Abandoning the Democratic Script

President Obama’s remarks this afternoon dealt with two distinct crises, the situation in Iraq and the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The two problems differ in many ways, but one characteristic that they share is that both have required Obama to abandon the ways in which he, along with fellow Democrats, have approached the issues at stake.

The foreign policy dilemma has been evident for some time. Like many Democrats from the center left on out, particularly those who wanted to run for president in 2008, Obama sought to differentiate himself from Bush and from Democrats who had gone along with the Iraq War. (Ok, maybe one Democrat in particular – one whose name rhymes with Schminton.) Candidate Obama’s emphasis on repudiating Bush’s foreign policy has repeatedly left him in a tough spot when it comes to the Middle East. Few could have anticipated the Arab Spring in 2011, which created a whole bunch of ongoing questions about how the U.S. should approach the region. But this illustrates the dangers of contemporary mandate politics – that is, relying heavily on the idea of doing what you promised to do – which has a certain intuitive appeal but doesn’t leave leaders much slack to deal with unexpected problems. Obama has also been forced, by virtue of when his presidency has fallen in both the broader arc of history and the cycle of political time, to contend especially with what looks to me like a persistent problem with Democratic foreign policy ideology: it’s pretty easy to criticize opponents for acting unilaterally and being hawkish. It’s harder to develop and execute an alternative set of policies, based on different values – our nation’s own security, respect for human rights, and respect for the international community (not all of whom share our view of human rights).

Where race issues are concerned, Obama’s dilemma cuts even deeper. The president’s own racial background has brought the topic closer to the surface of political discourse in a number of ways. His speech, “A More Perfect Union,” in 2008 received praise as both an honest confrontation of racial mistrust and a reaffirmation of basic national values. But since then, Obama has attracted criticism for engaging in “respectability politics” in his remarks about black fatherhood, and more recently in his response to the tragic events in Ferguson. Obama is in a difficult position. In the past five years, when Obama’s rhetoric has turned to race, the tone of the response has been especially antagonistic. Furthermore, Obama’s usual approach – which emphasizes colorblind ideals and economic inequality – reflects the way his party handles those issues. The 2012 Democratic platform has a section on civil rights, but it focuses heavily on employment and poverty (as well as other important civil rights issues, including LGBT rights and equal pay). The document acknowledges the “disproportionate effects of crime, violence, and incarceration on communities of color” and mentions fairness in drug sentencing as an issue. But these are presented as anomalies in a just and colorblind system, and as impediments to equality of opportunity that would otherwise lift all citizens. The 2000 platform is similar – its civil rights section refers to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, affirms equality and suggests commitment to affirmative action. In other words, you could read these platforms and come away with the idea that racial disparities could largely be explained away in economic terms, and that racism persists only as part of a few discrete issues, .

But racism isn’t just about economics; anyone who actually read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocatively titled piece this summer has seen that the relationship between wealth and race is far more complex and even less rosy than the colorblind opportunity narrative would suggest. I’m hesitant to look for a lesson in the death of a teenager. But it seems to me that after this, Obama and other Democrats, including whoever tries to succeed him, will need to change their narrative about race and racism.

[Cross-posted at the Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.