The race issue in America is often bizarre. President Carter and a few others insinuate that racism may be a reason for the style of opposition Obama is getting from the right. Interestingly, these comments got much less play in the mainstream media or by Democrats than they did from the right. The right loves to play the race card against the Democrats. It’s an odd card though — it’s a “they are calling us racists just for opposing the President” card.
Obviously, opposition exists for every President, and any claim that all or much of the opposition to Obama is based on racism is absurd on its face. To the extent the right can make it seem like that’s what is being done, they have an effective bit of rhetoric. It’s no wonder they will trumpet, repeat, and comment on these statements over and over. Drudge makes it a headline, talk radio is all over it, you’d think that this was a major argument from the left. Of course, most on the left don’t mention race, and Obama and Biden have both dismissed it as a primary cause for opposition.
So what does it mean? Is race a factor?
Obama was elected by a large margin of victory, and has enjoyed high levels of popularity. He still has approval ratings over 50%, even as he governs in a recession with efforts to make substantive changes in major policy areas. To me, this suggests that race is actually receding in importance in the US. Presidents Clinton and Reagan, governing in economic downturns experienced steep drops in popularity in their first two years in office. In 1982 many Democrats thought Reagan would be easy to defeat in 1984 — he was inexperienced and couldn’t lead. In 1994 President Clinton lost his Democratic majority after spending all his political capital on a debate over health care. When nothing passed, he looked ineffectual and weak. Obama has also taken on the health care issue and while faring better than Clinton so far (he at least has a real chance to pass something), he has also been hard.
Does that mean that Joe Wilson of South Carolina, the guy who heckled Obama during his Congressional address, doesn’t look at Obama differently because of race? I don’t know. There are individuals who are still rather racist. Maybe it did play a part in his outburst. But he and others would oppose anyone trying to pass the policies Obama is pursuing.
So what about the level of anger and rage amongst the opposition — surely that might be because Obama is black? Perhaps a bit, but I think the major cause is because Obama wants to bring real change in a context where the world itself is going through a transformation — a world in motion.
On the radio today I caught five minutes of Glenn Beck arguing that global warming was a conspiracy designed to de-develop the US and render it impotent, creating a global transfer of wealth to the third world. The claim was positively Goebbelsesque, a wild conspiracy theory stated with conviction and a sense of certitude. That kind of appeal to emotion is becoming more common on the right, as suddenly it looks like the country is moving in a direction opposite to what they expected, making it seem they are losing their country to “socialism.”
Now, global warming is a complex issue, both in terms of its cause and how to respond. But I know scientists, including some here at UMF, whose views are shaped by the science, not politics, and who are very concerned about their children and the future of humanity in a world going through climate change. Maybe the plans putting forth to combat it are misguided — that can and should be debated — but an emotional charge that it’s some kind of cultural treason, a conspiracy to destroy the US and prop up the poor…I mean, come on!
To the extent that kind of thing gets taken seriously, people will get angry and ready to brush aside the civility and sense of common purpose that has united Americans in the past. And given the changes taking place, more people than ever are drawn to the likes of Beck and Limbaugh who are saying what so many people feel in their gut, expressing fear that the America they knew is becoming something strange: too many Mexicans, an “un-American” President (witness the ‘birthers’), the spread of gay marriage, and now plans for “socialized” medicine. Many are truly angry, and that anger comes from fear — fear that they are losing control, that the country is becoming something different than the America they thought they knew.
The country is in an economic crisis, and there are demographic, political and economic changes taking place. There are military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to be going poorly, and there are still threats of terrorism. The country is going through a real trial, with no clear answer of what to do. America is in transition to something, and right now Obama represents what many see as a change in a wrong and threatening direction. Anger is a common reaction to fear.
So what to do? It’s almost less a political question than a social-psychological one. How can the country accept that some kind of change is necessary, and forge a path based on mutual compromise and some shared principles? Is our choice that of either dashing the hopes of Obama’s supporters, or feeding the anger of his critics? Or is there a middle ground?