Re: the recent McCain campaign ad labelling Barack Obama a celebrity (and not-so-subtly juxtaposing the junior senator from Illinois with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), Adam Serwer (aka dnA of Too Sense and Jack and Jill Politics) believes that, contra yours truly and other commentators, the racial subtext of the advertisement isn’t actually miscegenation. Rather, he contends that the McCain campaign has constructed a Nixonian paean to white resentment provoked by the undeserved success of an uppity person of colour:
The Britney ad is a result of the ongoing meme in this election that Obama’s success, like that of “overpaid black athletes,” is an affront to hardworking white people everywhere. The ad never mentions Obama’s race as the source of his celebrity, but it doesn’t have to — it’s been part of the campaign long enough for the point to be implicit. In short, this ad is Geraldine Ferraro’s attack done “right,” in the sense that it does not directly implicate the McCain campaign as exploiting racial tensions.
The McCain campaign’s apparently race-neutral approach, and its subsequent accusation that the Obama campaign is playing the race card, is a well-thought-out strategy — it is pure Nixon. In his recent chronicle of conservative political history in The New Yorker, George Packer describes Pat Buchanan’s plan for exploiting political divisions, particularly ones of a racial nature. Buchanan’s assessment was that they could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
In a dispute about race, the McCain campaign knows it will end up with the larger half. For the most part, most white people’s experience with race isn’t one of racial discrimination. They can only relate to racial discrimination in the abstract. What white people can relate to is the fear of being unjustly accused of racism. This is the larger half. This is why allegations of racism often provoke more outrage than actual racism, because most of the country can relate to one (the accusation of racism) easier than the other (actual racism). For this reason, in a political conflict over race, the McCain campaign has the advantage, because saying the race card has been played is actually the ultimate race card.
Because of this advantage, dnA (it just don’t feel right to call the brother by his real name) further argues that, instead of tackling these racist attacks head on, “[i]t’s in the Obama campaign’s interest to keep the conversation on matters of policy, where it has an advantage not yet reflected in the polls”:
[Democrats] need to resist the temptation to engage in protracted battles with the McCain campaign about racism directed at their candidate, because the nation’s demographics and the circumstances of Obama’s rise make it difficult if not impossible to win the argument. Instead, they should attempt to focus the conversation back to policy questions. Democrats have a candidate who is sophisticated in his understanding of policy, and Republicans have a candidate who is still largely running on his biography as a war hero, whose only coherent and consistent remaining policy position is support for offshore drilling. Driving home that point will become increasingly difficult if McCain is re-energized by the presence of white voters who are themselves anxious about being seen as racist. From their point of view, Obama’s presence on the national stage is proof that any charge of racism on their behalf is frivolous. This is nonsense, but there’s nothing really that can be done about it.
As always, dnA’s points are compelling and well-thought out. He certainly has me thinking about how I’ve reacted to the calculated racism that has been–and continues to be–employed against Obama throughout the campaign. In other words, read the whole damn thing.
h/t Jack and Jill Politics
(photo: Barack Obama, Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License)
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