Wow, this piece from Melissa Harris-Perry is one of the more fact-free assessments of the relationship between Obama and the liberal-left that I’ve seen.
Harris-Perry contends that “a more insidious form of racism” than the traditional kind may explain white liberal dissatisfaction with Obama. Where white liberals presumably gave the much less effective Clinton a pass in 1996, Harris-Perry anticipates a defection among those very same voters in 2012. Why? Because they’ll act on their alleged “tendency…to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.” The next election, she claims, “may be a test of another form of electoral racism.”
If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.
Harris-Perry offers virtually no evidence to support this claim, except for the fact that white support for Obama has plummeted from 61 to 33 percent. Evidence of white racism? Perhaps, though the dismal state of the economy seems an equally likely contender. Evidence of white liberal racism? She’ll have to do better than that.
Because here’s what we do know about liberal support for Obama. As of August 1, according to this Gallup poll, 83 percent of liberal Democrats were supporting him. Among liberals (as opposed to liberal Democrats), the numbers throughout the first half of the summer mostly hovered in the upper 70s. Then by the end of August, those numbers began inching down to 68 percent. But guess what? They also began falling among African Americans. In fact, according to this September Washington Post story, “Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held ‘strongly favorable’ views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.” That’s why, according to this piece, Obama has made special outreach efforts to blacks: he’s worried about their dwindling support. But as the Post also goes onto explain, “That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.”
So why is Obama’s support declining among all groups? And why didn’t it with Clinton in 1996? Hmm. What could be different? Perhaps the state of the economy, particularly the unemployment numbers (which appear nowhere in Harris-Perry’s piece), has something to do with it? And, lest we forget what happened four years after 1996, so disgusted was a portion of the liberal electorate with Clinton’s compromises that they refused to vote for his vice president, opting instead for Ralph Nader.
Unlike some folks, I don’t think Harris-Perry’s problem is her tendency to cry racism. No, it’s far deeper than that. It’s her tendency to reduce political arguments to psychological motivations. Because this is hardly the first time that Harris-Perry has speculated about the underlying sources of liberal-left disgruntlement with Obama. Back in May, she criticized Cornel West and Tavis Smiley for their critique of Obama, arguing that it was driven more by personal pique than political principle. Again, with little evidence to support her claims. Now, she launches a similarly psychologically driven theory of white liberal-left disgruntlement, only this time the putative motivation is racism.
Psychology may or may not play a role in politics. But if it does, we need evidence-based psychologists, not fact-free astrologists, to explain it to us.
Update (8:00 pm)
Through some helpful prodding from Dorian Warren in the comments section, it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to establish that she nowhere establishes. I’d be satisfied if she could establish at least some of them, but she doesn’t establish any of them. These are the facts that need to be established:
- White liberals are significantly less supportive of Obama than they used to be.
- The drop in white liberal support for Obama at this point is significantly greater than it was for Clinton at a comparable point (or frankly at any point) prior to his reelection.
- The drop in white liberal support for Obama is significantly greater than the drop in black or Latino liberal support for Obama.
- The differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is significantly larger than the differential, if it existed, between white and black or Latino support for Clinton.
- That larger differential, if it exists, is a reflection of declining white support for Obama rather than increasing or persistent black or Latino support for Obama.
Again, I’m not asking that she establish all of these facts, but having failed to establish any of them, it’s hard to see whether or not there’s even a problem here that needs to be analyzed. In other words, as of now, Harris-Perry’s argument is a hypothesis in search of a problem rather than a problem in search of a hypothesis.
Update (September 25, 10:30 am)
Reading Orlando Patterson’s New York Times review of Touré’s new book on “post-blackness,” this passage jumped out at me:
Post-black identity, we learn, resides in the need to live with and transcend new and subtle but pervasive forms of racism: “Post-black does not mean ‘post-racial.’ ” This new racism is invisible and unknowable, always lurking in the shadows, the secret decisions of whites resulting in lost opportunities blacks never knew about or even thought possible: “There’s a sense of malevolent ghosts darting around you, screwing with you, often out of sight but never out of mind.” Even so extraordinarily successful a person as Elizabeth Alexander, the tenured Yale professor and inaugural poet, claims to be haunted by “a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don’t know half the time when people are underestimating us.”
In reading this passage, especially that powerful quote from Elizabeth Alexander, it occurred to me that perhaps Harris-Perry and the liberal left are just talking past each other. When most liberals and lefties I know criticize Obama, we are not making judgments about his capacities, intelligence, competence, or expertise. I think most of us believe that he is a preternaturally gifted politician, who managed his astonishing rise to power through a combination of savvy, eloquence, ruthlessness, ambition, smarts, vision, and skill—all the gifts, in other words, we like to see in a politician, particularly a politician on the left.
But when we assess Obama, like any other president, we’re not thinking about his skills and talents; we’re thinking about what we call his “politics” and, even more important, how his politics reflect larger forces and structures in American society: corporate power, neoliberal ideology, declining organizational capacity on the left, and so on. We see him, often, as a symptom of those forces, not a challenge to them. Not, again, because of any lack of intelligence or ability on his part, but because, in part, he is a product of the structure (with all its failings) we would like to see dismantled.
Reading Alexander’s quote, I wondered if Harris-Perry was viewing the liberal left’s disgruntlement through a different lens. In the mainstream media and a lot of political science—and also, I think, among a lot of citizens—there’s a tendency to view presidential performance in highly personal terms: Reagan was a successful president because he possessed great political skills, Carter was a disaster because he lacked those skills. Again, that’s not how I or people I know approach these matters, and I’ve written about why it’s not a good way to think about these things, but I think it’s a fairly common way people approach them.
So if that’s the way you view these matters, as Harris-Perry clearly does (there’s lots of talk in her article of competence and such), then it’s no wonder, once you add the reality of racial suspicion that Elizabeth Alexander talks about above, that you’d see criticism of Obama as reflecting a deeper skepticism on the part of whites, including white progressives (who are after all members and beneficiaries of a racist society, and thus not immune to its deep codes), of the talents and abilities of the president. If your only way of understanding presidential performance is through the lens of personal ability, or if you think that’s the only way other people understand it, then it makes sense to view criticism of a president who is clearly able (more than able) as being driven by racism.
This is just a hunch about what’s going in Harris-Perry’s piece; I’ve no proof of it. But reading Elizabeth Alexander this morning did make me wonder if that might not be what’s going on here.