01/24/2008 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Monster, The Prince and the Good Ol' Boy

Democrats, divided we stand.

The Democratic Party has a serious problem. It doesn't see itself for what it is -- a big tent party that alternates between pandering to non-whites and insulting them.

I was thinking about this watching the South Carolina debates. If I were looking to win points with whites on why a black man can't be counted on, you'd bet I'd use these phrases:

CLINTON: Well, you know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.

EDWARDS: And I respect your right to do that on any -- on any substantive issue. It does not make sense to me -- and what if I had just not shown up...

EDWARDS: What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country? ... but I have a responsibility to take a position...

I'd add a seedy urban drug reference to remind them of the places black men like to hang out:

CLINTON: Bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago.

And, if I were a white man, I'd try this: "I'm a white guy in a racist country. That's why I can win!":

EDWARDS: And we can't concede places like South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri... we always do well in Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles, Seattle... But what I would say that I think what that means is I can go anywhere in America and compete against John McCain and win.

For those unfamiliar with this mindset: "The typical slave could be expected to drink, run away, and steal a little . . . and masters were responsible for slaves' habits," writes Ariela Gross in her book Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom. In the American mind, while we may have evolved, we don't expect blacks to be "responsible," nor do we expect them to "show up" because they "run away" and are cannot be responsible for their habits of character. It's up to white people to reign blacks in, and you saw this dynamic with Clinton who took the tone of a schoolmarm, chastising Obama like a bad student. Thus, Sen. Hillary Clinton's remark, backed up by Sen. Edwards here that, you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern, has double weight for a Southern audience, which for hundreds of years believed blacks unable to hold themselves to account. And that has been a pattern has a deeper meaning as well: it says to the audience, you're just like the other blacks we know and don't trust.

This is below the belt stuff from the best from the Democratic Party. Where did it come from? Well, Democrats have a grandiose idea of who they are, which doesn't quite match their past. And you can't rise above that which you haven't accounted for. The Democratic Party has not paid its debts. And until it does, this will continue to keep the party from winning over most Americans.


I. The Democratic Party has an idea of its goodness or moral authority, but it's rooted in the ethos of slave holders.

A passage from Ol Strom, an unauthorized biography of Strom Thurmond, by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, the authors both South Carolina natives, is a good reminder of this heritage:

"(Strom) Thurmond's political legacy is found not in the annals of legislative achievement, but in redefining America's political culture. As the segregationist Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, he won four Deep South states and shook the foundations of the Democratic 'solid South'. This psychological break opened the path for two-party development in the region. Elected to the Senate in 1954 in an unprecedented write-in campaign, he switched parties ten years later to campaign across the South for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. This symbolic act, after Goldwater voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, for the first time helped attract large numbers of the most racially conscious white Southerners into the GOP. It helped lay the foundations for a race-flavored "Southern Strategy" that altered the character of the party of Abraham Lincoln."

That Southern planter legacy becomes immediately apparent when you read, for example, Thomas F. Schaller, who writes in Whistling Past Dixie that, "...the South (was) the most solidly Democratic region since the end of the Civil War..." And the thesis of his book suggests ways Democrats might "recapture" Dixieland, after winning other parts of the country, "that said, Democrats should forget about recapturing the South in the near term and begin building a national majority that ends, not begins, with restoring their lost southern glory."

II. This fundamental character or spirit of slave culture lingers. It screws up Democrats' moral compass.

A good example of how Democrats get lost in the weeds with what's "right and wrong" according to their espoused principles was Eliot Spitzer, New York Governor, and his plan to issue drivers licenses to illegals. It was back in October, and Senator Hillary Clinton supported then abandoned Governor Spitzer. Both politicians "flip-flopped" because they lacked a certain clarity about the issue, they were not clear from the onset with themselves about what they would fight for. A reminder of the headlines from the time: October 31, 2007 - "A Day Later, Clinton Embraces Spitzer's License Effort" NYT; November 1, 2007 - "Clinton backs N.Y. driver's license plan for illegal; immigrants - Tries to steady her stance after debate stumble" Boston Globe; November 14, 2007 - "Spitzer Dropping His Driver's License Plan" NYT; November 15, 2007 - "Clinton says no to licenses for illegals" Associated Press.

Spitzer gave up on his grand idea:

"You have perhaps seen me struggle with it because I thought we had a principled decision, and it's not necessarily easy to back away from trying to move a debate forward," the New York Times quoting Spitzer, Nov. 14, 2007.

