HistoriAnn recently had a snarky critique of Barack Obama’s not-so-sudden swing to the political right. Maybe it was more snark than even I dare give out, but she had a point. Given that I never really imagined Obama as the “progressive candidate” that people claimed he was, this move does not surprise me (I was not, as I am sure you all remember, a Clinton supporter either. I would likely be as displeased with her had she been victorious – Remember: gravitas).
Certainly, though, I have been less than impressed by Obama’s ill-advised attempts to attract white conservatives to his cause. Moreover, I was literally made nauseous when Obama announced plans to continue the “faith-based” shit initiated by George W. Bush. Why? WHY would he support the faith-based initiatives when even Republicans didn’t really care for them? Actually, given that George W. Bush is the most hated president that we have ever had, why would any candidate endorse anything that he has done? If I were running for president, I wouldn't even admit to wearing the same brand of shoes as George Bush. Whatever the case, collapsing the distinctions between religion and government makes both worse.
As a gay man who has seen the religious right use their faith as an excuse to eliminate my basic civil rights, I am particularly horrified to see any politician wanting to give religion a bigger role in government (plus tax money). It made Obama look like he was wants to get into bed with the bigots. Yuck! And if he knew anything about their religious beliefs, Obama would know that they are strongly opposed to being in bed with him.
While I still intend to vote for Obama, support for such measures is making it difficult for me to do so. After that faith-based nonsense, it is only my fear of John McSame that keeps me in the Obama camp (for the time being). McSame is a bitter old man trying to buy power with his wife's beer money. The nation won't survive another four years of that horror. Push me a bit further, though, and I might not be able to stomach Obama's right wing tendencies either.
If I feel this way – Somebody who will support the Democrats for pragmatic reasons despite being much more on the left than they – I imagine that he is in danger of alienating a great number of the voters who would be most likely to bring him to the White House.
Pandering to those who would rather die than see him take power is a one-way road to doom. Talking to people who want him to succeed is a better choice.
Obama would be well served to remember that conservative white men are the minority in this nation. A real winning strategy for the Democrats (and I often wonder if they actually want to win elections) would involve getting out the majority of voters in this nation. Yep, the majority of voters are the combined strength of left-leaning racial minorities, women of all backgrounds, and the racially-diverse GLBTQ community. Do all of these groups vote 100 percent Democrat? Obviously, no. But majorities in all of those populations do -- which, when we combine them, means a majority of the nation does. If we all voted (or were allowed to vote honestly (which is a topic for another post)), we would easily defeat the right wing over and over again. Mysteriously, appealing to these groups, the core of the Democratic Party and the nation, seems to be Obama’s biggest failure right now.
This problem didn’t appear out of nowhere. Obama showed that he had serious problems during his never-ending primary with Hillary Clinton. He never could get the gays on his side, for instance, despite the fact that his and Clinton’s position on “queer issues” were virtually indistinguishable (and equally offensive). Even more telling (and even more foreboding) was his failure to attract Latino/a voters.
The media, of course, spent considerable time discussing the “Latino Community’s” support for Clinton. Yet, despite the many hours of wasted video tape that went into the issue, they never offered any significant reasons about why Latino/as preferred Clinton. That would have involved talking to actual Latino/as -- and the major networks really prefer not to do that.
Part of the answer, of course, is that there is no such thing as a monolithic “Latino Community” or consistent bloc of “Latino voters.” Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and the various other groups that fall under the racial umbrella of “Latino” have distinct histories and interests that result in different voting patterns. Cuban Americans have more often voted Republican, for instance, than other Latino groups (despite the fact that Republican victories have cut or eliminated things that are critically important to Cuban Americans like affirmative action or bilingual education (poor whites don't have a monopoly on voting against their own best interests)).
Any attempt to attract Latino/a voters requires a recognition that they have a diverse set of concerns. Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans in New Mexico, whose concerns center on a century-plus of U.S. imperialism in their homelands, might or might not connect their concerns with second-generation Mexican Americans or Colombian American voters. Economic class, likewise, can be as divisive within the “Latino Community” as in any other segment of the population.
So what is the key for a political victory among “Latino/as”? Hell if I know. If I did, I would rule this nation with an iron fist. Alas, though, I can only comment on how pitifully Obama has been in his efforts to this point.
I am surprised that Obama has found it so difficult to understand the complexity and diversity of Latino/as in this nation. His own personal history reveals a greater diversity within the “African American” community, another group that is often imagined to be flat and monolithic. Why has he been unable to transfer his personal experience and identity to his political message to minority groups?
Instead, Obama depends on the most broad statements possible. Recently I visited Obama’s campaign web page to see how he tailored his message for Latino/a voters. It turns out, he really can’t be bothered to do so. There is a paltry Spanish-language section that was seemingly last updated weeks ago (!). It offers a fraction of the information that is offered on the Anglophone site.
