Down on Hilary's Plantation

Sunday, April 30, 2006
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Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that Republicans run the House of Representatives like a plantation was old-fashioned political and racial pandering. After all, she uttered this remark at what certainly would have been a prime venue for her husband: a largely black audience on Martin Luther King Day. So, clearly, she was looking to connect with this most loyal Democratic constituency. But Mrs. Clinton is possessed of a tin ear precisely where her husband is all deftness and charm. Black audiences are beyond her. The room of black faces that brings her husband alive freezes her in overbearing rectitude.

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And yet pandering of the sort she exhibited on MLK Day requires a convincing human identification to work. The political panderer always identifies with the suffering of those pandered to—always “feels their pain.” And this is where a tin ear can be disastrous: In giving witness to a group’s suffering, one can seem to be shaming the group. Must blacks have their slave past rubbed in their face simply for Hillary Clinton to make a little hay against modern-day Republicans?

When political pandering goes awry, it calls you a name. On an emotional level, many blacks will hear Hillary’s remark as follows: “I say Republicans run the House like a plantation because I am speaking to Negroes— the wretched of the earth, a slave people—who will surely know all about plantations.” Is this a tin ear or a Freudian slip, blacks will wonder? Does she really see us as she projects us—as a people so backward that our support can be won with a simple plantation reference and the implication that Republicans are racist? Quite possibly so, since no apology has been forthcoming.

Newt Gingrich also used the plantation metaphor in reference to Congress, but his goal was an innocuous one: to be descriptive, not to pander. He was speaking to a reporter, not a black audience, and he had the good taste to cast himself as a slave who would “lead the slave rebellion.” Thus, he identified with the black struggle for freedom, not with the helplessness and humiliation of the plantation slave. If the plantation metaphor will always be inaccurate and hyperbolic where Congress is concerned, at least Mr. Gingrich’s use of it carried no offense.

The kind of black audience that brings her husband alive freezes Hillary Clinton in overbearing rectitude.

And even Mrs. Clinton’s offense would have amounted to very little had it come from nothing more than an awkward metaphor. But, in fact, it came from a corruption of post-1960s liberalism and Democratic politics that profoundly insults blacks. Mrs. Clinton came to Al Sharpton’s MLK celebration looking for an easy harvest of black votes. And she knew the drill—white liberals and Dems whistle for the black vote by pandering to the black sense of grievance. Once positioned as the white champions of this grievance, they actually turn black resentment into white liberal power. Today, Democrats cannot be competitive without this alchemy. So Mrs. Clinton’s real insult to blacks—one far uglier than her plantation metaphor—is to value them only for their sense of grievance.

Mrs. Clinton’s husband was a master of this alchemy, and his presidency also illustrated its greatest advantage. Once black grievance is morphed into liberal power, it need never be honored. President Clinton notoriously felt black pain, won the black vote, and then rewarded blacks with the cold shower of welfare reform. And here, now, is Mrs. Clinton sidling up to the trough of black grievance, eyes wide in expectation, but also a tad contemptuous. It is hard to fully respect one’s suckers.

A great achievement of modern liberalism—and a primary reason for its surviving decades past the credibility of its ideas—is that it captured black resentment as an exclusive source of power. It even gave this resentment a Democratic Party affiliation. (Antiwar sentiment is the other great source of liberal power, but it is not the steady provider that black and minority resentment has been.) Republicans have often envied this power but have never competed well for it because it can be accessed only by pandering to the socialistic longings of minority leaders—vast government spending, social programs, higher taxes, and so on. Republicans and conservatives have simply never had an easy or glib mechanism for addressing profound social grievances.

But this Republican weakness has now begun to emerge as a great—if still largely potential—Republican advantage. Precisely because Republicans cannot easily pander to black grievance, they have no need to value blacks only for their sense of grievance. Unlike Democrats, they can celebrate what is positive and constructive in minority life without losing power. The dilemma for Democrats, liberals, and the civil rights establishment is that they become redundant and lose power the instant blacks move beyond grievance and begin to succeed by dint of their own hard work. So they persecute such blacks and attack their credibility as blacks, just as they pander to blacks who define their political relationship to America through grievance. Republicans are generally freer of the political bigotry by which the left either panders to or persecutes black Americans.

No one on the current political scene better embodies this Republican advantage than the current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. The archetype that Ms. Rice represents is overcoming rather than grievance. Despite a childhood in the segregated South that might entitle her to a grievance identity, she has clearly chosen that older black American tradition in which blacks neither deny injustice nor allow themselves to be defined by it. This tradition, as Ralph Ellison once put it, “springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.” And because Ms. Rice is grounded in this tradition, she is of absolutely no value to modern liberalism or the Democratic Party despite her many talents and achievements. Quite the reverse, she is their worst nightmare. If blacks were to take her example and embrace overcoming rather than grievance, the wound to liberalism would be mortal. It is impossible to imagine Hillary Clinton’s “plantation” pandering in a room full of Condi Rices.