Two from the Heart

The day before the election, the author sent First these two pieces, which he rightly believed would be “relevant however the vote turns out.” In the interval since the election, he updated the second piece here to take account of Romney’s defeat.

Race and the Presidency

When Obama came into office, there were hopes of a post-partisan and a post-racial presidency. Neither hope was fulfilled. It is hard to measure the extent of white displeasure with a black president, but the signs are hard to ignore. The birther controversy, the insidious use of Obama’s middle name by hard right opponents, the demand to see the transcripts of his grades in college, the charge that he hates white people, all seem counters for what cannot be openly said—an unqualified black man occupies the highest office of the land. In rejecting the charge of racism, hard right opponents of Obama may point to the blacks among them who command their support. Herman Cain had an enthusiastic constituency of white voters. If Clarence Thomas chose to enter the political arena, would his race matter? It is not Obama’s blackness alone that provokes a racist animus, but the toxic mixture of his blackness and his perceived liberal or, worse, socialist disposition. Cain and Thomas are safe blacks, unthreatening to the conservative establishment, their blackness in a sense irrelevant to their roles in public life—in the eyes of their supporters. In Obama’s case, blackness and a threat to the status quo are mutually reinforcing in the eyes of his racist opponents. The false charge of “socialist” leveled against him is provoked by the fact that he is black and not, so to speak, a house Negro.

It may surprise to find the race theme on the left, but it exists. Here is a theory about Obama memorably expressed by a friend of mine on the left. “The consciousness of being a black man in a white and hostile society is deep in his DNA, fundamentally emasculating him, morally, politically, psychologically, in the one great test, that clearly cannot be rectified—for he is quite likely to lose the election because of it—the mouse could not roar—it is a tragedy for him and the country.” As my friend says, he is not alone in his view, and it will not change even with Obama’s wins reelection. We get a version of this view in Bill Maher’s urging Obama to become “an angry black man who’s pushing a liberal agenda.”

Is there truth in this view, and if there is, what is it? It is certainly the case, as Senator Harry Reid once said, that a very dark skinned black would probably not have succeeded in getting elected—and, one might add, neither would a roaring black in the mold of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Americans are not ready for an angry black man as leader of the nation. My friend is enraged by the behavior of what he calls the Wall Street monster and the failure of the Obama Administration to deliver justice to those who caused the meltdown of the financial system. What accounts for Obama’s failure to act boldly and decisively must be the ambitious black man’s fear of offending in a white man’s world. In his anger, however, my friend commits inadvertently and unintentionally a species of racialism. What does it mean to be “black in a white man’s world?” It means Jackson, Sharpton, Clarence Thomas as well as Obama. To think of blackness or the consciousness of it as singular is to engage in stereotyping. “The consciousness of being black” is doubtless common to all blacks, but its character varies from group to group and from person to person. Would we expect homogeneity among Jews, Italians, Irish, Hispanics or any other ethnicity in the consciousness of their ethnicity? My friend employs an unfortunate metaphor, DNA, for “the consciousness of being black,” unfortunate because ethnic or racial consciousness is a cultural, not a biological construction. Obama is being faulted for his coolness and the choices and decisions he has made as if they proceed from the color of his skin as opposed to individual temperament, convictions and the personal exercise of intelligence. (As far as I know, no one ever attributed Michael Dukakis’s affectless response to the question about the hypothetical rape of his wife and the death penalty to his Greekness in an unGreek world.) Race and ethnicity are of course influences in the formation of character, but they are not all determining. We have nothing to gain from the stereotype of a politically correct black man’s politics and demeanor. Which is not to say that one may not find Obama’s temperament congenial (I do, others don’t) or that one should not feel free to criticize his choices and decisions.

The fact is that anyone running for president must be able to dissociate himself from his ethnicity, racial identity and religious affiliation in the public sphere without suppressing his private identity. Kennedy openly separated his political/public role from his Catholicism, which he privately embraced. It was required of him in the interests of the Establishment clause of the Constitution, which affirms the separation of Church and State. He was praised, and he would have not been elected if had failed to do so. When Joseph Lieberman, a modern orthodox Jew, ran for office, his presence on a national ticket was welcomed as a breakthrough, but he rightly did not make his Jewishness front and center in his campaign and in his conception of what it would mean for him to occupy the office of vice president. Similarly, Romney’s Mormonism, if he were elected, should play no role in his exercise of the presidency. (Times have changed. The hard Republican Right is an exception in the degree to which it combines religion and politics. To an extent, its exertions have filtered into the general political culture.) Neither Obama nor any other black person can present himself as a black president. He is necessarily a president who happens to be black. My friend’s complaint concerns the perceived failure of Obama to deliver justice to the financial system. But a similar complaint has been directed against him about his failure to address poverty and lack of opportunity of African Americans. To which the answer is that as president of all the people, Obama has no choice but to formulate a comprehensive policy about poverty that includes blacks rather than singles them out. One may fault him for lacking an anti-poverty program, but not for his failure to focus separately or exclusively on black poverty.

