James L. Taylor: UnAmerican Americans (Part Deux) : News & Views Here, James Lance Taylor revisits patriotism and "Americaness" in the presidential campaign. He says John McCain is picking up a strategy Hillary Clinton reportedly rejected to paint Barack Obama as something other than American. His follow-up ess...
NPR logo James L. Taylor: UnAmerican Americans (Part Deux)

James L. Taylor: UnAmerican Americans (Part Deux)

Political Positions

Here, James Lance Taylor revisits patriotism and "Americaness" in the presidential campaign. He says John McCain is picking up a strategy Hillary Clinton reportedly rejected to paint Barack Obama as something other than American. His follow-up essay is titled UnAmerican Americans (Part Deux).

Taylor is associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and president-elect of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

Some time ago, I posted an article for "Political Positions" titled, UnAmerican Americans: Or, Why Michelle Obama is "Fair Game," which sought to parse, rather discursively I must admit, the racial implications of the national media's, and opposition's depictions of the Obamas as somehow "incomplete" Americans.

This was written before the New Yorker magazine controversy The follow-up comments to my article were mixed at best. My favorite part was where it stated:

"The ideas that Michelle and Barack Obama are somehow unpatriotic, Muslim, anti-American racist Christians who — as anti-Islamic, anti-Semites — refuse to wear the lapel flag, to pledge allegiance to it with hand over heart, and are just recently "really proud" of their country, "terrorist fist" bumpers who secretly wear Afros, Islamic Somali traditional clothing, wrote angry undergraduate papers, might be assassinated between now and the Democratic National Convention like Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and can be a Harvard-educated married "baby mama," are all rooted in a history of "American alienation" that plays well in the strange world of American politics."

Very recent published reports confirm that both the ("suspended") Hillary Clinton and John McCain campaigns have variously considered strategically emphasizing to the electorate the "un-American" culture and values and "lack of American roots" of Barack and Michelle Obama in their efforts to defeat him.

Mark Penn and John McCain
Clinton adviser Mark Penn (left) and Sen. John McCain (right)

Getty Images

Given the diversity of his biography and the genuinely Chicago-influenced black politics of his wife, it is plausible that they harbor a left-of-center politics, which most Americans find unacceptable since the Civil Rights-Black Power movements. But polls show overwhelming disapproval of the thoroughly failed moral, military, social, economic, and political policies of right-of-center conservatism that have dominated American politics ever since.

Little doubt the relationship to Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and Trinity United Church of Christ sealed the deal for many liberal Democrats who believe that he is "unelectable"; his rank as the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate definitely alienates the already conservative Right. Voters among Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, American Muslims, American Jews, gay people, women, and working-class whites have all expressed concern over Obama's various positions on pertinent issues.

This is all routine in presidential campaigns, especially among the very diverse Democratic base which traditionally commits political fratricide around its competing identity and material interests; which explains, in part, why they have only controlled the White House for 12 of the past 40 years. And they are at it again.

Yes, many Americans have rejected the liberalism of all Democratic candidates since 1968, but the Great Depression shows that they are equally hostile to failed governmental policies that bring ruin. No Republican occupied the White House from 1931 through 1951, after the country blamed Hoover for the collapse. So, the question pundits are asking, is, given Bush's unprecedented failure as president, why is Obama not enjoying an expectedly larger lead in the local and national polls than he currently holds?

Hillary Clinton's former chief advisor, Mark Penn (who had to resign the campaign before the Pennsylvania primary due to his receiving lobbying funds in the interest of Colombian Free Trade that could hurt the "hard working Americans, you know, white Americans" who her campaign champions), was the primary advocate of a strategy to, in his words, "explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values."

To her credit, Hillary Clinton rejected the idea but John McCain is taking it up. It is significant that Penn used the phrase "explicitly own American" and not "own America" to distinguish between Clinton and Obama; they imply very different things if Webster's dictionary is accurate. The latter is continental and the former is more cultural; like being "of and in," "the people of," "native or inhabitant of," America.

To avoid the anticipated charge of racism which is self-evidently implied, he insisted further, "we are never going to say anything about his background — we have to show the value of ours when it comes to making decisions, understanding the needs of most Americans — the invisible Americans." Considering that Clinton and Obama are political twins on most of the big policy questions, and Obama comes from many backgrounds, to what background "value of ours" belonging to "most Americans," might he be alluding but some coded racial one?

And who are these "invisible Americans"? Might they be the ideological kith and kin of Richard Nixon's "silent majority" which initiated the past 40 years of Republican domination of the White House, beginning when he employed his famously racist "Southern strategy" which Reagan later perfected? The same strategy backfired on the Clinton campaign between the South Carolina, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania Democratic primaries when racial politics were employed to resuscitate her foundering campaign and point blank lost her nearly 90 percent support among black Democrats.

