Until a few weeks ago, the elephant in the room during this year’s presidential election wasn’t red—it was black. Barack Obama’s background has been dissected ad nauseam, but no one seemed to want to talk about how his race could affect the polls on November 4th. The Bradley Effect, the discrepancy between the number of white voters who say they’re going to vote for a black candidate and the number of white voters who actually do, is historically about 3%, which just so happens to be the net percentage disparity between many of Obama’s exit poll numbers and his official tallies during the Democratic primary earlier this year. In a close race, 3% can mean the difference between two vastly different worldviews, but Obama will likely overcome that statistic with scores of first-time voters—many of whom haven’t been counted in national polls because they’re not considered “likely voters” or because they don’t have a landline telephone. And the endorsement of former Secretary of State Colin Powell this morning will likely shore up support for Obama among moderates and independents who may have had some trouble picturing a black man in such a powerful government position.
Obama’s concern, then, should not be bashful or latent racism, but overt racism. Employing the same tactics that George W. Bush and Karl Rove successfully used against him in 2000, John McCain and his surrogates have taken to planting the seeds of fear into the American people by attempting to paint Obama as un-American, a foreigner, an “other.” It would be a faux pas to call attention to his blackness, so they’re doing the next best thing: likening him to a Muslim terrorist. The problem is, the closest thing they could find was a domestic terrorist from 40 years ago—and a white, middle-aged one at that.
Pundits and pollsters, even Obama himself, have claimed that voters are focused on the economy, that spurious accusations against the candidate have failed because people are more concerned about pocketbook issues. While that’s certainly valid, there’s a more obvious reason why McCain’s smears aren’t sticking. The goal of the McCain campaign is not to, as they claim, expose Obama as untrustworthy and unforthcoming about his past relationships, but to conflate him with Islamic fundamentalism. The Weather Underground was a revolutionary group whose primary point of contention was American imperialism—specifically, the Vietnam War. Their acts of violence against the U.S. government are difficult to defend, but they represented an extreme reaction to an immensely unpopular war and the group’s charge of imperialism is one that has been leveled against our current government for nearly eight years. That the American public, who are largely against the war in Iraq, wouldn’t fall for McCain’s tactic of trying to tie Obama to the Weather Underground, with or without a recession on the horizon and despite the mainstream media’s failure to fully research the topic, shouldn’t be surprising—even for the most cynical observer. The Weather Underground is not al Qaeda, and William Ayers—a baby-boomer professor and education reformer who, despite Tom Brokaw’s assertion on Meet the Press this morning that he said he wished he’d bombed more, believes that not enough was done to stop the biggest foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history…until the Iraq War—is not Osama bin Laden. Add to that the fact that the association between Ayers and Obama basically amounts to sitting on the same board of a nonprofit charitable organization and the whole thing doesn’t sound very scary at all.
Still, there are consequences to this slimy tactic. Invoking fear has been a hallmark of neoconservatism, and in his recent opinion piece “The GOP goes back to its ugly roots,” Salon’s Gary Kamiya eloquently observed: “The founding success of the modern conservative movement was that it convinced large numbers of Americans to reject ’liberalism’ and ’big government,’ even if they themselves benefited from both, because they were associated with social programs aimed at helping poor blacks.” He went on to detail how the party of Barry Goldwater “was able to conceal the fact that it was the party of the rich beneath a populist, race-tinged appeal to white resentment.” McCain has succeeded in conjuring the most dangerous and vile facets of the human psyche: By instilling the fear in his supporters that Obama threatens their way of life and all that the United States represents, and without ever using the word “black,” McCain has craftily summoned a lynch-mob mentality. They might as well be brandishing torches and nooses at his increasingly rowdy rallies, or yes, even wearing armbands emblazoned with swastikas.
McCain’s attempt to defend Obama during a recent rally in which a campaign volunteer, Gayle Quinnel, called Obama “an Arab” is telling: “No, ma’am,” McCain said, “He’s a decent family man.” It’s the same systemic racism, with “Arab” and “Muslim” being viewed as the antithesis of “decent” and “American,” that compels Obama to defend his Christianity whenever challenged on the topic. During his interview with Brokaw, Powell said it best: “The really right answer is, ’What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president?”
In light of the fact that the public at large doesn’t seem to be buying into either the trumped-up Ayers “controversy” or the Muslim paranoia, the McCain campaign is hedging its bets with old-fashioned voter suppression. Obama couldn’t contain his laughter during the final presidential debate last week when McCain alleged that the voter registration fraud by community organizing group ACORN, in which employees added bogus registrants like Mickey Mouse to their rolls in an attempt to meet quotas, perpetrated “one of the greatest frauds in voter history” and threatened “the fabric of democracy.” The notion is indeed laughable, but McCain’s strategy became clear when, on the following day, it was leaked that the F.B.I. is investigating ACORN. The objective is not to stop ACORN from registering Disney characters, but to incite paranoia and clamp down on voter registration logs across key battleground states, the victims of which will likely be minority (read: Democratic) voters. (For much more on this story, check out The Swamp.)
Not only could hundreds of thousands of names be purged from voter logs, but the very idea that that could happen diminishes voter confidence in the exact people Obama needs to win. Three percent of the voting bloc switching their vote to McCain at the last minute is surmountable. So are smear tactics that simply aren’t sticking. So is a little bit of voter suppression. Combine them, however, and you’ve got a recipe for a very long election night, which is exactly what the Republican party wants.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.