Illustration of Barak Obama looking down, with shadow outlines extending in all directions around him


Populism and Politicking

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By David Lamberth

In the 2000 and 2004 elections, George W. Bush largely succeeded in appropriating the “everyman” mantle, winning what the press describes as the “who do you want to have a beer with” test over Al Gore and John Kerry. Prominent in recent politics, this test was behind Hillary Clinton’s predilection to the boilermaker in the 2008 primaries. It also drove Sarah Palin’s debate references to Joe Six-Pack, and likely John McCain’s focus on Joe the Plumber—an everyman in so many respects. The examples suggest that this strategy is generally populist, oriented to the average American versus the elite. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan succeeded significantly in appealing to this everyman, and campaigned accordingly.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama and John McCain appeared to have grasped the de rigueur aspect of populism. McCain took a lead from Reagan and Bush, endorsing populist rhetoric and politicking while remaining generally free from populist policies (until his mortgage plan was unveiled). Obama clearly absorbed this lesson, and tried to be populist both in rhetoric and in his policies, as did Clinton. We see this notably in Obama’s repeated assurance that his tax plan would negatively affect only 5 percent of the populace, typified by his now infamous comment to Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth around.”

Assessing the traction of the candidates’ populism allows us some insight into how race and class functioned in the election. Class, however, is not one thing but several on the economically fluid American scene, playing out in terms ranging from economic privilege to social circle and experience to educational access and achievement. From the standpoint of economic class, both presidential candidates in this latest election must be placed in the top echelon, though McCain’s family wealth dwarfs Obama’s. McCain grew up with relatively high wealth compared to Obama, though less than he currently has. McCain was exposed to the economic and social mix of a military base, but also learned the commanding officer’s privilege at home. He attended private school, and received preferred admission to the naval academy and preferential treatment thereafter as the son and grandson of admirals.

Obama’s youth was not initially privileged in any normal class means; he was reared by a single white mother and her parents, who struggled and ultimately succeeded in providing him opportunities, mostly educational. These, including private school from fifth grade on, constitute the beginnings of his “first-class” academic experience, which differentiates him on one vector of class.

Despite the circumstantial irony, the standard line in the election early on was that Obama is elite, while serviceman and P.O.W. McCain, or at least Palin (the real deal), had more of a claim to populist appeal. Nonetheless it was amazing to see Obama, the least economically privileged major party candidate since Bill Clinton, figured flatly as elite. This characterization seemed to be driven by his eloquence, but it also depended on Obama’s access to excellent schools, particularly Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard.

One might surmise that this was another instance of American anti-intellectualism, but it is a peculiar, if not perverse, conclusion. Since 1988, Americans have elected a president with a Yale degree, and only candidates Mike Dukakis, Bob Dole, and John McCain have not had an ivy degree. Obama forewent the wealthy corporate avenue of most of his colleagues from Harvard Law in favor of community organizing, and proffered the more populist policies in this election, yet he was widely imagined as the elite object of populist warnings.

I suspect race was in play, in the form of the difficult but real set of issues surrounding the continued ambivalence among white Americans concerning affirmative action and, more pointedly, assumptions by some white Americans about what might be “normal” and “appropriate” aspirations and attitudes for an African American. Obama can’t be elite, and hence the object of populist ire, simply because he is smart; Rhodes scholar and Yale Law grad Bill Clinton was smart too, but rarely confused with the elite by persons of either party.

Interestingly, once the economic debacle began, this “elitist” effect faded in polling. This suggests that whatever stereotypes are in play, Americans are apt in times of crisis to set aside the anti-intellectual aspect of populist anti-elitism, even when it is also “raced.” James Carville’s “it’s the economy, stupid” may be more fundamental to Americans.

A related strategy that appeared to be in play in the election is what Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Cary referred to as “affinity politics” when commenting on Sarah Palin’s appeal in Alaska. Cary had in view that Palin typically has leaned on the affinities she has with her audience—she’s a mother, a hockey mom, raised in a small town, a hunter. By this he meant to underscore that until her stint as vice presidential nominee, Palin didn’t run on issues so much as on affinities.

