Abe Greenwald has touched on an aspect of the current Democratic race war that disturbs me, and you don’t have to be a psychologist to think it matters. Shelby Steele has argued that Obama is an icon, and implicit in so much of Obama’s popularity is that voting for him-and especially electing him-would be a national absolution for racial sins, would allow the US to have the open conversation about race that it has supposedly failed to have since its founding.
The response to Hillary Clinton’s unexceptional statement about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act suggests that, instead of opening the conversation up, an Obama victory is much more likely to shut it down completely. Accusations of racial insensitivity are powerful weapons, and if elected, Obama would need the restraint of a saint not to avail himself of them. The line between being the hero and playing the victim is a narrow one, and it is not in the American tradition to regard politicians as self-denying saints.
But even if he does restrain himself, as he claims to have done this time, the effect will be much the same. Whether he wills it or not, an Obama presidency looks like it will make it harder to commemorate the full diversity of the civil rights movement, and, especially, harder for reformers of all races to argue that there may be aspects of African-American culture that are destructive and self-defeating. The ‘national conversation’ will be further submerged by the clichés of multiculturalism.
An icon, after all, is something you worship-and the more important Obama’s iconic status as the African-American par excellence becomes, the more eagerly his supporters will seek out and demonize anything that might detract from it. The United States is not entirely free from racism-but that kind of relentless, eager, politically-motivated quest for evidence of it will only increase the resentful, touchy sourness that is such a disturbing feature of American race relations today.
That is a foreboding, not a reason to avoid voting for Obama. Personally, I have never thought he had a chance, mostly because he is the favorite candidate here at Yale, which is all the proof I need that he will lose. If the power of iconic status could defeat bland ambition, Gary Hart, not Walter Mondale, would have been the Democratic nominee in 1984. Obama’s candidacy only has a chance of victory if he rejects what has so far defined it.
How he might do this-and whether he would survive politically-is difficult to know, but it cannot be done through words alone: Obama is a powerful speaker, but believing that words always trump actions was what brought Clinton down. Still, he might begin by admitting candidly that Hillary was right: Presidents can do things that civil society cannot. Surely that is not such a damaging thing to say if you want to be President.