Deja Vu all over again? 1972 replayed
In 1972 I was 21 years old, town campaign manager for the McGovern Presidential campaign,and as idealistic and devoted to McGovern as any young Obama supporter today. What a high we experienced the night that McGovern won the nomination; what disappointment we felt the night of the election. In time, information was discovered that the Republicans had hoped for, indeed, planned on a McGovern candidacy, as they viewed him as the weakest candidate. Yes, McGovern enjoyed tremendous support from a new generation of young voters; and yes, we couldn’t have made the Republicans — and I do mean Richard Nixon et al — happier.
One of the most disillusioning revelations post-election 1972 was that many Republicans had influenced the outcome of primaries by registering as Democrats precisely in order to vote for McGovern. It was, in fact, the first time that voters were allowed to switch their party on primary day in NJ, and the Republicans evidently took advantage of it. Over time, I learned the painful truth that political decisions do not necessarily reflect the will of the supporters of any position or candidate; elections and voters can be and are manipulated in many ways. Voter idealism is an opportunity for exploitation by manipulators with less than idealistic goals.
In 2008, I see this blind idealism again in the young, first-time-voters and caucus participants in Iowa and elsewhere. And it raises for me the same concerns that I wish I had seen in 1972 but could only perceive and understand retrospectively some years later.
Specifically, I find it alarming that, as of January 2nd, 70-something-% of Iowans who supported Obama and were polled were first time caucus-participants. 20% were reported to be Republicans who planned on changing party to support Obama in the caucus. And I believe around 30-40% were Independents who had not been drawn into a caucus ever before.
While this all sounds quite positive for Obama, lets stop and consider, first of all, that 20% of his supporters are Republicans. How likely is it that Republicans in Iowa — a state which has never elected a woman governor, congressman or senator, no less a Black one — are switching parties to vote for the first serious Black Democrat contender? Were they closeted progressives all these years, just waiting for the most sincere and true Democrat for change to run? If so, how did they miss Howard Dean in 2004? I think that the 20% Republican support can be explained as well if not better by the hypothesis that the Republicans are again trying to tip the caucus in favor of a candidate who ultimately would have great difficulty in winning the national election.
The 30-40% Independents who have never before found a candidate of either party to support at a caucus are equally, if not more, suspect. Mind you, these are people who would have not even come out to support Iowa favorite son Tom Harkin when he ran in the past in Presidential primaries. Most Independents I know are proudly and stubbornly independent — they’re suspect of politics in general, eschew registering allegiance to ANY party, Dem, Repub or 3rd party, and do not mind one bit not being able to choose a party candidate during the primaries by maintaining their independent status. Are we to believe, without question, that such a large number of Independents have somehow shaken loose from their prized independent status because Obama is such a great candidate? I don’t think so.
Which brings us down to the great NON-QUESTION of the 2008 primaries: are Caucasian Americans really ready to vote for a Black/minority president? Well maybe this is less of a non-question than it is the non-discussed question of the season. Listening to a panel of supposed election experts from the far-right Enterprise Institute discussing possible primary outcome scenarios, I was almost convinced, as they insisted, that there just was no reason at all to think that race would influence voter preferences. I actually had to stop and think: wait a minute, there still is a serious underclass in the U.S., isnt there? and that underclass contains most of the 16% of Americans who are Black, right? (As Obama correctly noted recently, there are still more college-age young Black men in prison than there are in college — a statistic that has not changed since I first heard it reported 20 years ago.) Of course other minorities are found in the underclass, but the majority of Blacks are found there.
Who keeps Blacks in the underclass? Certainly predominately white communities, companies, law firms, professional schools, etc. But it happens daily in many ways and is ignored and hence implicitly supported by most Caucasian Americans. Support for Obama is very real in some sectors, very politically correct in others. Don’t tell me that MANY Americans, of both parties, have not considered the possibility of and experience some trepidation when they envision a government dominated by Black Americans.
I’m not saying I’m among them. But when it comes to evaluating Obama’s true chances for winning a national election that requires winning the hard South and Conservative Western states, one simply can’t ignore the issue of race and how it could influence the outcome of the election.
Prove me wrong. Let’s start a real discussion of this important issue NOW, while the primary season is in its infancy. Let’s be conscious of the possibility of cynical manipulation of our youngest and often our most idealistic voters. Let’s pick a presidential candidate with our eyes, ears and minds open to the most critical question of electibility in November 2008.