Sunday, May 22, 2011

Herman Cain and Allen West -- nothing but noise, avoiding reality

Many conservatives these days are touting two African-Americans, Herman Cain and Allen West, as the "next wave" in presidential politics, perhaps in the hope that folks would take them seriously as candidates that could topple Barack Obama. Of course, they're also saying that anyone who refers to them as "Uncle Toms" or "sellouts" is slurring them unfairly.

Well, here's the truth: The two pejoratives, if you understand history, are painfully accurate.

The conservative movement, when it got started in the 1960s, recruited Southern racists out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party -- something not lost on the vast majority of African-Americans (in this context, "big government" has a somewhat racist connotation). Understanding this and because of its wealth, for quite sometime the movement has been willing to pay top-dollar to blacks who are willing to put their names and faces on policies that historically been racially regressive, in part to try to convince whites not aware of that history. For that reason it doesn't matter if the blacks in their stable really believe what they're saying.

However, such a strategy has so far proven, and will likely remain, unproductive.

For openers, contrary to popular conservative opinion, African-Americans' overwhelming support for Obama in 2008 was totally unrelated to his color. Indeed, when he began his campaign most black leaders were somewhat suspicious of him in large part because he didn't come up through the civil-rights apparatus and was thus an unknown quantity; besides, because she had done the legwork ahead of time, conventional wisdom held that Hillary Clinton had the black vote locked up.

Furthermore, African-Americans don't do symbolic votes. Jesse Jackson had limited appeal as a candidate in 1984 and '88 primarily because they knew he had no chance of winning; they didn't even warm to Obama until he started winning primaries and caucuses that the Clinton campaign had pretty much ignored. Only when Hillary started playing the "race card," which she did here in Pennsylvania, did African-Americans begin abandoning her in droves. Then, with the memories of Florida in 2000 and amid concerns that Republicans would do their best to depress black turnout, the black community voted in record numbers.

So what do these have to do with Cain and West? A lot more than you might believe. As I said, African-Americans don't vote race; they vote policy, and to them the political right is by definition offensive regardless of color. I note a certain irony in that, while the right, and by extension the GOP, publicly opposes affirmative action as policy it will use it for political purposes -- no way would Michael Steele have become national president otherwise. Bottom line, if either Cain or West gets the nod next year he will go down in flames.

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