Monday, August 27, 2012

On Obama, Race, and Political Survival

. Monday, August 27, 2012

Ta-Nahisi Coates has been (rightly) given a lot of praise for his thoughtful essay on how race relations has affected Obama's presidency and the current political environment. He does a good job of highlighting some key political science research demonstrating that Obama's race cost him a non-negligible number of votes in 2008 -- roughly 3-5% of the popular vote overall -- and that race has shaped his presidency in powerful, if subtle, ways.

Most of the attention both in the article and surrounding it has focused on the broader American culture, histories of black political participation, and the reasons why Obama has largely declined to discuss race at all during his presidency. I find that interesting, but I find it interesting less as an endpoint of discussion and more as the setting for a bigger topic: politicians' quest for political survival. Coates plays around with this a bit in the essay, and ends up critical of Obama for not directly taking on difficult issues regarding race in America. But in the interview above, Coates admits that while this makes him angry it is almost surely the correct decision. That is, if Coates' argument about current race dynamics in American politics is true, then Obama could not gain or maintain power by emphasizing race. Coates concludes -- literally -- by saying that Obama's supporters in the African American community (and elsewhere) understand this, so they are willing to overlook or at least forgive his inaction on issues they care about.

In ending the essay there Coates missed an opportunity to have a broader discussion about the politics of reform and change. Because this issue is not limited to Obama, nor to race. It affects all politics, and all politicians. Coates' mission in writing the article was to comment on race in American politics as it relates specifically to Obama, and he did a good job in that, but thinking more broadly can help us identify similar dynamics elsewhere. It can also prevent us from making conclusions like this one, the only part of the essay in which Coates deals directly with foreign policy:

The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.
Italics added. This may indeed be true, but it doesn't have to be true to explain Obama's behavior. It is well established that Republicans "own" foreign policy as an issue; that is, voters tend to believe that Republicans manage foreign affairs better than Democrats. This was true before Obama, and it will likely be true after Obama. The question is whether they'd trust a black Democratic president less than a white Democratic president. This is a different question than any Coates asks, and he can't answer it. (Note that Obama is up 12 points over Romney on foreign policy.)

And even if it is true, we don't know how this would motivate Obama toward more aggressive behavior. After all, if Obama wanted to be seen as "getting tough on terrorism" there are more public ways of doing that than sending flying robots over remote parts of Yemen to take out individuals that Americans have never heard of.

What we do know is that, whatever his race, Obama has an incentive to consolidate power. We know that he has done very little to roll back the expanse of executive power conceived during the Bush administration, and has continued that expansion in at least some areas. We know -- as Coates says in the interview -- that Obama's first motivation is to win elections. Unless he first does that nothing else is possible. There are many bones to pick with selectorate theory, but at its core it's pretty hard to deny that the logic of political survival is sound at its core. So if we were hoping to explain why Obama has chosen to expand the drone program, continue assassinations of questionable legality, renege on his campaign promise to close military prisons, further derail the Doha round, and violate Pakistan's sovereignty in pursuit of bin Laden -- all policies that would have been likely under a McCain presidency, much less that of another Democrat such as Hillary Clinton -- Occam's Razor would dictate that we rely less on race dynamics than Coates suggests, even if that is precisely where we should look to explain Obama's actions in other policy areas.

In other words, the fact that Obama is a black president in a country with a complicated past (and present) of racial politics might go some distance in explaining why Obama say less about race than any other Democratic president since 1960. But to make that explanation cohere we can't just leave it at that and then complain, as Coates does, that "a total submission to [prejudiced voters] is a disservice to the country". What matters is that Obama wants to keep power, and he'll do what he needs to do to keep it. Service to the country, which means nothing at all when stripped of its normative assumptions especially in this context, is not Obama's concern.*

What does this mean? It means that while Obama may be different from every other American president in one respect, he is exactly the same as his predecessors in another. It is the latter fact that best explains his presidency, including his approach to racial politics, and not the former.

*And if "service to the country" could mean anything with any substance, "total submission" to the voters -- whether prejudiced or not -- seems like the most likely candidate to me.


LFC said...

Read this quickly yesterday, looked at it again just now.
Am a little hesitant to comment b.c i haven't read the Coates essay.

However: i agree w you up to a point -- Obama's prosecution of the anti-'terrrorism' agenda (drones, executive power vs whistleblowers, OBL raid etc) is motivated by electoral considerations *at least in part*. But you come close to saying in this post that Obama and other politicians have no convictions/beliefs other than the desire to remain in office -- you don't say it that crudely, but you come close. The danger here is you can't analyze the tensions that sometimes arise betw. conviction and electoral expediency. I wd argue that Obama and (some) other politicians *do* have ideological worldviews, however fuzzy, and principled beliefs, and that these must always or often be in some tension-filled interplay w the demands of electoral 'necessity'.
So there are things O. wd *not* do just to get re-elected, and what he *does* do must indicate not only a desire to be re-elected but that those actions also fall within the space of his moral-ideological 'red lines'. I happen to disgree strongly w O's heavy reliance on drones and also, in retrospect, the Afghan surge (though at the time i was ambivalent about the latter) but my assumption is that Obama is doing these things both to get re-elected and also b.c he thinks they are right, or at least not so wrong as to be morally unacceptable.

wow. a long-winded comment. (sorry.)
parting shot: i think it wd be nice if the selectorate theory folks wd take a look at a political science classic, probably not assigned all that much anymore, sadly: Samuel Beer, 'British Politics in the Collectivist Age' (paperback ed., 1969).
Even if you don't give a crap about British politics, it's the mode of analysis and the emphasis on ideology and the interplay w electoral considerations wh/ i suggest might be a salutary corrective. (the sequel, 'Britain Against Itself', is also worth looking at, tho a much shorter bk and not quite as good, iirc). Actually, read anything Beer ever wrote, doesn't matter...

Kindred Winecoff said...

Of course Obama has preferences, but I'm not so sure they really matter that much.

"...or at least not so wrong as to be morally unacceptable."

I think this is key. Let's think about things Obama could do.

1. Things which he wants to do and are politically feasible.

2. Things which he wants to do and are not politically feasible.

3. Things which he does not want to do but does anyway because they are politically advantageous.

4. Things which he does not want to do and does not because they are not politically advantageous.

5. Politically advantageous things that are so morally unacceptable to him that he would sacrifice re-election.

I think box #3 is quite large; much larger than box #5. This may be where we disagree.

Into box #2 we could possibly put all the stuff Coates talks about in his article (which you really should read). Health care is probably a mix of #1 and #4: that is, Obama wants single payer but he can't get it, so he settles for subsidy system instead.

If we ascribe good motives to Obama, we would likely put things like the continuing operation of Gitmo, the drone war, his relationship with finance, etc. into box #3. It's very difficult (for me, at least) to think of an example of #5, which is largely what Coates is critically concerned with.

If we think about the ever-evolving ideology of Mitt Romney I think we might expand box #3, and correspondingly shrink box #5, even further.

Never read Beer. I'll add it to the (ever-growing) pile. Sounds interesting.

LFC said...

I'm planning to read the Coates piece.

Should Obama win re-election (which I hope occurs, given the alternative), it will be interesting to see how he behaves when personal electoral considerations are no longer in play... though he wd still have to be concerned with Dems' electoral prospects in general, of course.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I agree that it will be interesting. My impression of the American politics lit on the question is that the second term of presidents tends not to be significantly more extreme than the first, but I'm not positive about that as it's outside of my range of expertise. It would, however, back up my priors: that this stuff is mostly structural.

On Obama, Race, and Political Survival
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