And Clinton made the move that was expedient:

"I support Governor Spitzer's decision today to withdraw his proposal," Clinton said in a statement. "As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system." (AP)

I was looking on the Clinton site for her statement at the time, and there was a neat little button for "pagina bilingue" and I thought that poetic: Clinton courting the bilingual voter, who might need or want to read the page in Spanish, whilst here I look for her statement on why she didn't support licenses for illegals, many of whom, of course speak Spanish.

This little nugget of a story, is just one example of how Dems help perpetuate the appearance that they have few principles, that they don't fight for anything, and that they'll abandon "you" -- in this case, once you-the-minority-excluded-from-American life -- are not convenient anymore.

Republicans, by contrast, do not have this original sin, which has enabled them to unify under a common set of values. And they, ironically perhaps, have managed to promote minorities to significant positions of power, without making a big deal about it. Now you might argue that Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Colin Powell, Elaine Chao, Alphonso Jackson, Alberto Gonzales, among other blacks, Asians and Latins who've held cabinet or other positions of power have to varying degrees lost their minds, but that is beside the point. This essay is not about liking or disliking the Republican ideology.

So while Republicans have moved beyond race, in a way Dems can only aspire to, Democrats pre-occupy themselves with notions of "inclusivity."

III. These ideas about inclusivity, however, are made out to be policy objectives instead of what they should be -- no brainers.

And because we say we really, really want to get along, and be cool and cosmopolitan together -- what do we do when we have a monster like this one in the closet? We pretend to get-along and spend a lot of time talking about being a "big tent party," as DNC Chair Howard Dean said back in 2005 when he took over as Chair:

"Dean described his party is a 'big tent' that represents the young, the elders, veterans, members of the armed services, and all working Americans "desperate for a government that looks out for them." (CNN, Saturday, February 12, 2005)

But Democrats use that "big tent" metaphor as if it were an end in and of itself. And then it becomes like a trap. Democrats like to talk about systemic problems, as Dean said back in 2005: Dems are for "fiscally responsible, socially progressive values for which Democrats have always stood and fought." What does that mean in specific terms? What does that look like in real life?

If you're a minority, you end up with this philosophy that the system is screwing you -- end-of-story. If you're a minority, you're frame is "victim" in the Democratic Party because Dems have few ideas about how to actually fix those problems. The New Amsterdam news ran a story back in June complaining about just this:

"... what about the low quality education in city schools, the violent crime rates that are up for the second year in a row, the unemployment rate among African-Americans that consistently doubles that of whites and the mandatory minimum sentences that keeps blacks crowding prisons across the nation?

Though African-Americans are adamantly against the war and immigration is on America's front burner, political observers say Democratic candidates have yet to tackle the bread and butter domestic issues that disparately relate to black people." (Presidential Candidates Silent on African American Issues, Amsterdam News//NNPA, News Report, Amber English, Jun 06, 2007)

Compare the above with Republican candidate Mitt Romney's answer to a similar question back during the CNN/YouTube Republican debate, where a black father and son asked:

YouTube question: "Hi, this is me and my son Prentiss. We're from Atlanta . . . what about the war going on in our country, black on black crime? Two hundred to 400 black men die yearly in one city alone. What are you going to do about that war? It feels like the Taliban right outside."

ROMNEY: "Well first of all Princess is pretty fortunate 'cause he's got a dad standing next to him who apparently loves him by all appearances there and that's probably the best thing you can do is to have a mom and a dad. And it's time in this country that we go back to the kind of values that allow kids to have moms and dads. In the African American community today 68% of the kids born, are born out of wedlock and so we're going to try once again re-inculcate the kind of values that have made us so strong family values. Second. (Anderson Cooper interrupts) Well, one, the war in the inner city is to get more moms and dads. That's number one. And thank heavens Bill Cosby said it like it was, where the root of crime starts and two, we gotta have better education in our schools. I think that the civil rights issue of our time is the failure of inner city schools to prepare kids in the inner city for the jobs of tomorrow and number three, of course, you gotta do a better job with our policing . . ."

