Fear of a Black President

Maureen Dowd touches upon a paradox. On the one hand, a lot of anti-Obama anxiety seems driven by race. But on the other hand, a lot of the hysteria seems eerily normal: “Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids — from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.”

I think the crux of the matter is that since 1928 or so, the Democratic Party has typically presented itself in national politics as representing a coalition of “outsider” groups — Catholics & Jews back in the day, nonwhites and seculars more recently. The actual identity of the leader of the coalition matters, but only at the margin. It could be a patrician from upstate New York or a war hero from South Dakota or a cracker from Arkansas at the top of the ticket, but fundamentally no matter who’s in charge the election of a Democrat represents the mainstream’s loss of power to the outsiders. Clinton’s win, notwithstanding Ricky Ray Rector and all the rest, still represented the triumph of the “cares what black people think” political coalition and thus enhanced power for black political machines. Thus the reaction to an actual black president is different, but not all that different, from what you saw previously.