Friday, October 10, 2008


Sam Smith

Given the number of foreclosures, the size of the credit crunch and a market collapse unlike anything in almost three quarters of a century, Barack Obama continues to hold a turgid lead in the election. These are conditions meant to place Democrats at the right hand of God; instead they struggle along with an unmoving and mundane monologue unable to even rise above the petty and putrid babble of the McCain campaign. Thanks to the desperate conditions, the GOP responsibility for the same and the bumbling incompetence of their candidate, it still looks like Obama will win, but not out of hope for the future so much as from a growing discomfort over the recent past and distaste for the electoral alternative.

If you ask liberals why this is so, they will tell you with remarkable frequency that it reflects the racism of American voters. And in that response lies an important part of the problem. To tar an entire malleable constituency with such a phrase is like rejecting tons of voters at the polls for not having the proper psychological profile on their registration forms.

Further it reflects the passive-aggressive nature of today's liberalism - remarkably passive in policy and commitment thereto but deeply aggressive in contempt towards all seen as not on their side, particularly those unwilling to share their enthusiasm for whatever flawed icon with whatever fuzzy philosophy they happen to be pushing at the moment. This is the Move On mentality: millions for candidates but just loose change for real and good programs that might truly define these candidates. In short, American idols without American ideas.

So they come up with comfortable icon like Barack Obama and then wonder why he isn't doing better, to which their answer is that it's clearly someone else's fault. In 2000 it was Ralph Nader; today it's a bunch of racists.

Absent from passive-aggressive liberal judgment is the possibility that they might have some responsibility for what is happening and might even wish to alter their style, tactics and goals. How, for example, can you know that a particular constituency is racist if you've never tried to reach out to it?

In fact, voters who are uncomfortable with, or uncertain about, Obama fall into a number of categories:

- Republicans who tend to vote for Republicans

- People who disagree with him one of more issues or who find him ponderous, pompous, distant or abstract.

- The clearly racist who probably signed up long ago with McCain.

- Those, and they are many, who simply haven't had much contact with blacks and suffer the uncertainty and suspicions that all cultures have towards strangers. Scolding and accusations do absolutely nothing to change this; finding common ground, showing respect, and responding to their problems is what drops the barriers.

- Those who - like blacks, latinos and Jews - tend to prefer those who look and talk like themselves. You can call this racism if you want, but if that's your attitude you won't pick up many of their votes.

- Those who have prejudices but whose biases have markedly different levels in their personal hierarchy of concerns. At the moment, for example, many of these people may rank their job, their house or their pension far higher than the color of a candidate.

- Those who simply live in the wrong place - such as Appalachia - and get lumped together because of their ethnicity or locale, a practice which, if the targets were black instead of white, would be called racism by many liberals. But it's far more complex. For example, Harold Ford came within a few points of becoming the first black senator from southern Tennessee. Obama has been running 12 to 24 points behind. That's not racism; it's bad politics.

The contempt that passive-aggressive liberals have towards Americans not as urban, educated or elite as themselves is no secret and it naturally inspires resentment. And there are more subtle problems. For example, Richard Sennett, the sociologist who grew up in Chicago public housing, wrote the other day of Obama's difficulty in reaching people who haven't been as successful as himself. The description of one's triumph over difficulties, instead of being inspiring, can come across as a criticism of those who haven't been able to make it.

Sennett wrote a whole book about one of the most neglected topics in cultural relations: respect. In it he noted that "lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered another person, but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen - as a full human being whose presence matters."

There are huge constituencies of Americans who don't get much respect - such as people in rural areas and young single males, the socio-economic group that has fared least well in contemporary America. Many of these people are white and so therefore don't qualify for liberal sympathy or for their candidates' best efforts.

Of course, there are exceptions, such as the ten red states where, in the last election a Democrat was elected governor or senator or came within five points of it because the candidates knew how to talk Nevada, Montana or Missouri. There was Jesse Jackson's groundbreaking foray into white rural Iowa in 1988 and the little known fact that before the civil rights movement a white politician named Earl Long got 100,000 Louisiana blacks on the voting rolls. Successful cross cultural politics is one of the things that keeps America being America.

But too frequently passive-aggressive liberalism leaves the impression that less successful whites are, at best, not worth worrying about and, at worst, members of some racist cabal. The targets get the message. If liberals would just add non-elite whites in America to their list of those towards whom they should show caring, respect and friendship, they would be surprised how many new votes they could win.