R-BOMBS AWAY! How solid is her work?


PART 4—WE LIBS SHOULD DEMAND BETTER SERVICE: Are white liberals displaying an “insidious” form of “electoral racism” in their current reactions to Obama? Is there really such a thing as “liberal electoral racism,” defined as “the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors?”

Melissa Harris-Perry seemed to suggest as much in her recent piece for the Nation. (For part 3 of our report, click here.) For our money, people might consider being more careful before they throw these R-bombs around, especially when such claims and suggestions are directed at millions of people.

But first, let’s consider a different question:

What level of service should progressives demand from our exalted professors? In our view, Harris-Perry’s work in this piece was remarkably weak. Does the time ever come when liberals and progressives say this just ain’t good enough?

How solid is Harris-Perry’s work? Consider the very fuzzy claim with which she opens her piece. Yes, this is an upbeat claim. But like the rest of Harris-Perry’s piece, it doesn’t make too much sense:
HARRIS-PERRY (9/21/11): Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative.
“Such racism is no longer operative?” We have no clear idea what that means, or why Harris-Perry would say it. Harris-Perry goes on to note that Candidate Obama got a higher percentage of the white vote than Candidates Kerry and Gore before him. This seems to be true, though exit polls are imprecise; the differences are slim; and Candidate Gore had white votes drained off by Candidate Nader. (According to standard exit poll data, Obama got 43 percent of the white vote. Kerry got 41 percent; Gore got 42 percent, with Nader taking three percent.) But it does seem clear that many white voters withheld their vote from Obama due to race. In a range of southern states, Obama received sharply fewer white votes than Kerry. And in months’ worth of exit polls during primary season, many white voters in various states seemed to say that Obama’s race could be a negative factor in deciding their vote.

Is that form of electoral racism really “inoperative?” In this context, we don’t even know what that word means—and neither do you, of course. If it simply means that these votes didn’t cost Obama the White House, that of course might not be the case in a future, closer election.

Like the one next year.

What is Harris-Perry saying these things—these things which are so murky? We have no idea. But this is the limited level of service we often receive from our hard-working professors. For an example of very weak service, consider the passage where Harris-Perry compares the performance in office of Presidents Obama and Clinton.

Are unhappy white liberals holding Obama to a double standard? In the coming election, will white liberal voters show a “willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors?” Harris-Perry says the relevant comparison is with President Clinton. Failing to explain that pronouncement, she offers the following comparison of the two presidents.

Whatever one may think of Obama or Clinton, this strikes us as highly underwhelming analytical work:
HARRIS-PERRY: The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama’s healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever. Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans; but it was Clinton who established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Obama helped repeal. Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare “reform,” cutting off America’s neediest despite the nation’s economic growth.

Today, America’s continuing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration. In terms of criminal justice, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased judicial disparities in punishment; by contrast, federal incarceration grew exponentially under Clinton. Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton’s first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.

These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.
As a general matter, we agree with Harris-Perry’s broadest assessment. As a general matter, we agree that Clinton and Obama are “centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms.” (We voted for Clinton’s re-election; we expect to vote for Obama’s.) But good lord! Harris-Perry never explains why Clinton is the only relevant comparison. What’s wrong with comparing Obama’s treatment with that received by Jimmy Carter, another centrist Democrat? Like Obama, Carter faced a very bad economy not of his making—and he got left for dead by white liberals. Meanwhile, a decent person will avert his gaze from some of Harris-Perry’s attempts to compare Obama with Clinton. For our money, the comparisons involving gay rights, unemployment and military entanglements are especially weak, for a variety of reasons. Other obvious points of comparison are missing, perhaps for strategic reasons.

(Examples: Clinton raised tax rates on the highest earners, Obama did not. And of course, Clinton stared down the GOP and scored a major political win at the end of his third year in office.)

Might we offer the world’s most obvious point? It’s very hard to compare the work of two presidents. Separated by eighteen years, Clinton and Obama faced different challenges entering office; they enjoyed different advantages. Obama passed health care but Clinton did not? We think it's good that he did. But at one miraculous point in time, Obama had sixty senators (pretty much). It may be that Harris-Perry is only saying that Obama and Clinton are generally similar—that neither man served as the Great Liberal Hope while Obama has been "just as competent" as Clinton. But good grief! Those point-by-point comparisons are very weak. What would you think about work that slender from a mere college student?

Clinton and Obama are generally comparable, Harris-Perry seems to say. They are centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities. We would tend to agree with this assessment—but this only brings us back to our underlying problem. Having crafted this assessment, Harris-Perry offers no evidence—none at all—that Obama is being treated differently by these white liberals today. And yet, she loads another bomb into the bay:

“One president is white. The other is black,” she concludes, R-bomb near at hand.

Is Obama being treated more harshly than Clinton by white liberals? More harshly than Carter? How about the way white liberals treated Candidate Gore? How about President Johnson, back in the day? Harris-Perry offers no data on these questions. And she makes no attempt to discuss the way white liberals reacted to those earlier figures.

But so what? She does have her R-bombs! Granted, we liberals have been a bit promiscuous with the recent use of these weapons. It was fun when we dropped these bombs in semi-promiscuous ways on the heads of “those people” in the tea party. But now, one columnist has dropped an R-bomb on Hispanics! And sure enough! Just a few weeks later, a professor is coming for us!

Question: If we plan to let our professors throw these powerful bombs all around, might we ask for one major reform? Might we insist on serious analytical work before they turn to the use of these weapons? Especially when these talented slackers go after The Good People—Us?


  1. You apparently haven't listened to Melissa when she is declaiming that one phrase or word, seemingly innocent-sounding in itself, is "actually code for" another word or phrase which is blatantly racist. She at times sounds like John Bolton with her "codes" which only she knows about. His are, of course, Islamic and with regard to Sharia Law, while hers are about racism.

  2. Would American's know good analytical work when they read it? Perhaps. But we get our information from pundits whose sole job is to distort and dis-inform.

  3. Props to Bob for channeling Martin Niemöller's
    famous quotation.

    There may be a parallel between accusations of racism and accusations of Communism. In the early 1950's the Republicans won a lot of elections via Red-baiting. But, eventually that charge lost its potency. By now, it's probably worse to be accused of McCarthyism than to be accused of Communist sympathies.

    I think the same thing may be happening to accusations of racism. Claims that the Tea Parties are racist aren't working. They haven't prevented Tea Parties from expanding their influence. In fact, the unfairness of these accusations may even motivate Tea Party members to greater zeal. Similarly, the silly fuss about some sign on a rock several decades ago may well be helping Gov. Perry to regain his popularity.

  4. The biggest difference is that Obama keeps telegraphing his willingness not to merely compromise but to preemptively capitulate to Republican demands. This somewhat parallels Carter's unwillingness to stick to his guns. Instead, Carter kept frustrating supporters by immediately altering his position when faced with any sort of criticism. Also, Clinton rode into government as a smart politician. Obama, on the other hand, entered office as a charismatic, transformative figure, which had the effect of setting the bar much higher for him in terms of expectations.

    Also, the economy significantly improved under Clinton. Millions moved out of poverty. Now, we have millions stuck in poverty who originally were middle class.

  5. Clinton started out with less support from both whites and African Americans than did Obama.
    (according to polls in early 1993 and early 2009)
    The big difference is Clinton's approval went up with both groups and Obama's has gone down with both.