Watching Barack Obama’s bait and switch left me with an indefinable sense of deja vu until the parallel finally dawned. The personalities were so different that they obscured a common technique.
Marion Barry was elected mayor of Washington in 1978 thanks to a coalition of blacks and white liberals. So strong was white liberal participation that a columnist in the Washington Afro American said Barry was part of a plan by whites to take over the city.
By the end of Barry’s second term, however, his constituency had shifted. The blacks were still there but the white liberals had become largely irrelevant thanks to funding from the white business community. The most integrated meetings in town were when the Barry team sat down with its campaign contributors.
His stand on development issues, in particular, had alienated white liberal support. Development, he promised blacks, was going to bring jobs. Since most of the development would be in white neighborhoods, the question of density, traffic and destruction of community would not be a black political issue.
Thus black power cut a deal with white power. The middle class and poor of either race weren’t part of the deal although they were mightily affected by it.
In fact, the deal didn’t bring jobs to blacks. By 1986 there were some 40,000 more private jobs in DC than in 1980, but a thousand fewer DC residents were employed. All the new jobs in that period went to mostly white suburban commuters.
Entering office with a biracial liberal coalition, Barry had converted his base into one that relied heavily on black votes and white corporate money. The former he attracted by rhetoric, the latter with the real estate at his disposal.
This is in contrast to the popular image of Barry as portrayed in the press, but when I would ask for examples of Barry doing anything that seriously jarred the agenda of the white business community, nobody could come up with an example.
If you ignore Barry’s other big shift – from power to cocaine as his drug of choice – and if you substitute Wall Street and similar big lobbies for Washington’s local Board of Trade, what Obama is doing to his white liberal constituency seems oddly familiar.
And Barry and Obama are far from alone. The typical black politician of modern times – i.e. mayor – has been a king whose power has been rigorously circumscribed by a white business community serving as the local parliament. In the end it turned out to be a fool’s paradise of black power because within a decade and a half, upper income whites were taking back the cities and the constituents of the black mayors were being evicted in what amounted to socio-economic urban cleansing.
Civil rights and black power – as independent movements – faded in inverse proportion to the rise of black politicians, and with this shift symbols replaced substance. The power of the many became the power of the one.
This wasn’t the case of earlier political machines, but these were created upon building an organization of voters rather than of contributors. Once we dumped the old machines in favor of television and dollar driven successors, ordinary people became important only at election time, and they were easily swayed by the exploding tools of propaganda. Thus we found Obama running as a “community organizer” when in fact the only community he was organizing was a temporary one for himself.
Obama is only the latest reincarnation of this trend applied at a national level. But the local precursors are useful in understanding what’s going on. And it serves as another reminder of why our system of campaign financing is so terrible.
This doesn’t mean that Obama will necessarily be all bad as president. Barry’s first two mayoral terms, for example, were arguably the best DC has seen in recent times, judged by the number of people in the city – including blacks, women and gays – who did better during them. My hunch is that Obama will be like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: “When she was good, she was very, very good. . .And when she was bad, she was horrid.”
But it does mean that Obama’s liberal coalition has served its purpose – to get him elected – and will be replaced by those who will also serve their purpose – to keep him there. That’s the way politics is these days. The tone and the target of the 2012 election will be strikingly different as Obama goes after his new constituency. If you don’t like it, next time find out what your candidate means when he talks of “change.”