Romney, like him or not, had a clear answer for that father and son: repair family, school, police. Plus, he honored that father and son by treating them just like any other family -- i.e. you -- kid are lucky to have a father who loves you -- implying that they are like any other healthy family. They're not different because they're black. They're Americans. His end goal was to talk about the notion of "family" and not to talk about blackness. Do you see the difference? What he said was "empowering" to this family because it didn't remind them that they were oppressed. Romney instead set a goal -- that again -- had nothing to do with race. That's the way you treat people who you believe are your equals. And what Romney said was of value to any Republican listening - it reflected their party's common set of values.

Dems, on the other hand, would rather minorities focus on being victims. Take vouchers: why would a black mother or father with a child in a crappy public school oppose vouchers? Well Hillary Clinton does, as reported back in February 2006, "Clinton raps vouchers":

"Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton slammed private-school voucher proposals yesterday, predicting that vouchers would eventually lead to the creation of taxpayer-financed white supremacist academies - or even a government-funded 'School of the Jihad.'"

Why do you think she really opposes vouchers? Because she has to please the teacher's unions, for one:

"Clinton, a longtime voucher foe who earned the backing of the city teachers union in 2000, says government financing of sectarian groups would incite ethnic and religious conflict - and encourage fringe groups to demand government cash to run their schools." (Newsday)

But how does that help the parent of a child in a shitty school? It doesn't. But that's just the system black parent. Why don't you and your kid take the day off and march on Washington or something?

IV. Which brings us to the latest flashpoint on this topic: you can't rise above that which you have not atoned for.

I remember producing a segment once between two Democrats, talking about the Civil War, and the hot topic became whether or not the Civil War was about states' rights or slavery. One Democrat was a northerner and was talking about his civil war hero who he wasn't sure ever actually knew a black person and the other Democrat was a southerner, a descendant of planters. The segment was boring and didn't go anywhere because both parties were unresolved about how to deal with this issue: one whose hero had only an academic connection to black people, the other, whose ancestors had enslaved them. Neither wanted to admit this. This, in essence, is the weakness of the Democratic Party.

A lot of good-minded progressives would like to think it's the media distorting Hillary Clinton's remarks over the past weeks about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or that this story is being overblown regarding the racial tension between her campaign and Sen. Barack Obama's.

The media is like a blunt but intuitive instrument. Its handymen are sometimes unable to say exactly what they mean, like they keep saying "race," and I think "race" is a kind of shorthand pointing at a real fracture within the soul of the party.

Clinton's just a product of a party that is unconscious of its true nature, the true nature of the alliances and how they work. Maybe that's naïve of me, I'm sure the spin masters are fully aware of what they're doing, that's why they do it. Either way, Hillary Clinton has revealed something very important about herself and the psyche of the American Democratic leadership. So let's look again at what she said about Obama on Jan 13th on Meet the Press:

"First, with respect to Dr. King, you know, Tim, I was 14 years old when I heard Dr. King speak in person. He is one of the people that I admire most in the world, and the point that I was responding to from Senator Obama himself in a number of speeches he was making is his comparison of himself to President Kennedy and Dr. King. And there is no doubt that the inspiration offered by all three of them is essential. It is critical to who we are as a nation, what we believe in, the dreams and aspirations that we all have."

I have to interject here before I talk about the actual claims she makes about Dr. King. It's alarming how white folks like to use their proximity or affinity for King (or blacks) as a replacement for the experience of actually being oppressed. As I watched Clinton at the South Carolina debate, in a state historically hostile to blacks, I could not help but think how comfortable she must have been. So comfortable she felt like she could say to Obama, "you never take responsibility," so comfortable that Edwards could say, "I can go anywhere in America," Yes, you can say this Clinton and Edwards because you're white and you like being white, don't you? It's good to be white in America. But it was perverse, their behavior said to Obama: You want to slap me across the face don't you angry black man, but you can't. Find the words black man to tell me how you feel about me white woman and me white man, and do it in a way that won't piss off all these good white folks. Edwards and Clinton paint themselves as progressive whites but they are 100% old school Democrats.

This is why Clinton, and I would gather Edwards, have no idea what Dr. King was saying. This is why King's teachings are academic to them but not reality. If you truly ingested King's teachings you would never tell a black man he wasn't taking responsibility unless he really wasn't taking responsibility. And if you did, you'd say it knowing the full weight of what those remarks mean.

