I guess the Slog’s Clinton chorus has gotten inside my head, because I feel like I have to start off this post by anticipating, and dealing with, the predictable complaint: “You would never do a post analyzing a Clinton speech like this!”
There’s a reason. The simple fact is, Clinton does not give speeches like this. That’s one of the recurring thoughts I had while reading, listening to, and watching Obama’s 40-minute discourse on race and his candidacy this morning.
Clinton would never do this. That is not a pejorative statement. That is just an observation borne out by her campaign so far. You can spin it all kinds of ways: Clinton doesn’t have any more skeletons to come tumbling out of her closet, ala Obama’s Wright videos, so she’ll never be forced to give speeches like this. Or, Clinton is way too cynical about the media and the intelligence of the American voter to ever offer up something as lengthy and nuanced as this. Or, Clinton is shrewdly realistic about the media and the intelligence of the American voter, and would never waste her time with something like this.
In any case, the fact is, Clinton doesn’t wax polysyllabic about complexities the way Obama does throughout this speech. One representative passage:
Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.
This is a higher level of discourse than Clinton ever offers on the campaign trail. But it begs the question: Who is Obama talking to?
I’m someone who sought out a job in which I get paid to deal in words and arguments and abstract notions all day long, so the kind of speech Obama just gave—and it’s a speech you really need to experience in full in order to appreciate its subtlety and complexity—excites me. It excites the part of my brain that likes a complicated, multi-layered, well-reasoned-yet-subtle argument that is also able to wrap itself in a compelling personal story. The part of my brain that likes intellectual and narrative force over brute rhetorical force.
But I am not the average American voter, or even the average white Democratic voter in Pennsylvania. Obama talked this morning about some of those average white Democratic voters in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere), and it’s worth reading what he said at length for a sense of the way in which he talked about them.
The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now.
Well argued. Elegantly put. Smart. But I wonder: Is this really an effective way of talking to those working- and middle-class white voters? Call me elitist or a Clinton-style cynic, but I don’t think so. Just as the language and fervor of the Black church is foreign to many working class whites, so is the language of the academy and of high-end liberalism. That’s the language Obama was speaking today.
Which reminds: Obama’s campaign is not just a bet on the ability of a black candidate to inspire voters across the lines that demarcate traditional racial, ethnic, and class divisions. It is a bet on the ability of the average American voter to rise to the level of his rhetoric.
The latter may be a far bigger bet than the former.