Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Irrational Objections to Obama

Several days ago I found myself in the midst of a political discussion with several friends that took a turn that I found quite disturbing. Essentially, my friends were saying that they would either vote for Sen. McCain or not vote, rather than vote for Sen. Obama. It was the reasoning behind their decision that concerned me. Several points were advanced by my friends:
  • They were worried that Obama would be more interested in black issues than issues facing Americans in general.

  • They were concerned that so much of Obama's support comes from African-Americans.

  • They were also concerned that so many young people support Obama.

  • They were concerned that Obama does not have enough experience.

  • They were worried that Obama would not be a friend to Israel (or, and perhaps this was just my interpretation, that Obama would be more friendly to the Arabs/Muslims than the Israelis/Jews).

  • They don't feel as if Obama has said what stands for other than "change".

  • They were concerned by the amount of money that Obama is raising.

  • They felt that the media had anointed Obama as the candidate before the primaries were over (or, said another way, the media was biased in favor of Obama and against Sen. Clinton).

In all honesty, listening to these concerns made me both uncomfortable and worried. Uncomfortable because what I was hearing from these friends sounded like thinly disguised (or undisguised) racism and bigotry. Worried because I wonder how many others are expressing similar sentiments and, thus, will choose to vote for McCain or just not vote.

My friends both affirmed that they want a Democrat in the White House, but they just don't want that Democrat to be Obama. I tried to explain to them that a "protest vote" for McCain would help him get elected and help keep a Democrat out of the White House. Similarly, I explained that by not casting a vote at all, they were essentially doing the same thing as voting for McCain. After all, Indiana is a presumed "red" state; Obama needs every vote he can get (especially from voters who normally don't vote or who vote Republican) to have a chance of winning. If people like my friends sit this one out, then Indiana will be colored red on the network maps within moments after the polls close this November.

I want to go back to the concerns that my friends raised and discuss a few of them. When I told my friends that I thought that their viewpoint was racist or bigoted, they vehemently denied having any such feelings. I suggested that they take the words "black" and "African-American" and substitute them with "Jewish" or "Catholic" or "female" and see if their own sentiments made them uncomfortable and how they would feel if that sort of accusation was aimed at a candidate that they supported. Their only response was that it was "different".

I asked them why it was a problem for African-Americans to support Obama. They responded that African-Americans were only supporting Obama because he is black (of course, later in the discussion, he morphed from being black to being an Arab, but that is a different discussion). I suggested, first, that this was a hypocritical point in two respects. First, I suggested that they had been supportive of Joe Lieberman in 2000, largely because he was Jewish (they denied this charge, but without much force), and had supported Hillary Clinton, largely because she was a woman (this charge was not really denied). I asked them what was wrong with a voter supporting a candidate "like them". My friends responded that voters should make decisions solely on the basis of the positions taken by candidates and not on their race and religion. And, while I agree wholeheartedly with this, I think it is beyond naive to suggest that a candidate who comes from a similar ethnic background or religious affiliation or any of a host of other societal cohort groupings to that of the voter in question won't "speak" more to that voter's issues. I also pointed out to my friends that in the early stages of the primaries, before Obama became more well known, Clinton enjoyed a large lead among African-American voters. But, as voters learned more about Obama (and his ideas), he gained support. As the conversation progressed, it became apparent to me that my friends are of the belief that African-Americans make up a far larger percentage of the electorate than they actually do. And they never had a response for me when I asked what was wrong with a candidate energizing a segment of the population that might not otherwise be engaged in the political process. I also pointed out to them that African-Americans traditionally vote Democratic by large majorities; thus, there is nothing out of the ordinary for those traditionally Democratic voters to support a Democrat; it is not as if Obama is a Republican asking African-Americans to vote against their own self-interest just because he is "one of them".

The notion that Obama's support among young voters is a "problem" absolutely stunned me (even though I've heard this before). Essentially, what my friends (who are, admittedly, much older) were saying is that the opinions of older Americans are more important than the opinions of younger Americans. I told them how truly undemocratic their viewpoint was. They responded that older Americans had more experience upon which to base their opinions. For the sake of argument, I agreed, in part, with the general proposition. But then I asked them their position on issues such as net neutrality, carbon emission credits, alternative fuel development subsidies, and stem cell research. As I suspected, they had heard of a some of these issues, but knew very little about them. I suggested that many young voters were very familiar with these issues. I also pointed out that they would not be asked to fight in Iraq (or Iran or North Korea or wherever), that they would continue to get their social security check, even if the social security trust fund ran out before younger voters reached retirement age, and that they would probably be long dead by the time that the effects of global warming made dramatic changes to our world and lifestyle. Thus, I asked, aren't the opinions of the youth who will be asked to fight or who will forced to work later in life just to have a chance to retire or who will be forced to inherent a damaged planet, in fact more important than the opinions of older voters who won't be around for as long? This rhetorical question was met only with stony silence.

I also challenged the assertion that Obama did not have enough experience. I agreed that McCain had been in the Senate far longer and thus had more legislative experience than Obama. However, I pointed out that McCain had just as much experience as an executive: none. Moreover, I asked whether McCain's years of experience made more palatable his views on such topics as abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, taxation, Iraq, or any of a host of other issues important to my friends. And, I asked, which was more important: experience or intelligence? I also pointed out that some of the Presidents who were often regarded as among the best (Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to name but two) had very, very little experience before becoming President. By contrast, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush had a lot of experience before becoming President.