Getting back to the Meet the Press quote, Clinton continues:

But I also said that, you know, Dr. King didn't just give speeches. He marched, he organized, he protested, he was gassed, he was beaten, he was jailed. He understood that he had to move the political process and bring in those who were in political power, and he campaigned for political leaders, including Lyndon Johnson, because he wanted somebody in the White House who would act on what he had devoted his life to achieving."

The items italicized seem to imply that Sen. Obama isn't doing what Dr. King did and that Obama, therefore is somehow inadequate.

Even if it were King's desire, the reality is it was impossible for a man like King to get inside -- into the place where Obama is now. King made the moves of a man locked out of the process. King's blessing to us is to have transported us out of that time. This dull thinking by Hillary Clinton shows that she doesn't get -- or would like to veil -- the fact that many of us in this country grew up never thinking we'd see a black person taken seriously in presidential politics. Many of us have had to deal with the fact that it's unforeseeable that a black man could just be a man, and not a minstrel or a tool. It seems like a small thing. But if you don't have this thing, you miss it very much. That's it, that Obama can be his own man, not a yes-man like say Colin Powell (who has intimated that he made choices and statements that were not right with him; Colin Powell is, after all, a soldier who follows orders.) But Obama is the embodiment of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. That's all Hillary Clinton needs to know, that's all she should dare say if she wants black voters. Maybe she doesn't think she needs black voters. But black people should certainly take note of this.

They should also take note of her obtuse remarks while campaigning earlier in January:

"I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done"

Possibly, without King's strong pressure Johnson and Kennedy (had he lived) might not have been forced to make changes. King was a catalyst. But it's hard to discern the value of Clinton's statement (made just days ahead of MLK day). Should the slain civil rights leader have been grateful to Lyndon Johnson and JFK, both of whom were initially ambivalent about civil rights? (Kennedy voted against Republican Dwight Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act. And Lyndon Johnson, as a senator, voted against Democratic Harry Truman's civil rights program. The reasons they did this are complicated, and here I do risk oversimplification, but the bottom line is they did in fact vote against these initiatives.) Clinton shows a kind of cluelessness about these issues. We don't need a history lesson from her on why the marginalized need to ingratiate themselves with power. We don't need to be reminded that we live and die by their largesse.

A lot is being stirred up. And then pushed downwards, as we saw at the Nevada debates, how Edwards, Obama, and Clinton all pretended the campaigning had not revealed something desperate and ugly about the party.

Just as a sidebar, I should say that I suspect that the blacks endorsing Clinton are highly motivated by political survival. Magic Johnson, for example, where would he be without his neighbor, Bill Clinton's support in Harlem? The lackluster former New York Mayor, David Dinkins, said just as much with his cynical comment, "I'm with Hillary Clinton," said Dinkins. "If you go to the dance and you bring a girl to the dance and then you arrive at the dance and you see another girl who's got charisma and she's attractive and articulate and whatnot, you don't leave the girl you brought..." - a lovely endorsement indeed.

Also unfortunately, black people (like Democrats) often have a hard time seeing and believing in themselves. The endorsement of Clinton by the prominent New York City Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, shows how complicated the issue is for black "leaders": "A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to elect someone who has proven through time to me and to this community and this country that she has the experience to make things happen and the vision to return us to a place of prosperity," he said. You hear here, I think, not only a sense of personal obligation, implied with "someone who has proven through time to me", but something more sad: Even if some are too cowardly to publicly admit it, all these black leaders have got to know Obama is not only a dream made real, he's a mirror of themselves.

V. Hillary Clinton is not alone. I don't mean to single her out; she's just an obvious example in a high stakes game, involving all of us.

We're part of this political process whether we like it or not, whether we're excluded or embraced, valued or ignored. I'd find it valuable for Democrats to admit they're just as craven as Republicans. Maybe they can make up some kind of hand signal - like "L" for loser - and do that as a disclaimer before they say anything on record - the way the kids do. just kidding. But I'm not joking about this: it's time to ask for forgiveness and to decide that there are certain lines you won't cross out of respect, out of penance, out of shame. This is not about being politically correct; I could care less about that. Doing this work will require a hard look by Democrats at who they are. And non-whites who call themselves Democrats should stop voting for party members who don't deliver, who use and discard them. And to Senator Obama, I would say, be innocent as the dove and wise as the serpent because you're in the pit with them now (my distortion of the old saying). In concrete terms: don't repeat the charges against you in an effort to defend yourself that just gives the claims more traction and implies that you think they're valid. It's up to all of us to change the conversation.