change. Then there is the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and total societal media saturation thanks to the web. Oh yes, did I forget to mention the growing mainstream acceptance and clout of African Americans and women? Then we get Sept. 11, 2001 and the crystallization of fear of a vast, stateless, foreign threat.
The result is a polity where political parties as such are hollowed out, where near cult status around individual candidates matters most (at the national level), and wedge-style politics is used to define electoral allegiances.
To be sure, there had been earlier candidacies that tried to play on some of these fissures. George Wallace, then Richard Nixon, and subsequently the Republican Party in general exploited some of these dividing lines. Anyone remember the phrase "Southern Strategy," to win white Southerners over to the Republican Party? Or the phrase "Reagan Democrat," aimed at winning over urban and Northern working-class whites, especially white males?
Karl Rove, the architect, was the first to figure out this new weak party-candidate cult-foreign threat-identity politics paradigm in the modern era. The Bush 2004 re-election strategy was based entirely on it— run on American identity, external threats to Americans and right-wing, fundamentalist conservatism. No appeal whatever to the middle or to broadening a base of support need be made. It is a politics that calls for playing to your wedge-defined base.
This sort of identity-based cleavage politics has largely been a Republican staple. True, some Democrats manipulated race in the past. Bill Clinton did so in symbolically important ways in 1992 with his denunciation of Sister Souljah and rap music on the same day he was to meet with Jesse Jackson and his steadfast support for the death penalty, including his presence in state for the execution of a mentally-retarded black man in Arkansas, was a prime example. But, and this is a crucial distinction, his candidacy never pivoted centrally off of such cleavages.
For the first time in the post-World War II era, we have a major contender for the Democratic Party nomination who has basically run an identity-based political campaign, and it is a strange coalition indeed. Hillary Clinton appealed to professional white women, older white women and working-class white men. As the odds mounted against her, the less subtle these wedge-based appeals became. In the age of the weak-party, strong-candidate cult, however, she remained on the campaign trail and accentuated these wedge-based appeals even though there was no real chance of securing the nomination.
There is a danger to wedge- or identity-based politics of this kind. Obama is African American, yes. And part of my own excitement about his candidacy is rooted in this fact. But at no point did he run a campaign that strategically and systematically appealed to African-American identity as a basis of support. Moreover, his candidacy is dramatically different from that of Shirley Chisholm, or Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton or Carol Moseley Braun.
From the very beginning, Obama has sought to articulate a non-identity based agenda. Just the opposite, Obama has hoped to avoid making race a central concern of his campaign. His ambition is to transcend and downplay racial division, not to appeal to and thereby re-enforce it.
As her prospects shrank, Clinton and her surrogates repeatedly and aggressively pursued the manipulation of racial, gender and class cues to win over voters. They moved from a campaign of ideas and interests, where her campaign began—increasingly to one of identity and emotions. They adopted, in short, the Rovian Identity Politics model.
Unlike appeals based on ideas and interests, appeals based on identity and the related strong emotions, make it harder to compromise at the end of the game. One need only listen to the comments from many of Clinton's white women supporters at the recent meeting of the DNC Rules Committee to appreciate the depth of feeling many Clinton supporters now attach to their support for her (and opposition to Obama). This doesn't feel like a difference of opinion among people who are of the same party; instead it resembles an epic fight between the virtuous and the venal. A fight that should have ended Tuesday night but did not.
In days past, party leaders might well have had the clout to stop the Clinton candidacy well before the final primary date of June 3and before such deep fissures had developed. But in the current age, a doomed candidacy can go on, even if it is actually grievously damaging the party and its larger cause.
Now we get to why I am depressed and beginning to doubt the foundational assumptions of my political life. This is not a Republican candidate, a third party candidate, or a fringe candidate within the Democratic Party who has now waged this race-gender-class wedge campaign. I'm not concerned about the likes of a Pat Buchanan. Hillary Clinton is the wife of a two-term Democratic president of the United States. She is not a fringe candidate. She is an otherwise mainstream Democrat who ran a campaign based on something that resembles white entitlement.
Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats were outside the party's core. George Wallace was outside the party's core. Other Democrats who occasionally appealed to racial division, including Bill Clinton, did not make it a foundation of their candidacy. There is something troublingly different about the latter days of the Hillary Clinton candidacy. This is a potentially poisonous development all too close to the core of the Democratic Party.
If there is a silver lining here, it is that this campaign did not succeed. Obama and the politics of hope has grasped the nomination and will ultimately carry the day in November. But I now worry that as George Wallace's 1964 successes signaled something to Republicans that eventually became the basis for a long-term successful strategy, I worry that Hillary Clinton's vigorous pursuit of an identity-based strategy will give it greater currency in the future, this time on the Democratic side of the aisle. That will leave us with no major political party unambiguously on the side of inclusion, fairness and social justice for all.
You see, dear reader, I do believe that political rhetoric matters. Words of apology do not heal all wounds. An appearance at a black church doesn't make everything right. Some beasts once awakened cannot be controlled. And I do now worry—very much—that the latter days of Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign have awakened something unpleasant in the Democratic Party body politic; something that may damage us all in the future.
At this writing, I do not see any sign that the Clinton campaign will end on a sufficiently gracious and healing note to undo the damage that has been done. I hope it will, but recent experiences leave me doubtful. The past few weeks have genuinely shaken my faith in the future. I hope that I am wrong; that these worries are misplaced anxieties. Of course, I am still moved by Obama's message of change and optimism. But, dear reader, I'm also worried about what one candidate's ambition may have done to the soul of a great party and the future of a nation.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.