An Obama Victory Would Symbolise a Great Deal and Change Very Little
The Democrat frontrunner has created a new constituency: its roots are not in race or class but in age and ideology
'Let it be recorded," wrote columnist EJ Dionne in the New York Times, "that for at least one week in American history, in a middle-sized, midwestern state, a broad range of white voters took the presidential candidacy of a black man with the utmost seriousness." Dionne was not writing last Friday, following Barack Obama's victory in Iowa, but in April 1988 as Jesse Jackson's primary campaign in Wisconsin drew to a close.
The week before Jackson had scored a stunning win in the Michigan caucuses, winning 55% support, including 20% of the white vote. In Wisconsin, a state with a black population of just 2%, white people were handing him their babies to kiss. "Look, something is happening up here," he told one of his aides. "And I'm not quite sure what it is. But this outpouring of affection wherever I go, it's for real. It's real, I'm telling you, it's there. I know when it's there."
As Obama arrived in New Hampshire - the third whitest state in the country - last Friday he could have been forgiven for thinking something similar. At an event in Milford some of his supporters were so fired up, organisers feared they presented a security risk. (At the same event, Hillary Clinton was booed off the stage.) Polls over the weekend have shown him gaining ground on Clinton before tomorrow's vote. His crowds here have been huge and rowdy. Something is happening here.
Obama's win in Iowa was historic, and may yet prove to be decisive. But the fact that he has got this far and done this well is not unprecedented. In style, temperament, agenda and biography Jackson and Obama could not be more different. But in the extent to which they both epitomise a generational shift in the opportunities and constituencies open to black politicians and illustrate how to capitalise on them, they have a great deal in common. How they understand their role in politics, and how they are generally understood, tells us a great deal about how racial politics in particular and American politics in general have changed.
For there are a number of commentators - particularly, but not exclusively, conservatives - who seek to portray Obama not just as a generation removed from Jackson, but the antithesis of everything Jackson stood for. To them his success signals both the failure of "black" politics and the removal of "black" issues from the political arena. As such, his victory does not reshape our analysis of how race is understood in America; it marks a repudiation of the existence of American racism itself.
"The two big losers tonight are probably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," said the columnist George Will on election night. "Those who have a sort of investment in the traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States."
On CNN Ronald Reagan's drug tsar, Will Bennett, claimed Obama "has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson, you don't have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues. Great dignity. And this is a breakthrough."
In truth, their comments really show that one of the few things that has not changed in the past 20 years is their backward and self-serving analysis of racial politics. "Men make their own history," wrote Karl Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. "But they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past."
Jackson emerged from the civil rights movement at around the time Obama started school. His trajectory was classic for a black politician who came of age in the 60s. He rose through religion and entered the political stage from the left. His campaign was rooted in the black community (he won 98% of the black vote in New York City). But for it to be viable he had to create a constituency - of union workers, anti-nuclear campaigners, feminists, farmers, Latinos and gay activists - that had not previously existed. "You were bringing people together who had never been together before," a Jackson adviser, Bob Borosage, told Marshall Frady in his book Jesse. "There wasn't any inheritance so you had to do it almost literally union hall by union hall."
By the time Obama came of age, there was no civil rights movement to emerge from and few union halls to go to. But thanks to the gains of the civil rights era he could attend the nation's best universities (Columbia and Harvard) and get a fantastic job. With no roots in the black politics - the soil was too barren for anything beyond community organising - he emerged from academe. Politically speaking, he was not produced by the black community, but presented to it.
In this respect, Obama shares a great deal with a number of black politicians of his generation who have come to the fore in recent years. Among them are the Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick (Harvard); the Newark mayor, Cory Booker (Yale); the Democratic Leadership Council chair and former Tennessee congressman, Harold Ford Jr (University of Pennsylvania); and the Maryland lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown (Harvard). Obama's trajectory is not the rule; but nowadays it is by no means an exception.
By the time these fortysomethings entered the political stage, there was little of the left actually left. The union movement had been decimated alongside the industries that provided most of their activists. Many of the small farmers had foreclosed. The feminist and civil rights movements had withered. In short, the forces that made a Jackson candidacy viable are themselves scarcely viable.
That's not to say that there isn't considerable room to his left. John Edwards is running a far more progressive campaign, stressing corporate greed and pledging a rapid exit from Iraq. And one could imagine that a radical coalition uniting the burgeoning Latino movement, what remains of the unions, anti-war campaigners and environmentalists could be possible. The issue is whether it could win. Edwards is trailing, and Jackson lost in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Obama has himself created a new constituency that is expanding the Democratic base, just like Jackson did. Its roots are not in race, class or single issues but age and ideology. The bulk of his support comes from young and independent voters. In South Carolina, we will see if African Americans will follow. Politically, the connections are looser and far less radical; but electorally they may prove more effective.
In all of this, beyond some civil rights references, race is virtually absent from his message but central to his meaning. He doesn't have to bring it up because not only does he espouse change, he looks like change. He has the role of an inadequate and ineffective balm on the long-running sore that is race in America. His victory would symbolise a great deal and change very little.
When he starts his speech, "They said this day would never come", the mostly white crowd in Iowa is thinking in terms of racial history, not just electoral victory. The babies Jackson kissed 20 years ago are going to the polls.
© 2008 The Guardian