History was made last week. Senator Barack Obama, the eloquent and charismatic junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, became the first black person nominated by a major political party as their candidate for President of the United States. The significance of this milestone cannot be overstated. The black experience in America is unique; no other group in this country has endured nearly 400 years of indentured servitude, slavery, domestic terrorism and institutionalized discrimination at the hands of one nation, particularly one founded on the revolutionary principles of equality and liberty. Courageous men and women of all races have labored throughout history to expunge this stain from the parchment of America’s founding documents, and we have come far indeed. The symbolism of a black man within months of ascending to the leadership of the most powerful nation in the world, a nation which in my lifetime instituted barriers preventing blacks from voting for any office, much less the Presidency, is enormous. In fact, no black person has ever taken the reins of leadership in a developed Western nation, so the fact this could happen in America is a great tribute to our maturity as we strive toward a more perfect union. It speaks volumes to the world and to our own people about our determination to live up to our ideals. So why am I so conflicted?
The fact is I’ve had to adopt a split personality during the course of the 2008 election year. The dispassionate observer in me is thoroughly enthralled by the course of this campaign. One way or another, history was going to be made with either the first woman or the first black person to be nominated as the presidential candidate of a major political party. The battle for that historical distinction has been intense and reignited an impassioned and sometimes rancorous national dialogue on race, gender and identity politics. The outcome could spell the demise of the Democratic Party’s most successful political family in decades, the Clintons. Not only was Senator Hillary Clinton’s defeat unexpected given her name recognition, claimed experience and ruthlessly effective political organization, her behavior and that of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail surprised and disappointed many of their most ardent supporters of years past. Their gracelessness, raw ambition, divisive tactics and siege mentality persisted even to the very end when Senator Clinton initially refused to acknowledge Senator Obama’s victory and instead demanded that she and her supporters be heard. This display of arrogance and condescension tarnished their reputation among Democrats and gave comfort to Republicans who feel vindicated in their longtime animosity toward the Clintons.
On the other side, the Republican Party is struggling to find itself after the electoral defeats of 2006 signaled the beginning of the end of modern conservatism’s ascendancy. This movement began in the early 1960s with the political leadership of Barry Goldwater and the intellectual authority of William F. Buckley, Jr. and reached its peak with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the takeover of House of Representatives in 1994 inspired by Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. Today, the books and op-ed pieces about what’s wrong with the GOP and how it can be fixed are legion and no two of them offer the same solution. It’s when a political party faces this kind of despair that it can either choose to reflect, recommit, rebrand and revive itself to be a viable competitor in the democratic marketplace, or it can engage in finger-pointing, pine away for times past, or cling to policies or tactics that are no longer effective. Only time will tell which direction the party will take.
The bottom line is that the political junkie in me is highly satisfied. It’s an amazing time to be a student of American politics.
It’s the other personality in me that’s troubled. As a black man who was raised with conservative values and expresses my commitment to those values by aligning myself with the Republican Party, I am torn between the pride I feel in my country for Barack Obama’s ascendancy and my deeply held beliefs, most of which are diametrically opposite of those expressed by Senator Obama.
There’s no doubt I’m fascinated by the man who in four years went from being a virtual unknown outside of the state of Illinois to the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for President. I’ve been following his rise since the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when his speech electrified the convention-goers and heralded the arrival of a new political superstar. I didn’t watch the speech but I saw enough snippets to be very impressed with him. In fact, I love to hear him speak, even if I don’t agree with the content of his comments. He is a mesmerizing orator, exhibiting a skill that is increasingly rare in modern American politics. I believe that well-crafted, well-presented words, whether in written or spoken form, have incredible power and Senator Obama’s mastery of words is unequalled in modern politics.
His message of inclusion is equally appealing. He offers himself as a “post-racial,” “post-partisan” politician whose vision is of an America united toward common goals rather than divided by our differences. Who couldn’t get on board with that? When he said in his 2004 speech that “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he was speaking a language I recognized as a born-again Christian and a Rich Mullins fan, a language of faith which hadn’t emanated from the Democratic Party in a long time. At the urging of a friend, I read Senator Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and I found much to admire about him. He came across as thoughtful, considerate and measured in words and manner. He treated those with whom he disagreed with respect and displayed a willingness to engage anyone in a dialogue in order to arrive at a solution. In short, he came across as a thoroughly decent man.
How, then, do I square my generally positive feelings about Barack Obama the man, and the significance of his run for the Presidency to black Americans like me, with the fact that we agree on almost nothing when it comes to policy?
Does electing a black man for President trump my disagreements with him on the expansion of an already overburdened, inefficient and ineffective federal government? Where does he intend to find the money for all the new middle-class benefits and tax breaks, not to mention the expansion of existing entitlements, when the math of simply eliminating the tax cuts for the “rich” doesn’t add up?
Does the historical significance of his rise to the White House mitigate my fundamental belief that the government-managed universal health care solution he proposes may reduce the number of uninsured but also decrease the access to care and the ability of doctors and families to make their own medical decisions? Doesn’t he see the numbers of doctors who are refusing to accept Medicare and Medicaid patients because the government is paying less while their expenses are rising?
Does the transcendent nature of his candidacy obligate me to ignore his position on abortion, a practice that to me is not only immoral but impacts the black community more so than any other demographic group in America? How does he reconcile his expressed belief in the dignity of all people, particularly the voiceless and the weak, when he upholds a practice that even the Reverend Jesse Jackson equated to slavery and genocide because it dehumanizes the victim in order to justify inhuman treatment? Does he know that Planned Parenthood uses my tax dollars to build the overwhelming majority of their abortion clinics in black neighborhoods, and that black women represent 13 percent of the female population in America but 36 percent of all abortions? How do I embrace a man who supports partial-birth abortion, which one veteran Democratic senator declared “too close to infanticide,” and even voted against a law directing doctors to take action to save aborted babies born alive?
I could go on but my point is clear.
Some will say these are trivial issues compared to nearly 400 years of oppression and the opportunity to change our nation and the world forever by putting a black man in the White House. This is a movement, they’ll say, whose time has come.
That’s exactly my problem, though. In the eyes of his supporters, Barack Obama is no longer a politician; he’s a movement, a redeemer upon which people are imprinting their own dreams of a nation united to reach common goals.
The words of hope and unity, however, clang like cymbals against the reality of his voting record in the Illinois legislature, the declaration by the non-partisan National Journal that he is the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, and his statements during the campaign which indicate an affinity for 1960s-style hierarchical government rather than 21st century partnerships and solutions. I have to keep reminding myself that at the end of the day, he’s still a liberal politician who, if he gains the White House, will team with other politicians of like mind in the House and Senate to bring about, to paraphrase his campaign slogan, “change I can’t believe in.”
I pledge that I will not be a party to the ugliness that’s sure to be directed at Barack Obama during the general election. I believe he is a Christian who loves his country and its people, and I will speak out in his defense when lies are told about his heritage, his faith or his patriotism. I wish him well in his historic quest and should he win, I will show him the respect he has earned as the elected President of the United States.
Yes, I will rejoice at the significance of his victory and I will be proud of him, just as I am proud of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, two strong, smart and distinguished black people who broke barriers nearly as significant but have never received the credit from their people that they deserved because they violated the black creed against being conservative or Republican.
I will, however, continue to respectfully express my disagreements with him when I think he is wrong and oppose his policies if they go against my principles. Ultimately, I think he would prefer being treated as a man and not a movement.