In a piece two years ago, I argued that the Right's deep animosity toward Barack Obama stemmed from more than just bigotry over race, an idea widely argued at the time. Rather, I posed the idea that Obama represented a changing America in so many ways, an America where gays are in the military, where immigrants are arriving and moving to all parts of our nation, where women hold positions of power. A black man with a funny name is only a small part of the changes in this country, confronting conservatives every day. Their spirit is best summed up, not by a racial slur, but by the Tea Party sign, "I Want My Country Back."
The New York Times Magazine just published an article on Herman Cain that supports this notion. What it basically argues is that Cain's appeal is that, in so many ways, he is a Southern conservative, and the color of his skin is irrelevant. If you drop the issue of race, he is presenting himself as a traditional Good Old Boy, a familiar and comforting image to many parts of America.
Unlike the cosmopolitan president, Cain comes out as a regional figure, introducing himself with, "As we say in some parts of the South, awww shucky ducky now! We gonna have some fun!" Orval Faubus could not have put it better.
Cain's speeches are made for call-and-response, a familiar form, not just to black, but to white Southerners as well. As he talks, the air is filled with cries of, "That's right!" over and over again. Herman's cadence, his syntax and his pauses, all draw the crowd out, their enthusiasm building.
There is also religion. While Obama is a churchgoer, his faith is a private affair, as is the case for many Americans. Cain, on the other hand, appeals powerfully to the rest, to those millions whose worship is public, demonstrative, and important. As the Times article points out, "It's impossible to overstate" how critical "Cain's religious faith is to his followers and to his idea of himself." Herman Cain's religion is up front, and down home.
Herman Cain's appeal is that he is the anti-Obama, Boss Hogg with a dark skin. If the sitting president represents, and is hated, because he represents all that America is becoming, Cain is the reverse, a traditional Southerner upholding the values of older America. His appeal is that he represents the America so many of his supporters remember fondly. If elected, Herman Cain will give them their country back indeed, for he is one of them and shares their vision. That is a powerful appeal.