Forty years ago, Bob Dylan penned a powerful lyrical poem on the assassination of Medgar Evers. In Only a Pawn in Their Game, Dylan laid bare the way in which the political power structure in the South had, for decades, manipulated poor Southern whites to ignore the common economic and political interests they had with poor Southern blacks, by waving before them the specter of the angry Black Man. This fear proved a potent political tool that kept the entrenched political structure in power, and poor and middle-class whites in the same economic morass as their politically-powerless black brethren.
Only in recent decades has this stranglehold weakened as African-Americans have been elected to office in states across the South and throughout the nation. White voters in the South and elsewhere have increasingly recognized that their interests often transcend color lines and their aspirations better represented by a candidate who happens not to share their racial background. But this specter of racial fear is far from extinguished.
Nor has its use been limited to the South. GOP strategist Lee Atwater used the identical tactic in the infamous "Willie Horton" campaign against Michael Dukakis, persuading large numbers of working class white Democratic voters that fear of angry criminal black men was still a greater threat to them than a coalition of powerful oil and corporate interests. Atwater later apologized on his deathbed for inflaming racial hatred with his tactics.
The greatest threat to the utility of this fear tactic is the candidacy of an African-American who transcends the usual political stereotypes and who instead powerfully speaks for the interests of voters across racial and other boundaries. Tom Bradley did this effectively in Los Angeles, and overcame the stock fear campaign that his mayoral opponents tried to wage. (Democrats at the time joked that it was the first campaign in which a candidate featured his opponent's picture in political ads more often than his own.) Once the tactic is defeated in a particular jurisdiction, it becomes so much harder to ever again use it effectively with voters who have come to know better.
Senator Obama's candidacy and meteoric rise posed the greatest threat to the future of this particular Fear Factor, and on a national scale. Here was a candidate who genuinely seemed to transcend race. Rather than focusing on issues of particular interest to the African-American community, he spoke to the aspirations and interests of all middle-class, poor and disaffected wealthy Americans on a range of issues of importance to them: their frustration with an ill-conceived and poorly-executed war; the diminished and tarnished reputation of their beloved country throughout the world; the wrecked economy and the flight of their jobs and their national currency overseas; the crisis in medical care for the bottom half of society; the ballooning influence of corporate and other institutional lobbyists in the Legislative bodies that were supposed to look out for their interests. Obama's appeal grew among every segment of American society. Not only were younger voters inspired and motivated by his message, but voters of all ages in the whitest of enclaves, from Iowa to Oregon, were increasingly seeing Obama as a candidate who spoke for them. Even former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan seemed entranced by his spell, and warned Republicans that in Obama they faced a "bullet-proof" opponent, one against whom the traditional Fear Factor would not only not work, but would backfire. Feeble early attempts to play the race card and to paint Obama as "just another Black Candidate" failed embarrassingly
But at last in the middle of the primary season , an opportunity presented itself to resurrect the Fear Factor in all its glory, and to do what heretofore seemed impossible - to paint Senator Obama as the "angry Black Man." Enter the unfortunately recorded sermons, and occasional irrational rants, of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Whichever way one chose to look at Wright's angry outbursts - as the paranoid ramblings of a racist, White-hating, American-bashing traitor, or as the sad result of an older African-American who served his country as a Marine and who was repaid with the indignities and abuses that virtually all people of color in his generation experienced - the undeniable reality was that Barack Obama is not Jeremiah Wright. Not by a long shot. A universally-acknowledged man of brilliance and of uncommon grace - conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently remarked that he possessed "both a first class intellect and a first class temperament" - the hallmark of Obama's life has been the ability to work well with, and understand the aspirations of all people - all people: black, white and brown; rich and poor; Democrat, Republican and Independent. His love for his country and his repeated acknowledgement that his story could not have been told in any but this great nation, infused his political message with the same spirit of dedication to country that John F. Kennedy represented almost 50 years ago.
The spring offensive failed to connect, and the Wright association soon lost its sting. In his eloquent "More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia, Obama faced the issue head on and gave the most powerful address on America's remaining racial divide in decades. He also noted that if Americans passed up this unique opportunity to transcend that racial divide, and let the old Southern Fear Factor work its insidious magic again this election cycle, then four years from now, the Karl Roves and their progeny would just dig up another diversion to keep Americans from focusing on their common interest and addressing the real imminent threats our country faces - not the "Angry Black Man," but the faltering economy, the growing divide between rich and poor, the looming environmental disasters, and the continued diminishment of American prestige and capacity for international influence.
Now we are just four weeks from the election, and there has been a monumental surge toward Obama of ten to twelve points in the national polls, and similar amounts in key swing states. Electoral projections for the first time suggest that we might even see a landslide rather than the closely divided elections we've sweated through in 2000 and 2004.
The response from the McCain/Palin campaign has been predictable, albeit disheartening from a candidate who once vowed to run a positive campaign on the issues. They have decided to try the Fear Factor one more time. Obama is once again to be cast as the Angry Black Terrorist who, in Sarah Palin's words "doesn't see America the same way you and I do." It's surely a stretch to try to reconfigure Barack Obama into H. Rap Brown: Obama is the child, not of the Black Power ghettos, but of Hawaii. He was schooled at the elite Punahou School in Honolulu, at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review, a post reserved for only the brainiest, most disciplined nerds in the country. He met his wife Michelle at Sidley & Austin, one of the nation's leading establishment law firms, and went on to teach constitutional law at that legal bastion of tradition and conservativism, the University of Chicago Law School, one of the original homes of the Federalist Society. But, using Bill Ayers, who engaged in his Weatherman outrages when Obama was a child of eight, they will nonetheless try to paint Obama as a crazy bomb-thrower instead of the establishment paragon he has always been.
Will the Fear Factor work this time? It's too early to know for certain, but there are positive indicators that it will likely fall as flat as it did in the spring. Why? For one, the growing economic problems Americans have faced have come to a terrible head, and for the first time in three-quarters of a century there are fears of a world-wide depression. Americans are worried about the very survival of their once-strong economy. As conservatives like Krauthammer and George Will have observed, McCain has behaved in this crisis not as the calm, deliberate, steady hand Americans want to turn to in such times, but as a man with an erratic and impulsive temperament. No Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill he. McCain's sudden switch from the principled campaign on the issues he promised to an angry, mud-slinging tantrum is likely only to exacerbate that image.
Thus maybe, just maybe, as Senator Obama said in Philadelphia, the ploy won't work - not this time. Maybe when voters are faced with the stark choice between Obama and McCain - ten, twenty maybe a hundred more years in Iraq, the same Bush tax and economic policies that have brought us to the precipice, an anti-choice platform and a growingly conservative Supreme Court - maybe this time, they'll reject fear and we can truly work to bridge the racial gap once and for all. Maybe Americans have tired, once and for all, of being just pawns in this game.