How Dare He Play the Winning Card!

By Al Giordano


I've cited Mike Krauss here before. He's an old friend of mine who was once executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and his columns of late have not been particularly friendly toward Obama. In fact, he noted in a recent email to his readers: "Some have suggested that my criticisms of Senator Obama verge on Fox News broadcasting." But that just makes his smackdown of this week's emergence of race-baiting as a tactic by the McCain campaign all the more powerful:


So to go after the swing voters in Hillaryland, McCain has gone again to the Clinton playbook and introduced the word "race" into the campaign.


I understand the strategy, but I had expected better.

...if the McCain campaign - no, lets be clear - if John McCain persists playing to racial antagonism, he will invite and deserve whatever Obama sends back. Kiss the campaign goodbye.

And if John McCain should back into the White House on the strength of that ploy, he's going to find out what "bitter" really means.

Kiss the next four years goodbye.


Basically, the McCain campaign's accusation that Obama played the "race" card is misstated (as it so often has been, by others, too, this year). The term "playing the race card" applies very specifically to efforts to invoke bigotry and racial tensions to gain votes or power. When Obama said, the other day, in front of a Missouri crowd (one that was about 98 percent white) that he didn't look like the men on dollar bills, he wasn't playing any race card, but it would have been fair game to say that he was playing the "racism card."

They really are two distinct, in fact, opposite, things.

Those that do, so often, play the race card - intending to divide Americans along racial lines (see the aforementioned Fox News for daily examples) - have made a science out of accusing that any person that recognizes or speaks aloud about the deeply rooted racism in US politics and culture is himself practicing a form of racism. In their logic, if you call anybody out on racially divisive behavior then it is you, and not them, that is somehow the racist. It's oh so Orwellian. We heard plenty of that during the Democratic primaries, no? (Nobody takes a criticism of racist behavior more personally than somebody that thinks himself a liberal: just look out the passenger window and see all those wounded Democratic Party egos that are stacked up alongside the road to the White House like so much roadkill.)

In that context, the exchange in St. Petersburg, Florida, yesterday between Obama and some African-American youths that stood up in the seats behind him and held up a banner that said "What About the Black Community, Obama?" was super interesting, because, reading between the lines, it wasn't really about race.

It was about tactics.

That protest, in fact, mirrored the FISA debate and some other matters (the latest being the silly and unproductive attempts to pressure Obama to put Wes Clark on his ticket as VP, just gag me, please) by white "progressives" (I put that word in quotes because so many that describe themselves as such are far more centrist, in ideology and style, than many of us that openly organize against a capitalist system; they lay a false claim to the word, in my opinion, boneheadedly false when they so often claim an upper hand or moral superiority in its use) when the real difference between them and Obama is not one of ideology or policy, but one of strategy and tactics, what the senator calls "framing."

With no track record to prove it, they somehow think that they know better how to win a presidential election than, well, the guy who's been winning it all year.

The scene in St. Pete also provided a lesson in community organizing: Obama didn't send the cops in to taze those protesters. He included them, while utilizing them as props to make his own points. He told them, "You'll have a chance to make a statement." Check out part I of the video:




As the crowd in St. Pete became raucous against the protestors, Obama urged them to respect the dissent, Alinsky style: "This is democracy in action." True to his word, he went back to those protestors and offered them the microphone to speak:




Here's the money quote from Obama's response:


"I may not have spoken out in the way that you would have wanted me to speak out, which is fine... What I'm suggesting is that on each of these issues that you mention I have spoken out and I have spoken out forcefully. Listen, I was a civil rights lawyer. I passed the first racial profiling legislation in Illinois... some of the toughest death penalty reform legislation in Illinois... now, that doesn't mean that I'm always going to satisfy the way that you guys want these issues framed, and I understand. Which gives you the option of voting for somebody else. It gives you the option to run for office yourself. Those are all options. But the one thing that I think is important is that we're respectful toward each other. And what is true is I believe that the only way we're gonna solve our problems in this country is if all of us come together: black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, young, old, disabled, gay, straight, that, I think has got to be our agenda. Alright. Next question."


Baratunde Thurston at Jack & Jill Politics offers cogent analysis:


First observation: for the scared white folks who think Obama is going to lead the return of the Nubian Empire, the visual of him getting heckled by young black men for not addressing the problems of black America enough, should do much to settle those fears. Ludacris reminded them he was black. These brothers push him the other way! It might actually help him with those voters.


Next. I'm used to, and have respect for, those who informedly criticize Obama because they think he's not progressive enought (see: Black Agenda Report.) But the dudes in the video showed an incredible lack of knowledge when they said Obama's not talking about these issues, "not once." As his answer began to prove, he has been speaking and acting out on issues that face black Americans, but he's not running for president of black America alone. To actually frame these issues in a way that will result in positive change, you need to have more than just angry black America. You need a coalition that sees all our our problems and solutions bound together.

I doubt that large numbers of black voters feel the need to put this pressure on Obama, but I get worried when I see it crop up. Often, I think folks get into an either-or situation when it comes to solving any sort of problem really. Either we do it Martin's way, or we do it early-Malcolm's way. Either we do it Booker T's way, or we do it W.E.B.'s way. Either we do it Jesse's way, or we do it Barack's way. That's not how things work. What we need is a more complex way of understanding how to actually get things done.


One of the comments under Baratunde's post accused that "Nobody could ever make me believe that he would use that tone and tell somebody White to you have the option of voting for somebody else."

Bzzzt. In fact, Obama did essentially say the same thing to the (overwhelmingly white and college educated) critics of his vote on FISA:


...some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That's ok.


I'm personally loving this: As a longstanding community organizer, journalist and foot soldier on the left (with the scar tissue upon scar tissue and a string of hard-won victories to prove it) my frustration with the ineffectiveness of so many that consider themselves also of the left in the United States in recent years has boiled over. I am so sick of having to be lumped in with those masturbatory practitioners of bad performance art that they call activism. Really. I had to leave the country 11 years ago to find better change-agents worth reporting on.

And suddenly, along comes a political candidate inside the United States - a category of person from the last place I expected this to come from - giving a nationwide teach-in and lesson-in-civics about how to effectively organize for change.

Here's an unspoken little secret: The success of Obama's campaign challenges those that still subscribe to broken patterns of activism - whether the zombie-like attempt to repeat the completely coopted street protest tactics of 1968 (or of 1999) or the academic purity troll approach that complains without even attempting to organize real people - and is driving various of them absolutely crazy with envy.

To every fellow and sister of the left that, practically on automatic pilot, bemoans that Obama has taken center stage when it comes to organizing for change in the United States (I've heard your whispers about "We can't wait to see Al disillusioned in 2009! That'll show him!" as if you're actually hoping for bad news), I say: Show me the better plan.

Show me how you are effectively organizing real people. Show me how you stopped the Clinton machine in the 1990s from auctioning off the Democratic Party (oops, too late!). Show me how you stopped the war in Iraq. Show me a single political battle you that have won with your tired old tactics and "framing" of "issues." Then I'll take your complaining more seriously.

The skinny kid with the big ears that don't look like the men on dollar bills is doing, right here, right now, what none of you complaining about him have accomplished: He's built a nationwide grassroots organization - and trained thousands in the nuts and bolts of how to do it on the local level - in a way that facilitates simultaneous horizontal organization and that can sustain the kind of pluralism that says: hey, you don't like the way I'm doing it? Do it yourself then!

I'm glad that this is happening in my lifetime. For a long time, I doubted that it would.


User login


About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

RSS Feed