This is from a comment thread on The Washington Monthly blog called Political Animal when it was written by Steve Benen (now on The Rachel Maddow Show staff). The title of the August 11, 2011, blog post is “Chumps,” and it talks about how happy the Republicans must be to see Democrats fighting amongst themselves, being disappointed with the President’s performance, and ignoring the Republicans’ obstructionist plan to portray the President as weak. It is also well worth reading. This comment, from “Tom,” is very insightful. Link to full post and comment thread here.
Tom, on August 11, 2011, 10:54 AM:
The predominantly white progressive intelligentsia don’t see Obama clearly because of our racial blind spot. We don’t see the role of race in how he seems to understand himself and how others perceive him.
First of all, we think that he understands himself as one of us. A progressive activist, heir to the radical and New Left movements most of us were raised in. He is not; I think that he understands himself (and certainly his real base understands him) as the first African American President. We’re thinking Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. We should be thinking about Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago. Washington was elected and immediately faced a solid wall of opposition from most white aldermen in the city. Washington understood his role as breaking down that wall of opposition and assembling a governing majority, which he finally did after his re-election. Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter. By the way, one of Washington’s political strategists was David Axelrod.
How does Obama break the iron unity of the GOP opposition to assemble a governing majority in the US Congress? If we progressives were not blinded by our own assumption that our history is the only history, we might see how Obama may be seeing his situation.
White progressives often think that African American elected officials are politically naive. We will give far more credit to Cornel West, who has never been elected to anything, than to an elected state senator, or even the President of the United States. We think that Obama does not understand the nature of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, or Eric Cantor, as though he has not sat across the table from them. He doesn’t understand how mean they are, we think.
Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground, and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that an oppressed people struggle.
Obama has taken a seat at the negotiating table and said “There is no reason why we cannot work out solutions to our problems by acting like responsible adults. That is what people expect us to do and that is why we have entered into public service.” That is the moral high ground.
Honestly, I have been reminded more than once in the last few months of those brave college students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, back in the day. Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter. Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head. I don’t think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end.
Obama is winning. Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better. Independents are flocking to him. Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders. Obama is not telling us about lack of seriousness of the Congressional GOP; he is showing us the vivid contrast between what we expect of our leaders and their behavior. The last two and a half years have been a revelation of the essential conflicts in our society and our politics.
If white progressives understood much about the politics of the African American struggle in the United States, we would see Obama in the context of that struggle and understand him better. And you don’t have to be African American to know something about the history of the African American struggle. The books and the testimony is there. It’s not all freedom songs. But you have to be convinced that it is something that can teach you something you don’t already know.