Thug Life on the Campaign Trail

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz is one of the Clinton campaign's political henchmen.
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz is one of the Clinton campaign's political henchmen.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has leveled an odd charge against Barack Obama. He accuses the Illinois senator's campaign of trying to hijack the Democratic presidential nomination by arguing it has a stronger claim on the nomination because Obama has more pledged delegates than Sen. Hillary Clinton and larger percentage of the popular vote. Wilentz argues Clinton should be regarded the winner of the nomination contest because she would have won easily if the rules had been different.


He claims Clinton would have stomped (technical political science term) Obama if the contests had been run under the same winner-take-all rules that govern Republican primaries. Wilentz does not ever consider that perhaps, just perhaps, that Obama might have run a radically different campaign if he had been operating under a radically different set of rules (just as one builds one's basketball team differently since the 3-point line was introduced). Wilentz does not attempt to be objective. For the past several months, Wilentz's primary task has been to demonize Obama and his campaign at every hysterical opportunity.

Regular readers of The Root know that I have not been an Obama cheerleader. Nevertheless, it is important to combat the racist tripe aimed at him and his candidacy, especially when it is masked in the veneer of dispassionate scholarship. In the Feb. 27th online edition of The New Republic, Wilentz made the obscene but, for many, seductive charge that it is the Obama campaign that has been polluting political discourse by shamelessly playing the race card.

Incredibly, Wilentz claims that the regular invocation of Obama's past cocaine use, Bill Clinton's egregious comparison of Obama's campaign to Jesse Jackson's runs for the nomination in the 1980s, Andy Young's sly attack on Obama's status as a "black man," or Bob Kerrey's clumsy claim that Obama was educated in an Islamic madrassa, were all innocent and isolated incidents and for anyone to claim otherwise is to play the race card.

Wilentz, in a separate exchange with Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, did not discredit Patterson's analysis of why Clinton's "3 am Red Phone Call" ad is racist. He has yet to publicly defend the racist comments of Geraldine Ferraro, but there's still time.

But Wilentz has accused the black Democratic insider and CNN commentator, Donna Brazile, of making "wild charge[s]" when she said she found the tone of former President Clinton's remarks about Obama "depressing." Earlier this year, Sen. Clinton made remarks that many people interpreted as belittling the accomplishments of the activists and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

In her defense, Wilentz accused another leading black Democrat, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, of being bullied into aiding the Obama campaign when Clyburn, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, cautioned the Clinton campaign that, "we have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics."


As many experts on race and politics have noted, playing the "race card" does not benefit Obama. He has been running a campaign (misguided, in my opinion) that has unsuccessfully attempted to transcend race. This attempt to downplay race is based on a recognition by Obama's strategists that a racial debate would make life much more difficult for candidate Obama, and it also runs the risk of fracturing a party badly in need of unity if it is to have any chance of defeating John McCain in November.

Obama's speech on race was an attempt to rectify this mistake by squarely outlining his vision of the racial history and future of the nation. Clinton surrogates, however, from Andy Young to Geraldine Ferraro are conducting a racialized proxy war against Obama, and as late as March 25, Clinton herself tried to keep the Jeremiah Wright controversy alive after it had left the front pages of the nation's newspapers. It is despicable, outrageous, racist, and to some degree effective.


Still, the misbehavior or the Clinton campaign is insufficient reason for black nationalists, or for progressives of any race, to contemplate voting for McCain in November if Clinton is the Democrats' nominee. I think my many colleagues and friends who are urging, or at least contemplating, a "black-out" (black boycott of the election), are mistaken. The stakes are too high to sit this one out or to use our votes for a candidate with no chance of winning.

It is not just the Supreme Court, but all of the other Federal judges who will be appointed over the next four years. It is not just the signing of the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, but restoring scientific honesty to all of the federal agencies responsible for the environment, public health, consumer safety and worker safety. It is not just pulling American troops out of Iraq (which neither Obama or Clinton have a particularly good stance on), but having a president who can be pressured to end water-boarding, close Guantanamo and at least restrain the imperialist policy of unilateral military intervention.


It is not only about a president who will pay marginally more attention to the needs of working and poor people in the nation, but one who will allow at least some of the ruinous tax breaks for the super-wealthy to expire so that the federal domestic budget is partially unshackled.

The Clinton campaign has seriously abused race in ways both disrespectful and injurious to the black community. There are also millions of people of color worldwide who are not so patiently waiting for this country's citizens to live up to their responsibility and bring about (partial) regime change. Al Gore, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama are all centrist Democrats—a category of politicians whose politics, to my mind, are not congruent with the needs of the disadvantaged.


However, no one would seriously argue that the world, the nation, and the black community would not be far better off today if Bush and the Republican Party had not stolen the 2000 Presidential election. Am I advocating, as so many leftists have for over a century, that black people must be patient and wait "their turn" for some greater good, that black people overlook the racist nonsense espoused by so-called liberals in the name of some largely chimerical unity? No.

I urge that we take a harder road than either dutiful acquiescence or an election boycott (which has much less dangerous consequences at the local and state level where they have been used with some success). Starting now, black activists and other progressive forces need to forge a comprehensive political platform that they demand political candidates live up to. Starting now, we need to organize teach-ins and community forums around the key issues, domestic and foreign, which are critical for turning the nation around and putting it on a progressive track.


Starting now, we should start organizing in our communities around these issues, and make it clear that candidates in 2010 and 2012 who do not support these political positions will be opposed. I am under no illusion that either Democratic candidate will aggressively pursue a progressive and redistributive social justice agenda under current conditions. In four years, we must be in a position where we either have a sitting president who is responsive to a progressive agenda or be in position to nominate and elect more responsive candidates.

A central component of the organizing and debate must be centered on race and racism. The discourse on race both among the left and more generally must be transformed to such an extent that inflammatory attacks such as Wilentz's are discredited on their merits, and no longer have the ability to convince those naïve or those (often willfully) ignorant on matters of race.


Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.