This, more than the "Obama phenomenon," is the big, but seldom discussed story of the 2008 campaign. Obama did not play race; Hillary and Bill gave it to him as a political gift in employing what they must have thought were more benign innuendos than those Penn recommended. Black people know race cues when they hear them and the Clintons cannot forgive themselves for what Obama has "done to them" among black voters.

Mark Penn's tactic plays on the oft-unstated voluntary separateness which is characteristic of everyday life for most Americans. With all of the congratulatory talk of post-racialism, where half of the Democratic Party's mostly white primary and caucus voters voted for the first serious candidate of African and mixed descent, some of us have forgotten that there is a deeply unreconciled, unreconstructed brutal history that stands between African Americans and Euro American whites; perhaps this is why the House of Representatives has gotten around to apologizing for slavery in the last Congress.

The "We" in the Declaration of Independence and the "We" in the U.S. Constitution were defined narrowly in racial, gender, and property terms. Today, it relates to a well established idiom that "11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." It is evident in all sorts of public policy issues which affect all Americans, but usually disproportionately impact African Americans and the poor, ranging from incarceration and the death penalty, to infant mortality, predatory home and other loans, illiteracy and educational attainment, HIV/AIDS and public health — which includes gun violence.

Regardless of national or personal responsibility, there is a public and social tolerance for conditions among them, which underwrites or is underwritten by the still "outsider" status which is being employed as one of the many political tactics to appeal to "invisible Americans," (i.e., hard working white Americans) in the effort to defeat Obama. It is also presented daily and nightly in all of the commercial mimicking of "underclass" hip-hop as strange, unusual, and alien to "normal" (read: suburban, white, middle class) American tastes, lifestyles, and culture.

Picture three or four middle-aged white men with "Tone Loc" shades pushing cars, computers, SuperLotto tickets, or VISA to the backdrop of some beats, ending in the ubiquitous "Yeah boy!" of Flavor Flav. By the way, has anyone heard Rielle Hunter referred to as John Edwards' "baby mama" in the mainstream media?

Penn's thinking represents that of a moderate to centrist Democrat strategist, should there be any surprise that the McCain campaign has lifted this cuing? No major Republican presidential candidate of recent memory has made more campaign (as opposed to policy) overtures to African-American voters than John McCain.

Consider that he went to the Memphis site on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's murder amid "boos" and "we forgive you," and apologized for failing to "recognize greatness," in the Civil Rights Movement in his national and state-level opposition to recognition of the national holiday.

While the Clintons and Obama campaign fought over who racialized whom among Democrats, John McCain visited the most isolated parts of Black Belt Alabama — including a ride across the Alabama River on the Gee's Bend Ferry which was shut down for 44 years, closed initially because white leaders in Camden, Ala., wanted to prevent blacks from traveling mainland to fight for civil rights.

Without the ferry, the trip to town was 80 miles for the blacks who lived in Gee's Bend. He also traveled to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where "bloody Sunday" occurred (his all-white audience of 100 people notwithstanding). McCain visited the Ninth Ward of Louisiana during his post-primary poverty tour. He has declared April 4, 1968 to be one of the most memorable days of his P.O.W. experience as the North Vietnamese announced the murder of Dr. King.

McCain talked education and vouchers to an NAACP assembly and with little controversy accused Obama of "playing the race card," recently for merely mentioning likely Republican fear tactics around his racial difference from typical American presidents, the day before he spoke to the National Urban League. Does anyone recall the countless overt appeals Clinton made to women as a woman through tears, in debates, and speeches? (She was never accused of playing the "gender card" as a divisive appeal and in fact has Obama parroting how great she is as a woman historical figure).

For the most part, McCain has made himself immune to the charge of race pandering. Never mind his opposition to funding Hurricane Katrina relief (or being supported by Rev. John Hagee, who felt that it was a case of God's revenge on gays and revelers in New Orleans). Never mind his opposition to supporting "funds to the soldiers" (serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and directing more than $1 billion to Veterans Affairs), as well as other legislation funding care for veterans, many of them African American, Latino, Native American and poor people. And never mind his sudden opposition to Affirmative Action in his home state, Arizona.

There is something insidious and quite Clintonesque (or "Pennish") about Joe Lieberman, who is dually loyal to Israel and the United States, testing a weather balloon suggesting, the contest is "between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.''

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow is skeptical of the meager five percent of white poll respondents who recently said that they would not vote for an African-American candidate for president, after the number nearly quadrupled when those same individuals said that "most people they know would not" do such a thing.

Blow adds, "If the percentage of white voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate were only 15 percent, that would be more than all black voters combined. (Coincidentally, it also would be more than all voters under 24 years old.) That amounts to a racial advantage for John McCain."

If the "un-American" thing is not "racial" — a thing I never claim lightly — how is it that the Panamanian-born John McCain is an American hero for repeatedly crashing his jets until he got caught by the North Vietnamese, and Obama, who spent much of his life at the feet of his patriotic WWII Veteran white grandparents in Kansas, is someone who is weak on American values and on being American?

— James Lance Taylor