When I asked why they didn't think that Obama would be a friend to Israel, they hemmed and hawed, without really giving me an answer. The best that I could deduce from the half-statements and fragments of ideas was that, because people have alleged that Obama is a "closet Muslim" he must actually be a Muslim and that, therefore, he would be a friend to the Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims and not a friend to Israel. How do you respond to someone who is willing to make decisions on the basis of rumors that are spread precisely to try to get someone to take a particular position? The fact that Obama has repeatedly said that he is a Christian, not a Muslim, that he is an African-American (in the most precise sense of that term), not an Arab, and that he views Israel as an important ally ("Barack Obama strongly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship, believes that our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel, America's strongest ally in the Middle East. Obama supports this closeness, stating that that the United States would never distance itself from Israel"), is simply not enough, apparently. I'm at a loss to know how Obama is supposed to even talk to, let alone convince, people who won't listen and who only hear what they they want to hear.

One of my friends seemed very agitated, even angry, that Obama continues to talk about "change" and "hope" without articulating, more precisely, what those words mean. In response to this, I got somewhat angry. First, the statement told me that my friend has done nothing more than listen to soundbites rather than listening to speeches or watching the debates. More critically, this was the second time that we've had this precise discussion (the first being back in April or so). At that time, I told my friend to go to Obama's website and read the positions that are set forth for anyone to read (for example, Obama's position on Israel, quoted in part above). My friend acknowledged that he still hadn't read any of Obama's positions or visited the website. When I challenged him to explain how he can be critical of Obama for not stating what he stands for when, in fact, has has, my friend stated, unbelievably, that it "wasn't his job to go learn about the candidate". Well, then, if it isn't a voter's job to learn about a candidate, then upon what is the voter to base his or her decision? How is a candidate expected to educate a voter who won't make a minimal effort but who is willing to believe smears and rumors?

The next argument also left me a bit puzzled. My friends were concerned by the amount of money that Obama had raised. This concern seemed to take two forms. First, that Obama would somehow be beholden to those who had given him money and second, that much of that money was coming from the African-American community. My friends acknowledged that most of Obama's fundraising was from individuals giving small amounts rather than from rich donors or corporations giving the maximums allowed by law. They had no answer when I asked how he could be beholden to so many people who had given him money, but they still seemed worried that those small donations were somehow more tainted than money from large donors. I had no idea how to respond to that concern. As to the concern that a large percentage of Obama's funds came from African-Americans, I had two responses. First, and most important, was a big "so what"! What's wrong, I asked, with people supporting a candidate that they approve of? I asked them if there was anything wrong with Clinton receiving a lot of support (and money) from women voters or of McCain getting support from rich, white voters or from veterans? Again, the only response that I got was that black support for Obama was "different".

Finally, we turned to the discussion of media bias. My friends seemed almost willing to suggest that the media had never shown bias for or against any candidate before Obama. Moreover, as the principal example of the bias that they complained of, my friends pointed to a Republican commentator (on Fox News, I believe) who complimented Obama. Let me get this straight: Because a Republican commentator on Fox News said something good about Obama, the media (not just Fox) is biased in favor of Obama and against Clinton? I don't discount that the media is biased or even that the bias may have favored Obama, but that "evidence" just doesn't support the theory. They were also critical because the media kept pointing out that Obama had more pledged delegates than did Clinton. Well, didn't he? Was the media making something up? That's like saying that a sports announcer who tells the score is biased in favor of the team that's leading.

The discussion briefly morphed into a diatribe against Obama because the voters in Michigan and Florida wouldn't get their votes counted, in full. As a general matter, I completely agree that it is wrong to exclude those voters or to only give their delegates half a vote. However, the position articulated by my friends that Clinton should get all of Michigan's delegates is also wrong. My friends asked why it was acceptable for Obama not to "play by the rules" and to exclude the Michigan votes. I reminded them that the rules were set before the primaries started by the DNC, that at the time the rules were set, Obama was a long shot and Clinton was the presumptive nominee, and I asked why it was acceptable for Clinton not to "play by the rules" and put her name on the Michigan ballot in the first place? Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately given how heated the discussion was getting), before our discussion could proceed any further, my wife informed us that we were ruining her evening and asked us to stop. We did.

But the issues that we discussed have been weighing on me the last few days. I hope that the positions articulated by my friends are representative of the minority of voters and are the exception rather than the rule. I hope that, come November, my friends will have learned more about Obama and the concerns that they expressed will have been addressed and put to rest. But I worry that more people than just my friends have these same fears and concerns and that their decisions this November will be based more on fear, racism, bigotry, and rumors, rather than upon a reasoned examination of the candidates and their respective views on the issues that matter. I hope my worries are unfounded.

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1 Comments:

At Friday, June 27, 2008 11:55:00 AM , Blogger Charles said...

Wow. Well documented, Michael. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that these type discussions are going to be the rule, rather than the exception, as the election season progresses.

I actually found myself in a position where someone I barely knew asked me who I supported (in such a way that I knew "Obama" was the "incorrect" answer), rather than try to have a discussion like this with her, since as I mentioned, I barely know her (she's a member of the animal rescue organization that we work with) and we were in a room fully of very loud kids.

 

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