Back when Barack Obama began his extraordinary quest for the presidency, lots of conservatives -- particularly those prone to wake screaming in the night from visions of Madam President Hillary Clinton -- just couldn't say enough nice things about him. What attracted them most was not his intellect or political skill: It was the way he handled race. Right-wing stalwart William Bennett may have best summed up the feeling when he gushed that Obama "never brings race into it. He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community -- he has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton."
The post-racial honeymoon couldn't last, of course. During the campaign, conservative forces worked overtime to define Obama by his race, from the attacks on his wife as an "angry black woman" (Fox News once referred to her as Barack's "baby mama") to the way they gleefully seized on Jeremiah Wright in an attempt to turn Obama into Black Panther Huey Newton. "It is clear that Senator Obama has disowned his white half. He's decided he's got to go all in on the black side," said Rush Limbaugh, making sure his listeners were not deceived into thinking Obama was anything but a black militant.
A year and a half later, you might think Obama is some kind of racial King Midas, turning everything he touches into a race-inflected debate. But he's not the one for whom race is so important. There are some people who just can't help seeing this president through race-colored glasses.
Let's be absolutely clear -- many people who dislike the president or his agenda are perfectly comfortable with his race. After all, just under 60 million Americans voted for John McCain, and they did so for many reasons. But it's becoming clear that the presence of a black man in the Oval Office, combined with the increasingly diverse makeup of the American public -- most particularly the growing number of Latinos -- is causing some to not only see terrible threats in things they cared very little about a year ago. It's also causing them to cast aside any pretense of commitment to the basic legitimacy of the American system as it exists today.
The current fight over health-care reform is the arena in which this trend is becoming evident, but the details of that issue are not really motivating the most intense opponents. When you show up at a town hall debate and yell that reform represents "socialized medicine," you just don't know much about socialism (or health care, for that matter). But when you come to that town hall and shout "I want my America back!" through tears, you aren't talking about health care at all.
It is plain that a great many people simply do not believe Barack Obama legitimately occupies the office of president of the United States. Some -- the "birthers" -- think he was really born in Kenya, and benefited from an elaborate conspiracy to falsify documents demonstrating otherwise -- in other words, not American at all. Some have reacted to policies they oppose by reviving a neo-Confederate claim that states don't have to abide by laws passed by the federal government if they don't like them. These are the "tenthers," who believe that the tenth amendment makes virtually everything the federal government does unconstitutional, from Medicare to building interstate highways to regulating airlines. So long as the wrong man's in the White House, that is.
It goes on. When George W. Bush was president, wearing a T-shirt simply saying "Protect our civil liberties" could get you thrown out of a rally and threatened with arrest; today, conservatives come to see the president toting firearms. Talk-show hosts warn darkly that government actions they don't like aren't merely bad policy -- they're totalitarianism. Extremists begin stockpiling weapons in preparation for an imagined government crackdown. When the president plans to tell kids to work hard and stay in school, people on the right complain to school officials and keep their children home, lest the impressionable young ones have to listen to Obama's "socialist indoctrination." And members of Congress decide that shouting out insults during presidential addresses is now within the bounds of decorum.
What all of this has in common is a rejection of the mores of American democracy. There were some things that people on the left and right used to agree on. You might not like it if Congress passes the president's agenda, but the law is the law. You might not like the president himself, but you're not going to make a big stink about it when he does things like pardon turkeys on Thanksgiving or tell kids to study hard and stay in school. You might not want to vote for what the president is arguing for, but if you're a member of Congress you don't heckle him like you're a drunken frat boy in a comedy club.
For all the passion and, at times, anger in our politics, those things used to be true. But not anymore.
It isn't just a random protester here or an obscure blogger there who are showing this rejectionism. The branches of the conservative crazy tree reach much farther into the establishment than anything comparable on the left. There are leftists who think weird things, but they are treated with scorn by Democrats. In contrast, there are members of the United States Congress who believe that President Obama may have forged his birth certificate. Probable 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota -- heretofore known as a modern, moderate Republican -- recently started talking about "asserting our tenth amendment rights" to nullify federal laws. Pawlenty was lining up behind a series of Republican politicians, including Texas governor Rick Perry, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. And does anyone think it's an accident that the now-famous Congressman Joe Wilson is a former aide to segregationist Strom Thurmond and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who supported keeping the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse? And is anyone surprised that what really had Wilson so mad was the prospect that somewhere, an undocumented immigrant might get health coverage? One of Wilson's constituents who recently lost her own coverage explained her misgivings about health reform by saying, "We're without insurance, and I do think some folks should get government health care. But they have to be American."
For the people who appreciate the vigorous pandering of conservative politicians, who believe that Obama has no right to the office he occupies, who are now wielding "Don't Tread On Me" banners as though they were oppressed by a foreign occupier, it's all beginning to make sense. Glenn Beck, who has become the key media figure of the anti-Obama movement, tells them Obama harbors "a deep-seated hatred for white people." They've lost "their" America, the one where a certain distribution of privilege and power was unquestioned. In 2009, being in the political minority isn't just a drag -- it's cause to discard your commitment to the system as we've known it.
During the post-election wrangling of 2000, numerous commentators said that the fact that there weren't tanks in the streets was a tribute to American democracy. In the end, we'd settle the argument through our established institutions, and everyone would respect the results. (Imagine for a moment if Obama had won the way George W. Bush won -- with fewer votes than his opponent, and only through the employment of a combination of ruthless hardball tactics and the intercession of a friendly Supreme Court majority.) That was supposed to be what made us so admirable. It seems like so long ago.
There is nothing we can do to escape tribalism; it is written on every page of human history. As our own society grows more complex and diverse, we become members of multiple overlapping tribes that we use to differentiate ourselves from others. We define "us" and "them" by our age, the place we live, our religious beliefs, our favorite sports, the kind of music we favor, and our taste in various consumer goods, to name but a few.
But there are some things we're all supposed to share, including a willingness to submit to the results of democracy even when we don't like those results. For a growing number of Americans, the presence of a certain kind of person in the White House calls that willingness into question.