The two taboo subjects in American politics, class and race, are now front and center in the Democratic nominating contest. As my new nationally syndicated newspaper column shows, the former is driving voting behavior and the biases against the latter are making it more difficult for Barack Obama to court lower-income voters.
Exit polls show Hillary Clinton winning votes from those making under $50,000 a year. She is the candidate of NAFTA, the candidate on the cover of Fortune magazine, the candidate of Big Money. And yet, she is winning the working class. Much of that, as I say, has to do with Obama not running an economically populist or class-based campaign. He simply hasn't been appealing to working-class voters in any direct way.
That tactical decision, of course, has at least something to do with the fact that Obama, too, raises huge amounts of corporate cash - cash that would not necessarily come to him if he started talking about corporate power, inequality and greed.
But the decision also likely has to do with the fact that Obama knows that if he voiced a more full-throated populism, he would be depicted in the media as a race-centric candidate - even if his populism was race-blind. As my column shows, power-challenging African-American politicians have been marginalized in this way for the better part of a half century. The moment a black leader talks about class or threatens the Establishment, he or she is billed as a race-centric radical.
The best contemporary example of this came from Time magazine's Joe Klein. In a 2006 column that no one other than the blogosphere flagged as wildly offensive, Klein called populist Rep. John Conyers as:
"An African American of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped [and] one of the ancient band of left-liberals who grew up in the angry hothouse of inner-city, racial-preference politics."
Though this was a particularly obvious example of the media firing racism at class-based African-American politicians, it represents a widespread attitude pervasive in our political Establishment. If you are a non-white politician and you talk about class, you are "stigmatized as a candidate mobilizing race," as Columbia University's Manning Marable says in my column.
The problem for Obama is the big states coming up in the contest. As National Journal's Ron Brownstein reports, the key contests on March 4th are Texas and Ohio. "In both states, the upscale white voters who have bolstered Obama are scarce," Brownstein reports. Put another way, Obama needs to make some sort of populist pitch to speak directly to these voters, but is constrained by his knowledge that the media and the Clinton machine will quickly label him "the black candidate" if he does just that.
That last point about the Clintons is very important. It was no coincidence that the moment Obama started talking about NAFTA and class in South Carolina, Bill Clinton made an unprompted remark likening Obama to Jesse Jackson, and an unnamed Clinton aide told the Associated Press Obama is "the black candidate." The Clintons are playing an ugly game.
Read the whole column here. If you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site.