Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the role of race in our upcoming Presidential elections. See his previous OUPblogs here.
And so it begins. Of course race was going to become an issue this year. It was never possible that the first competitive African-American candidate for president, Barack Obama, would face no obstacle in terms of his racial eligibility for the Oval Office. The only question is how race would rear its ugly and inevitable head.
Already a pattern has emerged. The minority candidate is always accused of playing the minority card. Senator John McCain was quick to throw this accusation last Thursday. This was a response to Obama’s
claim the day before in Missouri in which he charged the Republicans for trying to scare voters by questioning his patriotism and “funny name” and by pointing out he doesn’t “look like those other presidents on those dollar bills.” The question of who really was playing the race card can only be answered in the eyes of the beholder. But let it be said that allusions to Obama’s otherness have been made on both sides from earlier on in the campaign. In naming the “race card” at this particular moment in the campaign and not earlier, the McCain campaign is not just retaliating or reacting to Obama’s actions or words, it is strategizing.
Remember when the Obama camp was accusing Hillary Clinton of playing the gender card? In some degree, Obama is getting the first taste of the medicine Hillary Clinton had to swallow during the primaries. Accuse a minority of playing a minority card, and s/he is dealt a double blow: supporting members of the majority are reminded of the candidate’s minority status and his/her electability problem; at the same time, opposing members of the majority have their stereotype of a whining minority candidate reinforced. When Hillary Clinton was accused of playing the gender card, some of her supporters were reminded that there are some sexists out there who would never vote for her (the “polarizing,” “unelectable” narrative about the Clinton campaign) no matter what, and so cast their votes in favor of Obama. At the same time, those who were already against her strengthened their view that she was a whining, sore loser.
Obama suffers an analogously double hit with the charge that he has played the race card. Independent general election voters are reminded that race is still a salient factor in American politics and some of these voters may see no value in throwing away their vote for an unelectable, polarizing candidate. At the same time, those opposed to Obama are vindicated in their belief that he is an angry race-baiter.
The dominant strategy for a majority candidate, then, is always to accuse a minority candidate of playing a minority (gender or racial) card. Whether or not the card is actually being played, it always benefits the majority candidate to say that it is. Remind enough people that that a minority is a minority, and the faithful lose heart, while the bigots (those who would reject a candidate purely on the basis of his/her minority status) gain ground.
For a majority candidate to not acknowledge his privilege and to deploy a strategy that is asymmetrically available only to him is to engage in the lowest kind of politics. Race is already going to be an explosive issue this year without politicians stoking it. A gentleman acknowledges an underserved advantage when he possesses one. I urge the McCain campaign to take on Obama’s campaign on higher ground.