by Shelby Steele
Hillary Clinton Reveals Her Fear of Condi Rice
Monday, January 23, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
Of course 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.
And yet, pandering of the sort she exhibited on MLK Day requires a convincing human identification in order 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.
If Newt Gingrich also once used the plantation metaphor in reference to Congress, his goal was only an innocuous one: to be descriptive, not to pander. He was speaking to a reporter, not to 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.
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 in post-’60s 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, 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.
This is why so many Republicans (including Laura Bush) now salivate at the thought of a Rice presidential bid. No other potential Republican candidate could–to borrow an old Marxist phrase–better “heighten the contradictions” of modern liberalism and Democratic power than Ms. Rice. The more ugly her persecution by the civil rights establishment and the left, the more she would give liberalism the look of communism in its last days–an ideology long since hollowed of its idealism and left with nothing save its meanness and repressiveness. Who can say what Ms. Rice will do. But history is calling her, or someone like her. She is the object of a deep longing in America for race to be finally handled, not by political idealisms, but by the classic principles of freedom and fairness.
Idealisms quickly descend into evil because they are so easily seized as a means to ordinary power. The politics of black uplift was once an idealism, but today it has become the work of hacks, tired apparatchiks and petty demagogues looking for power. And there, on TV last week, as if to illustrate this truth, was the specter of Mrs. Clinton and Al Sharpton embracing at the podium, mere captives of power making the tired charge–via an encrusted plantation metaphor–that Republicans are racists. What exhaustion! And what evil, to labor so hard at keeping blacks mired in grievance. Kind of reminds one of a plantation, though here the harvest is surely grievance rather than cotton.
Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era,” forthcoming from HarperCollins.