“I can’t trust Obama,” said the old lady to John McCain at his election meeting. “I’ve heard…He’s an Arab.” Senator McCain grabbed the mike from her swiftly and said: “No, Ma’am, he’s a decent family man.” That was a double hit. First the old lady, perhaps responding to weeks of Obama ‘His-Middle-Name-Is-Hussein’ baiting, called him an Arab. The second was McCain, in his embarrassment, counterposing being Arab to being “a decent family man.”
McCain’s embarrassment came not so much from what was said, but where it was said. The chickens of some visceral campaign crowing were coming home to roost – on his public coop. He didn’t need that. But the genie was out. There have been meetings in which Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke of how Obama “palled around with terrorists.” Others (including sections of the media) have been playing the race card at different levels. Efforts to delink the Republican campaign from this have bombed. McCain was booed by his own crowd while trying to calm down people who said they were “scared” of Obama. “Kill him” was one cry from a member of the audience at a Palin rally after a mention of the Democratic presidential candidate. “Terrorist,” screamed another about him at a McCain meeting. The blood is up. At this point, no self-respecting genie would accept a tame return into the bottle. And it isn’t half as bad yet as it could be.
The media do emit clucking noises of disapproval on the “ugliness” of what’s been happening. Especially what has been happening at the Republican rallies. But it just isn’t so simple. The same media have spent millions of dollars in coverage demonizing Muslims in general and Arabs in particular. And that for many years now. Merely the fact that Obama’s middle name is Hussein – the senator is a Christian — is enough to touch the fear within many, of Muslims. And racism, socially embedded, predates the McCain-Palin meetings and rallies. Trying merely to touch a chord, McCain and Palin set off the whole orchestra.
Even now, the powerful Fox channel is running “investigations” on the “real” Barack Obama. These turn up such deadly revelations as his having known a couple of Pakistanis in his younger days. And having, horror of horrors, visited Pakistan. All in all, the Democratic Great Dark Hope faces prejudice on at least three levels: Race, for he is African-American. Islam, for his middle name is Hussein. And a concocted association with that media-moulded Pavlovian buzzword in the American mind: terrorists.
Sure, Obama is ahead of McCain in all the polls. That is far more the outcome of the economic crisis than any other factor. The Wall Street debacle has dealt a terrible blow to the Republicans. The party has been eight years in power and the biggest addition to the national debt came during that period. As did countless measures that allowed Corporate America to land the country in the mess they have. Tens of thousands of families face foreclosures on their mortgages each month. Personal bankruptcies have doubled in the past decade. It has not been a great time. McCain’s link to the past — he voted 90 per cent of the time with George Bush — hobbles him very badly. Endless drivel about the “success of the surge” in Iraq does not hide the fact that America’s wars are going badly.
It’s from when the Wall Street collapse began that Obama really moved ahead to secure his lead in the polls. But it’s surprising how much smaller his leads are — 6 to 7 per cent in most, not all, polls — at this stage. If Obama were white, those leads would have been very much higher, especially in light of the crisisMaybe more than twice as high. And there is the fear that some of the white voters who tell pollsters they will vote for Obama, finally won’t. That is, racial prejudice will assert itself amongst these voters. Even some pro-Democratic pollsters believe that 2 to 4 per cent of White voters declaring themselves for Obama will not in the end vote for him. Others believe that loss could be as high as 5 per cent. This hidden racism is called the “Bradley effect.” (In 1982, Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles made a run for Governor of California and the polls, even the last minute ones, showed him riding a high margin of victory. He actually lost.) Pollsters concluded that voters lied to them when the candidate was an African-American.
If so, things are not as comfortable for Obama as they seem at this moment. It may turn out that the Bradley Effect is drowned by the Wall Street Effect and he sails through. It could also be true that support for Obama is in fact underestimated by pollsters who call voters on their home phones. Most of the young people who support Obama use cell phones – and pollsters tend not to call on those. Whichever way you cut it, though, it is unwise to dismiss the impact the Race factor can have on the election even now. That too, when it ties Race in with Religion (‘Obama is a Muslim’) and Terrorism. Even if and when Obama wins, as the economic meltdown must ensure he does, it could turn out that his margin over McCain in the popular vote is less than the one he will notch up in the electoral college vote.
Meanwhile, what the commentators delicately refer to as ‘an undercurrent of racism’ isn’t quite staying under. It is true, though, that it is not anywhere as bad as it can really get. But it can and will hurt. The kind of mood seen amongst members of the audience at the McCain-Palin meetings raises fears of violence, too. A black television cameraman at one of these came in for verbal abuse. And that could be just the beginning. “Race is the great fault line in American politics,” says journalist and columnist Conn Hallinan. “Judging how it moves is no easy task in the sense we must wait till Nov. 4 to really know. But it is certain to send tremors through the American political system.”
The unions supporting the Democratic party are finding some members tripping over that fault line. And learning about a few tremors from their activists out campaigning. There are even special sessions advising activists on how to deal with fears they encounter amongst their members and the broader labor vote — fears arising from racial prejudice. The New York Times found that “Union canvassers are also confronting an unprecedented factor in this election — Mr. Obama’s race — making the effects of their door-to-door appeals less predictable.” It goes on to quote the AFL-CIO’s political director as saying: “We’re very conscious of the fact that many voters have never voted for an African-American for any office. For some voters, including union voters, particularly older voters, there is a reluctance.” And the Democratic candidate needs to ensure large margins in the union vote in states like Wisconsin.
Racial prejudice works its way into discussions of the economic debacle, too. There are dark hints that the mortgage crisis was brought on by including unworthy people who had no chance of paying up. This sometimes becomes a coded reference to non-White communities. A view in which, it all went wrong because of “them.” (In one estimate, 22 per cent of subprimes went to African-Americans. About 22 per cent went to Latinos.) This approach is used to take the focus off lenders who lied to and bamboozled clients, the poor and middle class of all communities and blame the victims, points out the Rev. Jesse Jackson, himself a presidential hopeful in 1984.
Efforts to disenfranchise less privileged voters are now underway. Some of this operates on claims of unearthing “huge fraud in voter registration.” Some in terms of raising technical problems for those who have experienced foreclosure and could lose their residential addresses. There’s still three weeks to go and more of this could still unfold in that time. Given the enormous and complicated hurdles, Obama has been incredibly lucky. The Wall Street disaster has boosted his bid for presidency as nothing else could. At this point, he is clearly ahead. The race could be over, but Race isn’t. Not yet.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This fall he is giving a course at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at: email@example.com.