As left-leaning Americans living in Italy, we're often called upon by European friends to explain what happened to the America they once knew and loved. The theme of these inquiries is all too predictable: the mess in Iraq, a failed health care system, a tanking currency and a domestic economy that consistently snubs the average working person. The Bush/Cheney United States is no longer a model for western-style democracies, our friends tell us. With its hobbled economy and arrogant foreign policy, America has lost its claim to world leadership in every sense.
Until recently we felt we had at least one credible retort. The U.S., we asserted, is significantly more progressive than Europe in the area of race relations. In Europe, people of color are still routinely subjected to discrimination, publicly and privately, that most Americans would find backward and offensive. Compared to Europe, the U.S. is an enlightened society: We are far less likely to judge or be judged by race, religion or ethnicity; we're more integrated. No one is surprised, or cares, if their boss, co-worker, professor, doctor or banker is black, brown, red, or yellow. The U.S. presidential race is a perfect example: Name a single European country, we'd say, where a politician like Barack Obama would be taken seriously as a national candidate, let alone win primary after primary.
But after watching this same presidential campaign during these past few weeks, we no longer feel our claim to these bragging rights is unassailable. In her desperation to win at any cost, during the month of March and now April, Hillary Clinton has disinterred an ugly American skeleton, one that most of us from the generation that came of age during the Civil Rights era hoped we had finally entombed: You can still frighten a lot of white Americans into voting against a black candidate -- enough, anyway, to win a primary in a state like Ohio and perhaps Pennsylvania.
The Clinton campaign, its tinge of inevitability long vanished, has only one potent message left in its arsenal as Hillary slogs on to the convention. Cleverly packaged and cunningly encoded, the message is nonetheless simple: Obama can't win a general election. Why? Because he happens to be (whisper) "a black man." And, even if he says he's a candidate that appeals to all Americans, we all know (smirk, smirk) that average white Americans (not the latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, Birkenstock-wearing types) just won't vote for a black man for president. It's not that they're prejudiced; they're just not yet "comfortable" with the idea.
So what's a losing campaign to do? First, pigeon-hole Obama as the "black folks" candidate, who has no real appeal beyond a "narrow" segment of the electorate. Hence, we have überstrategist Mark Penn and Bill Clinton spinning ad nauseum that Obama is only winning because of African-American support and that his victories are, as such, insignificant compared to Hillary's. In this new electoral math a la Clinton, black votes are no longer "separate but equal," they're actually worth less than white votes, a return, as it were, to the original valuation assigned in the Constitution to each slave: three-fifths of a white citizen. The subtext, even while cloaked as "electoral strategy," is racist at its core: your vote doesn't count if you are black and happen to live in a "red state." Never mind that African Americans have been the most loyal Democratic constituency for more than forty years and that any Democratic nominee will need an enthusiastic and large minority turnout nationwide in order to win in November. And never mind that any thoughtful analysis of the results so far suggests that Obama may be assembling a new electoral coalition, a different one than the Clintons and other centrist Democrats have relied on for the past 20 years.
Next, remind everyone repeatedly just how uncomfortable some black people make the rest of us "average" Americans feel. Thus, the Obama campaign has found itself facing any number of over-blown controversies, such as the meaningless media dust-up over whether Michelle Obama was sufficiently patriotic when she said that for the first time in her adult life she was really proud of her country, or the Geraldine Ferraro incident in which Ferraro was allowed to paint herself as a victim of reverse discrimination after her tawdry attacks on Obama last month. To be fair, the Fox and MSNBC talking-heads are the source of many of these scurrilous assaults. But the Clinton team's silence when such attacks are aired, especially in response to Ferraro, Hillary Clinton's own finance chair, has been deafening.
As is often the case when racial bogymen are invoked, the tarnish applied to Obama is guilt by association -- and in this application, Clinton's brushstrokes are clearly visible. In Ohio, during a televised debate, we heard Senator Clinton complain that Obama wasn't forceful enough in denouncing Louis Farrakhan, whose support Obama never sought and whom he had publicly repudiated. Now, in Pennsylvania Senator Clinton and surrogates have made the Jeremiah Wright issue an ongoing campaign theme, with Clinton piously announcing that she would never join Wright's church. Guilt-by-association, of course, is a wonderful "wedge" issue. Nothing need be said overtly; the imagery is what counts. In this case, the notion is that if Obama's pastor was an "angry" and "confrontational" (translated together as "scary") black man, then Obama may actually be the second coming of H. Rap Brown. And, of course, there's that Muslim middle name of his. And the picture of him in the head garb. And he studied the Koran. Do you really want a nominee like that?
There is much to lament here. First, this tactic works with some portion of white voters, suggesting that the racial gap in the U.S. still remains wide. Second, since it works, and since the entire Clinton strategy is to make Obama appear unelectable, we can expect plenty more of it during the coming weeks from Clinton and her surrogates. We are witnessing an astonishing spectacle: a Democratic presidential candidate, the wife of a former Democratic president who professes to have a deep connection with African Americans, condoning -- if not actively exploiting -- racial divisions and misunderstandings in order to win the nomination of a U.S. political party which has a half-century history of promoting racial equality.
In doing so, not only does the Hillary Clinton campaign repudiate the Democratic Party's post-1960s history, it threatens to destroy the party's chances of recapturing the White House. Indeed, there is talk that there will be a repeat of Chicago 1968 should Clinton lose the popular vote and pledged delegates, as seems quite likely, yet still "win" the nomination based on superdelegate support. But another historical comparison also comes to mind from 150 years earlier. At its 1852 presidential nominating convention, the Whig party split over the issue of slavery. Four years later, the national party ceased to exist, with the anti-slavery Whigs having joined the new Republican Party.
It would be an ironic coda to the Clintons' supercilious boast that they have done more than any other couple to strengthen the Democratic Party if the result of Hillary's campaign is not only to lose the general election but create an irreparable split within the Democratic Party itself. But that is where the divide-and-scare tactics that her handlers have borrowed so adeptly from the Republican playbook are headed. Should the superdelegates succumb to the pressures emanating from the Clinton campaign, hundreds of thousands of Obama supporters may feel much the same way McCarthy supporters and anti-war activists felt in 1968.
Hillary is betting that if she becomes the superdelegate nominee, blacks and liberals will have "no place else to go" and will fall into line. But if Hillary's race-card politics make them feel sufficiently disenfranchised, these Obama supporters may abjure Hillary and sit out the general election altogether. Worse still for Democrats, they may see the party as no longer relevant: a moribund party hijacked by the Clintons' ambition, one that lacks the vision so desperately needed to revive our democracy, a party better left behind and replaced with one built on a new politics of unity and hope.