How the Clintons Lost It
Orangeburg, South Carolina.
The polls have not yet opened as I write, but however the primary turns out it has already had one tremendous effect. As Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state legislator from Orangeburg, told me on the eve of the election: as far as black people are concerned, from her perspective, "The bloom is off the rose of the Clintons."
The other day I wrote here about one of Bill’s events, and all the love he was receiving. That was real, and the next day’s papers had pictures of him pressing the flesh with a throng of ecstatic supporters. But as with so much in politics, it was all carefully crafted also. Late last year he came to Orangeburg, a primarily black town in the center of the state, on a campaign stump for Hillary and couldn’t fill half the auditorium at Orangeburg Calhoun Tech. Ever since, the Clinton team has been booking smaller venues. That 500-seat primary school auditorium was no accident. He’ll fill 500 seats; any more, though, and it might be an embarrassment. That same day I saw him he had also been at Claflin University, a historically black college in Orangeburg. He didn’t appear in the auditorium, where candidate events are typically held, but in the dining hall. The pictures in the morning paper all looked great. "My, they were crowded in," one Orangeburg woman said. But not too crowded in, not so crowded that they would have filled up a bigger space.
This is not to say that the Clintons don’t still have black support and won’t get black votes, but the temperature in Orangeburg this year was a world away from where it had been four years ago. Last time around, in advance of the South Carolina primary of 2004, I spent a lot of time here exploring the relationship between the Democratic Party and black voters for a story for the New York Times Magazine. Back then a lot of people were disgusted with the party, its condescension toward black, poor and working class voters, and its blindness to the grim realities of daily life. The home mortgage crisis was already a crisis here in 2004. Predatory lending already a crisis. Unemployment, underemployment, prison as a social program, education, health care already a crisis.
"It’s like the race is dying," a young woman named Rene Dalton had told me then at the end of a lengthy survey of the states of emergency that are everywhere and mostly invisible in Orangeburg County. But everyone says it: the poor have been written off. The poor, the state, the South. That was the Democrats’ big new idea in 2004, including many of its so-called progressives: "Write off the South." John Edwards was campaigning here then and hadn’t yet hit on his "two Americas" theme. No haves-and-have nots then. He was the millworker’s son who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he had a thick binder of uninspiring policy plans he spent a fair amount of time expounding on. John Kerry was flying in and out, not even noticing the desolation of a lot of the town. Al Sharpton was viewed with skepticism even if people liked his performance in the debates, not one of which the party deigned to hold in the South. Dennis Kucinich, great white progressive hope, was giving South Carolina and what is widely regarded as "the black primary" a pass, just as he planned to do this year before finally throwing in the towel. But again and again I spoke to people who said some version of "If only Bill Clinton could come back"
People I heard here weren’t saying that on the eve of this primary. Mr. Paul Robinson, the 74-year-old patriarch of the Professional Barbershop, who once told me, "Bill just rubbed me right," is through with that now and is backing Obama. On the road with Gilda, what was striking was the number of older black voters –the ones who are supposed to be firmly in the Clinton camp –who were coming up to her volunteering how angry they are at Bill and Hillary. Angry about their condescension, their racist messaging toward Barack Obama (all of it teetering between he’s not black enough/he’s too black), their unvarnished assumption that they really do know what’s best for black people and how dare anyone question them. It wasn’t just a matter of symbolism, low blows and perceived slights. How good really was it in the 1990s that Hillary wants to transport us all back to? people were suggesting in various ways. Unlike most black electeds in the state –a lot of them paid by the campaigns for their flattery — Gilda has remained officially neutral. That neutrality has caused some of her constituents to believe she must be supporting Hillary. In a sense, then, what some of these anti-Clinton people were trying to do was to lead their elected leader out from under the veil.
Gilda assured them that she was not with the Clintons, but Baraka Cheeseborough, who works with Gilda at CASA/Family Systems, an agency that deals with domestic violence, sharpened the people’s argument. Why vote against Hillary Clinton? "The history, the history," she would interject in these exchanges. Four years ago, Baraka was arguing the same thing, telling me and others we encountered then, "You can’t blame Bush for NAFTA." Or for "locking up more black voters than any president in history," for defining "three or more young people gathered on a street corner as a gang." Baraka, who has been volunteering for Obama, was saying the same kind of thing yesterday, but she was knocking on an open door.
Hillary has been stumping through the state touting a statistic that the average black family made $2,000-some more a year in the 1990s as a result of Bill’s policies. That was always chump change in the scheme of things, and looks even more like it today. When she and Bill say this on the stump now they nod their heads in self-satisfaction: Yes, indeed; remember, peons, and be grateful! They have always spoken like this, evading uncomfortable realities, like the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically when they were in power, that real wages declined, that household debt as a percentage of income skyrocketed, that living wage jobs disappeared, and the prisons swelled with black bodies. They were fraudulent hustlers always, their only calling card being something so pathetic it should make white people squirm in shame just by the association of skin: they were actually nice to black people one-on-one; they could actually talk to them like human beings, and hey, there was Vernon Jordan, Bill’s best friend.