Neither the Left or the Right looks beyond the color of Obama’s skin to judge him for what he is, what he believes, and what he does as an individual. A post racial presidency assumes a post racial society, and we are not there yet.


Epitaph for a Political Sociopath

Politicians are about gaining and retaining power, and there is always a question about the authenticity of their convictions. It is rare to find a politician who holds absolutely consistent views through the thick and thin of his or her political career. Most politicians have convictions and when they cut corners or trim or refrain from expressing their beliefs forcefully they may experience silently, if not openly, a moral tension between conviction and practice. The politician may reverse himself on a policy that he advocated because of a genuine realization of having been wrong (there is everything admirable about changing one’s mind in the light of new evidence), but too often the change is a result of political calculation of what makes for success. Like most human beings, politicians have consciences and doubtless experience a moral tension between conviction and political necessity when the two seem to be pointing in opposite directions. If the absolutely consistent politician, who follows his conscience wherever it may lead, is a rarity, so is the absolutely inauthentic politician, who seems to have no core beliefs and who changes positions for political benefit without a twinge of conscience. We have an example of such a character in Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for the presidency. As Obama has said in the third debate with him, Romney has been all over the map in his campaign for the nomination and, having won the nomination, in his campaign for presidency. The president could have extended his judgment to the totality of his political career. The man who campaigned for the nomination, characterizing himself awkwardly as “a severe conservative” was widely at variance with the man who ran against Kennedy for the Senate and became governor of Massachusetts as a moderate. He has been pro-choice and pro-life, for and against gun control, for the individual mandate in health care and against it, against the dream act for young illegal immigrants and for a modified version of it, for planned parenthood and against it, for Pell grants for college students and against them, and against our leaving Afghanistan in 2014 and for it, and for and against the view that human beings are a major cause of global warming. I don’t believe that I have exhausted the list of all the changes he has undergone, but it is clearly a long list. As John McCain satirically remarked in the campaign for the Republican nomination in 2008, Romney was indeed the candidate of change. All the changes seemed to have occurred without, as I say, a twinge of conscience, suggesting that Romney may be a political sociopath.

Is there another non-clinical explanation for Romney’s politically astonishing behavior? We perhaps should look for his conscience in the place where he has insistently and consistently advertised his strength, the business arena. There is no question that he has been a successful business executive, and there is no evidence that he has been unethical in the exercise of his role. The main motive of business, as Romney would be the first to acknowledge, is the profit motive. As a problem solver, he must subordinate all considerations to the need to make and maximize profit. Romney believes that his skills as a problem-solving businessman are transferable to the political arena. In the national economy, success consists in its substantial growth and the benefits that follow from it such as job creation. Is there any reason to doubt that his role as CEO of Bain is an advantage in addressing the problems of the economy and job creation? Yes, there is: if, as it turns out, profit making and job creation prove to be in an inverse relationship. For instance, businesses feel free to lay off workers in the interests of increasing profit. But the principal inadequacy of business psychology to the task of governing lies elsewhere. There is a whole array of social and ethical issues that lie beyond the purview of business or business culture such as reproductive rights, civil rights, health care and gun control. The person who governs in the business way will regard such positions as means to an end and will feel free to change position on any and all issues in order to achieve success in what he or she believes, putting it awkwardly, will profit their governing. It is as if social issues, for instance, are dispensable commodities to be bought and sold, depending on a calculus of political gain and loss. Romney’s ethical system, it would appear, derives exclusively from the business world. So long as he follows its rules of conduct there is no cause for moral anxiety when he changes direction on any of the issues that arise.

What is striking and distressing is how little Romney’s political and moral inauthenticity has undermined his campaign for president—in the eyes of the media and the electorate. In fact, his “shape shifting” (in the euphemism used by supporters such as David Brooks) has served him well. In the primaries his claim to be a “severe conservative” won support from the Republican base and carried him to the nomination. In the presidential debates, the moderate governor of Massachusetts reemerged and won over undecided independents and some supporters of the president. Romney could rely on the inattentiveness and short memory span of the electorate, a majority of which devote little or no time in tracking the trajectory of his position taking. One might think that the media, whose business is tracking, would point up the volatility. When the chattering pundits do the tracking, it is often done in a neutral voice as if pointing out hypocrisy or absence of conviction would be risking partisanship. There are the few who are willing to express outrage and then there are those, again like David Brooks, who shamelessly turn it into a power: “Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama. He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans. He’s more likely to get big stuff done.” Big stuff,” what is that? Changing the tax code to lower taxes on the wealthy. Allowing drilling for oil without concern for what it does to the environment. What is “small bore,” a la Obama? Investing in infrastructure, regulating the economy to prevent financial meltdown, empowering the EPA to mitigate global warning. Do I need to enumerate the progress made on civil rights for gays? Apparently, inauthenticity is contagious, spreading easily to the commentariat.

Romney lost the election. May he return in peace to the financial sector where he belongs.

From December, 2012