We can also understand the tactic debuted by the Clinton campaign, but reprised by McCain, of questioning “what we know about Obama” to be an appeal to affinity politics as a species of populist rhetoric. It leaned at the same time on race and presumptions about difference in Obama’s candidacy, suggesting that this was a candidate we could not trust.

“Who is Barack Obama?” The question seemed perfectly appropriate, but at the end of the longest presidential campaign in history, it strained credulity. Obama had penned two memoirs and was as forthright about many matters as any other candidate. Yet the question stood, along with the accompanying declaration: “The American people deserve to know the nature of your association with Bill Ayers,” or with ACORN. This tactic leveraged affinities, particularly the demographics of racial difference, cultural difference, and even spurious religious difference, as a means of rendering one candidate untrustworthy. It’s not that trust shouldn’t be on the table. However, trust shouldn’t depend in any respect on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or the like.

Because this tactic presumed racialized thinking and stereotyping in the electorate, deploying it implied a certain cynicism. This has led many to read this election as a referendum on the state of race relations. I doubt there is as much to learn on this from the election results as we might think, much as we didn’t learn how race and gender rank among Democrats from the primary. Many who vote Republican or Democrat would so vote regardless of the race of the candidates. Obama’s win was enormously symbolic, but the actual “referendum” is limited to a survey of not only a small slice of undecided voters, but such a slice only in contested states. I think the election has shown us a lot about race, but I don’t think we learn much that is definitive from it. An Obama win shouldn’t permit generalizing about the large portion of the electorate who did not vote for him, a tiny number of whom have exhibited abominable behavior at campaign rallies. This is one of the interesting things about race and gender, and other forms of social difference—they are difficult to isolate and study in relation to actual voting.

But the appeals to them in campaign rhetoric are a different matter. “Affinity politics” was raised to something of an art form in this election by the McCain/Palin campaign, a disconcerting art form at that. The appeal early on to Clinton supporters by Palin was clearly an instance of this form of politics aligned along gender rather than race lines, and the recasting of Palin as a “Bible-believing Christian” attempted the same toward evangelicals.

This relates to a point about the differential treatment of religion in the 2008 race, particularly how the press and populace treated Obama’s church affiliation and his former pastor compared to how it treated that of McCain, and later Palin. I submit that the Jeremiah Wright scandal had less to do with the extremity of Wright’s actual statements than with the form of preaching and worship in his mainline black church (a UCC congregation), which was utterly unfamiliar to most of the white electorate and the media who saw and heard it for the first time. The media and the Clinton campaign at the time sought to exploit the unfamiliarity here, without attempting to locate and assess it in religious context.

The media and the McCain campaign learned much from this incident. McCain quickly disassociated himself from pastors with whom he had previously been comfortable. More strikingly, before the end of the first day of Sarah Palin’s nomination, the McCain/Palin campaign clarified that although Palin had attended two Assemblies of God congregations since she was 11, she was not a Pentecostal or “a member of any church.” Being a Bible-based believer is one thing; belonging to a church apparently another, for this latter aspect might require one to take responsibility for whatever one’s pastor says or does. Obama had to disassociate; Palin began with that assumption, and largely, though not exclusively, was given a pass, despite the fact that the typical rhetoric and practices of her Assemblies congregations are no more familiar to a sizeable swath of the electorate than the characteristic practices of a black Protestant church.

The media did write about Palin’s religious background, and some goings-on in her church, but with much less fervor than they mustered for Obama’s a scant six months ago. This is largely good. Unfortunately, it also reinforces the idea for future candidates that while religiosity is good, perhaps even necessary (since America is a religious nation), specific religiosity is always problematic. That plays into forms of religious bias that are unworthy. This point was made eloquently by Colin Powell when he strongly rejected not only the inaccurate claim that Obama is a Muslim, but also the underlying premise that there could be anything wrong with being a Muslim, or the slander that Muslims by definition associate with terrorists. Powell went on to mention how this might sound to a seven-year-old Muslim boy or girl who had aspirations to be president. Powell’s comment struck me as resonant with Obama’s experience, and perhaps his own, as well as indicative of his rejection of the predominance of affinity politics as it was playing out this election cycle, and its dependence on racial and ethnic bias. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

These words are adapted from the panel discussion “Religion, Race, and Gender in Presidential Politics” held at HDS on October 20, 2008.

David Lamberth is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

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