I have been getting letters from CounterPunchers since beginning these dispatches from South Carolina suggesting I am some sort of airy fairy shill for electoral politics, change through voting, the lesser of two evils, Obama. Voting for Obama, I’ve been told, is against the interests of progressives, of blacks, of ‘the left’ (hello, where is that?). The arguments assume people cannot do two things simultaneously: participate in electoral politics and have a fundamental critique of the system. Or if they can they should do something really bold like vote for John Edwards, despite his earlier support for the war, support for the bankruptcy bill, support for the whole neoliberal agenda with a little tinkering around the edges. Now Edwards is a full-on populist supposedly, and that is a step up from ’04, but it is a deracinated populism for the most part, and one anchored firmly in the domestic sphere. Of course it’s never been easy for politicians, particularly white politicians, to address the overlapping questions of race, class and war with a thoughtful naturalness. It’s not easy for male politicians to throw gender into that mix, the disparities women and blacks and anyone other than white working class men feel most acutely. Edwards is doing better than he had at it, but it is still thin, and it still has something of the charitable patriarch quality to it: he will be the voice of the voiceless, and just to prove the point he spent the last day of the campaign dragging around the now-famous James Lowe, who couldn’t speak until he was 50 years old because he couldn’t afford the simple operation to correct a cleft palate.
Obama is no great black hope, no great left or progressive hope, and has all the problems and contradictions anyone will have who gets anywhere seriously in the money-soaked, media-driven and institutionally corrupt realm of Democratic Party politics –even if they say, as he has, that he’s running against the establishment. His campaign has been latched onto by some of the worst figures in white Democratic Party establishment politics in the state, many of them already looking forward to their own runs for governor or Senator in 2010 and calculating that a little symbolism in the direction of black voters might not be a bad investment at all. It is a dirty game, and one has to assume people are not blind to that.
But the old standard narrative –of black fealty to the Clintons and by association the "peace and prosperity" and supposed racial good times of the 1990s –has been broken. At the Edisto Fork United Methodist Church outside Orangeburg on Friday night, Michelle Obama, who grew up in working class Chicago and is rhetorically far more appealing than Barack, blasted the fiction of ’90s prosperity to "Amens" from among the audience. Naturally, she regards her husband as the antidote, though she did not call him "the Answer" as she once had, and urged the people to translate the energy from the campaign into fuel for charting their own political destiny. Black radicals worry that another standard narrative will take hold if Obama does too well here –that blacks will vote for anyone who is black and that the advancement of an individual will deflect attention from the continuing immiseration of the whole. That is hardly an insignificant argument. By history and circumstance South Carolina was bound to be a cauldron for racial politics this year, and the outcome was never going to be neat or satisfying. But the Clintons’ open fury that a black man should upset in any way their well-laid plans is now a paler version of that Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds: "truth in advertising," as my friend and longtime South Carolina activist Kevin Gray, also officially neutral in the race, calls it.
The Clintons have always bet that whatever happens in the primaries can all be smoothed over eventually, once Hillary glides to success elsewhere, that it will be a family spat forgotten once the Democrats drag themselves to Denver for the convention this summer. Their flaks in the press were already working the story overtime on the eve of the vote here: whites are abandoning Obama; blacks are coalescing; ergo he’s the black candidate who could never win a general election no matter what happens here; and Hillary is the only one who can bring people together. "I really believe that," Bill Clinton says biting his lip. Maybe they are right and Obama will be crushed and everyone will fall in line singing "Kumbaya" at the convention, welded to the Democratic candidate no matter the slights of the past. But the faults of class and race that were already present in the party have broken wider and deeper now. The shift was hastened before the big push in South Carolina even started –notably, by the Clinton team’s efforts to suppress voting or intimidate voters in Las Vegas. Now young activist lawyers have descended on South Carolina, at the invitation of the Obama campaign, to observe the vote here, and everywhere one can find blacks who say, "If Hillary is the ultimate nominee, I will not vote for her." Perhaps it is the emotion of a moment, but Gilda Cobb-Hunter thinks those divisions will not be easy to heal, precisely because they are not new, and the phony story of the Clinton past is undergoing major renovation. Black voters are traditionally the most loyal constituency the Democrats have; it would be fitting if the hubris of "America’s first black president" was finally the thing that blew the roof off.
Footnote: a little clarification to yesterday’s dispatch. The quote from Jesse Jackson in the Sun Times was dated November 27, 2007.
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org