Friday, October 31, 2008

Race: A Factor in the US Elections? *

In this most political of all seasons in Washington DC, it seemed appropriate, on Tuesday exactly a week before the presidential election, to take breakfast at the Cosmos Club. The local power elite has an obsession with English-style clubs and this venue is one of the grandest. Established in 1878, it boasts among its past and present members, three presidents, two vice presidents and 32 Nobel Prize winners. The Cosmos has been described as “the closest thing to a social headquarters for Washington’s intellectual leadership.”

My host, who sat across from me in the breakfast room of this rather splendid French Renaissance structure bracketed by imposing wisteria and magnolia trees, had served as a senior and respected member of both the Reagan and George H W Bush administrations. He epitomises the fast-disappearing segment of the East Coast Republican Party – which has about as much in common with the shrill divisiveness of Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin as, say, Terror Lekota enjoys with Julius Malema. Not surprisingly, he informed me that he will be casting his ballot next Tuesday for Barack Obama. “Actually”, he pronounced somewhat mournfully over a fine omlette, “I don’t know a single Republican of my stripe who is voting for McCain-Palin.”

Indeed, last Sunday one of the most distinguished members of the Republican foreign policy establishment had, with great public prominence, declared himself for Obama. Colin Powell proclaimed that the young Senator’s election, “will not only electrify our country. I think it will electrify the world.” Coming from George W Bush’s former Secretary of State, this amounted to an extraordinary apostasy. Even more so was his stated belief that Obama’s election would “fix the reputation that we have left with the rest of the world.” No doubt, in his high-mindedness, Powell believed that Obama’s election would redefine the American “brand” as less about Guantanamo and more about equality. However, in the somewhat jaundiced view of my breakfast companion, the brand Powell was most anxious to repair was his own. “He still has a lot of explaining to do about his role in cheerleading the invasion of Iraq at the United Nations – and he still has plenty of ambition left”, I was informed.

The desertion of McCain by some major mainstream Republicans mirrors his vertiginous descent in the polls which, with a week to go, show Obama enjoying a steady seven-point lead (which in American terms translates into a landslide). And if the polls are somewhat unreliable you simply have to follow the money. For those who wager cash on the election, the Intrade betting gives the Democrat a 87% prospect of success. On the subject of money, by some estimates, Senator Obama will have spent $250 million on local, cable and network television in just 5 months, a rate of advertising that, according to the New York Times outstrips Burger King, Apple and Gap on an annualised basis. And it dwarfs the previous record set for presidential campaigns, which was $188 million that President Bush spent in 2004. “Right now Obama is one of leading brands out there” said Evan Tracey, President of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

While the city of Washington DC votes Democratic by almost as great a margin as Soweto votes for the ANC (or did so until the recent split), our TV stations here are flooded with campaign commercials. That is because they carry all the advertising from Northern Virginia, one of the most contested areas of all the battleground states in this election. On my unscientific survey, Obama’s adverts are flighted five-to-one over McCain’s. Obama now enjoys a double-digit lead in Virginia - once the most reliably Republican of all states, which last voted for a Democrat presidential candidate way back in 1964. Virginia, and the other states of the former confederacy, was the place where Richard Nixon perfected the winning Republican “Southern Strategy”, which was a formula which untethered anxious white voters from the historic allegiance to the Democratic Party by playing on (coded) racial anxieties. If the polls are to be believed, this strategy has now run its course.

The only lingering uncertainty, however, is whether indeed the racial identity of the lead candidate could tip the result. Professor Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, put it crisply: “there aren’t any examples of a candidate coming back this late in the game with a deficit that big. The only potential straw for McCain to clutch on to is that the race is unprecedented in many respects and that the man in the lead is black”. Does racism still lurk in the polling stations of America? A survey completed last month by Stanford University, suggested that Obama’s support would be 6% higher if he were white. The Stanford political scientist who analysed that data, Paul Sniderman concluded, “There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that there are only a few bigots.”

The McCain campaign has studiously avoided any references to race at all, whether explicit or implicit. The Republican, to his credit, has ruled out using the incendiary and racist remarks of Obama’s former controvertial Pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Equally, Obama has not, since his August Convention, referred to his exotic parentage. But there is much contention here about something called “the Bradley Effect”. This dates back to 1982 when some polls predicted erroneously that a black candidate, Tom Bradley, would win the Governorship of California. The conventional explanation given for the disparity between the polls and the result was that many white Californians were too embarrassed to acknowledge openly their own prejudice to the pollsters - but were less shy to do so when it came to marking their ballots. But its salience now seems massively reduced. The desire for change and the desperate need among voters for some form of economic salvation appears to trump other concerns. As one commentator languidly observed “there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election”.

Just how extraordinary the election of the first African American to the White House will be was captured in a comment relayed from East Africa by liberal commentator Nicholas Kristof. Noting that Obama’s father was of the Luo tribe, a minority which has suffered discrimination in both Kenya and Uganda, he reprinted a bitter joke circulating around Nairobi: A Luo has more chance of being elected president of the United States than of Kenya.

And it’s about to happen.

* Written for the Weekender newspaper in South Africa, publishing date 1 Nov. 2008

No comments: