Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention tonight is meant to cement him as the most beloved politician since Mr. Smith went to Washington. As a state legislator, only a candidate for the open Illinois Senate seat, he has the smallest constituency of anyone who has ever given the address. This has more or less escaped the attention of the political media. When it comes to Obama (pronounced oh-bah-muh), all they can see is starlight.
Since winning the party’s seven-way March primary with 53 percent of the vote, Obama has been the subject of feature stories in the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the New Republic (cover story), the New York Times, the Economist, and the Atlantic. These stories run to over 17,000 words with nary a criticism or serious question about his politics.
Obama’s Republican opponent left the race after the Chicago Tribune exposed the details of a messy divorce. As a result, he has no real opposition, and following his keynote speech should cruise to a landslide victory, stealing a Senate seat from heartbroken Republicans in a highly competitive election year.
OBAMA IS GETTING RAVES because, while there have been articulate black candidates, in the last 20 years, there has never been a candidate with his appeal. A 42-year-old lawyer of Anglo-Kenyan extraction, he represents a majority black district in Illinois’ state senate, and he didn’t distance himself from that community to win votes.
His campaign is a world away from the candidacy of Carol Moseley-Braun, who benefited from a three way tug-of-war in the primary and who won this same Senate seat in 1992 by appealing to a coalition of white liberals, women, and urban minorities, or the 1983 and 1987 mayoral campaigns of Harold Washington, who used the same strategy in Chicago. Both candidates became lightning rods for racial politics, and both won in squeakers.
As William Finnegan outlined the New Yorker, Obama ran in the primary as a proud black progressive, anti-NAFTA and anti-war, and carried areas that were considered conservative. He also managed to eke out pluralities in several white ethnic districts in Chicago: “the kinds of places [Harold] Washington lost by huge margins in 1983.” From the start, Obama’s politics revealed a wider electorate that cared little about their candidate’s race — the kind of evolution that official black America typically writes off as a white daydream.
Since the 1960s black politicians have been elected in increasing numbers, but in most states, as in the U.S. Congress, they have formed caucuses that play only small roles in actual governance. Few black politicians have attempted, or needed, to make a broad-based, Obama-style pitch. The result has been a rump of relatively unimportant officials who excel at symbolic victories and hell-raising. The senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Michigan’s John Conyers, uses his perch to perennially introduces a resolution on reparations for slavery. Junior members have been in the news recently for cursing at Ralph Nader and calling the 2000 election a “coup.”
This style of statecraft was identified by liberal journalist Norman Kelley in his new book The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome. According to Kelley, black politics are inherently flawed. By channeling civic energy into things like the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, the campaign against the Confederate flag, or the Million Man March, black voters decided to exchange attempts at real reform for “the occasional succor of symbolic action.”
Obama had a chance to enter this fray in 2000, when he challenged incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, in the Democratic primary. Instead, Obama portrayed himself as a more qualified, competent choice, staying out of the racial one-upsmanship and building support in the district’s mixed and white wards. Obama lost that race narrowly but carried the same playbook into his Senate campaign. This time around, he’s made more effort to cultivate black support without making his blackness a central issue.
THAT WAS RISKY BECAUSE, when symbolism is the game, as it so often is in black politics, he who is the loudest wins. In the 1980s the master of this was Jesse Jackson, with his fist-pumping slogans and freelance diplomacy. Of late, Al Sharpton has been trying on the oversized tiara. Kelley argues that Sharpton’s 2004 presidential “shampaign” is a prime example of how black politics fail: “He has legitimized himself as a celebrity posing as a political leader, the kind of political leader who has never run for an office he could reasonably win.”
Sharpton’s run managed to earn him about as many votes nationwide as it would take to lose a race for governor of Rhode Island, but votes weren’t the point. The media found it useful to treat Sharpton as a spokesman for black America. Being “a white liberal’s idea of what a black leader is,” as a source told journalist Mark Bowden for an article on Sharpton in the Atlantic, was enough to put him over the top. He received face time on the Sunday morning talk shows, a place at the primary debates, and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live.
This translated into clout. As the convention opened, Sharpton — a man with no policy ideas and an unapologetic riot-starter — had bargaining power with John Kerry, and time at the podium.
But the election of Barack Obama has the possibility to change how black politics is played. Come January, who are reporters more likely to phone for quotes: the self-appointed black spokesmen, with no proven mass following; the handful of House members who often got elected by having special majority black districts carved out for them, and who cater to the lunatic fringes; or a popular senator, representing over 12 million Illinoisans?
Obama may tilt the Senate to the left, but he could also, finally, lead black politics away from symbolism and squabbling and into the mainstream.