In addition to the pitiful Spanish-language section, there is also a separate English-language “Latino” section comparable to his sections for “women” and “environmentalists” (because politicians still prefer the notion of separate and easily distinguished marketing niches). For Latinos, his staff apparently could only come up with half-a-page of text to explain why Latino/as should support Obama’s campaign. Compare that half-of-a-page with the 12 pages of text devoted to "Americans Abroad" or the 7 pages of text under the "Women" section.
Much of that measly text aimed at Latinos, moreover, is entirely boiler-plate. If you deleted the word "Latino," you would have no idea that it is supposed to be addressed to a specific group.
In his “[Latino] Education” paragraph, Obama does not endorse bilingual education, address Latino/a dropout rates, discuss access to higher education, or the need for diversity in the curriculum. Instead, he promises a vague English-only policy as he will “hold schools accountable for teaching English-language learners.” English-language learners? Does he mean like George W. Bush?
Such calculated prose seems designed to cater to skittish white voters who fear a multilingual nation rather than actually providing real bilingual education (which, btw, would help white students as much as Latino/a students compete in the global market (if that is our goal)). He doesn't even come close to addressing Latino/as' real frustrations with their place in the U.S.-education system (the Latino dropout rate hovers around 20 percent -- Meaning that one-fifth of Latinos in the U.S. education system will not graduate from high school(a dropout rate three times higher than whites)).
Obama also touts his Health Care plan and his Iraq policy in the Latino section, but offers nothing specific about why Latinos would see those issues as important. In terms of Iraq, he might have mentioned a 2003 Pew Hispanic Center study that indicated that Latinos serving in the U.S. military are over-represented in the categories that get the most dangerous assignments (infantry, gun crews) -- and make up over 17.5 percent of the front lines despite being only 9.5 percent of the enlisted forces. Or he could have even noted a study that showed that nearly half of all Latino voters have somebody close currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
As for health care? “You Latino people get sick, right?," the site might as well say, "I mean, we aren’t certain about that as the market research hasn’t come back. But we are pretty sure that you get sick. If you elect Obama you will be marginally less likely to be completely devoid of health insurance.”
Finally, Obama offers vague wording about immigration that promises to fix “our broken immigration system” and “enforce our laws" and "reaffirms our heritage as a nation of immigrants.” The rabidly xenophobic Lou Dobbs could just as easily support that empty statement as Latino/a voters. Hell, Lou Dobbs could have written that statement.
Here is a hint to the Obama campaign people: When the words “fix” “immigrant” and “problem” appear in close proximity to each other, Latino/as are almost always left with the assumption that this is going to involve a program of racial profiling and police harassment regardless of citizenship status. Why? Because that has been the history of such rhetoric in this nation for the past 160 years. It doesn’t help matters that Obama signed onto the same immigration bill as John McSame.
Now, I am not naïve. I understand that modern politics is about building as vague a message as possible to attract the greatest number of voters. In the case of Latino/as, though, I get the impression that Obama isn’t even trying. This is supremely foolish.
Latino voters could potentially swing a number of states, including places like Michigan and Ohio (The Mexican/Mexican American section of Detroit, for instance, is one of the few places in that urban wasteland that has experienced economic growth). Instead, Obama seems content to either ignore Latino/as entirely or to depend on crude stereotypes and assumptions.
Let’s take a look, for example, at the campaign ad that he ran during the Texas campaign:
Really? Mariachi singers? Really? For real, that is all that Obama came up with for tejano voters? Could he have aimed for a bigger stereotype? Was Speedy Gonzales unavailable that day? Did the Frito Bandito declare in favor of Clinton?
Who on the Obama campaign decided to get the costumed mariachi singers? Alas, it wouldn’t totally surprise me if some Latino in his campaign came up with this idea, but they should be fired for doing so.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually like mariachi music a great deal. It is just one of many musical genres unique to the Mexican-American community. Trotting out costumed mariachi singers, however, raise red flags when they are deployed by somebody who obviously has no connection with Mexicans/Mexican Americans. Mariachi singers suggest that Obama thinks very little about Latino/as beyond stereotypes. Tell me, how much different was that Obama ad verses a recent Taco-Bell campaign?
Was Obama really surprised that Mexican Americans rejected such ploys? Sorry, Barack, we've been served those same old beans and cheese since ¡Viva Kennedy! in 1960. We expect more.
If Obama really is the “savior” candidate that his self-created hype promises, I want to see a new vision of the United States from him. A Democrat who tries to sound like a Republican is neither progressive nor likely to enter the White House. A Democrat who sounds like he spent more than two seconds thinking about the diversity of this nation could make me feel a lot better about having to vote for him.