Business Times - 15 Feb 2008
Salad Bowl politics in the US
Hispanics are the new ingredient and they could decide who occupies the Oval Office come November
By LEON HADAR
POLITICAL scientists who have followed the growing ethnic tensions in Kenya, in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election there, have described this development as a setback to the process of political development in sub-Saharan Africa.
Indeed, the dominant view among Western experts is that there is a close correlation between the ability of voters to disregard ethnic, religious and tribal identities when they elect their leaders and the progress towards political modernisation.
Hence, the tendency of your average academic to deride the 'Balkanisation' or 'Lebanonisation' of electoral politics, the kind that even a developed country like Belgium has been experiencing recently, and to celebrate the model of the Melting Pot that had traditionally been associated with American politics.
In reality, the Melting Pot, the notion that the members of many ethnic, racial and religious groups that have immigrated into the US have been assimilated into a united and homogeneous nation whose citizens exclude the consideration of their identity and those of others from their political calculations, including voting, is nothing but a myth. Instead, American electoral politics should be compared to a Salad Bowl.
One certainly doesn't have to be an expert on American political history to recognise the way race relations, especially between whites and blacks, have been a central and explosive issue in American politics.
Catholics and Jews have also faced major obstacles before they succeeded in getting elected to top electoral positions. Hence, the first Roman Catholic US president, John F Kennedy, was elected in 1960. He was also the last.
Moreover, in addition to race and religion, gender has also been a factor in determining electoral outcomes in the US. So the fact that either a woman (Senator Hillary Clinton) or an African-American (Senator Barack Obama) will win the Democratic presidential nomination and that one of them has a chance to be elected as the next US president has been marked as a sign that Americans are about to take a dramatic step towards overcoming the problematic legacies of race and gender in electoral politics.
But such a rosy narrative seems to disregard the fact that the current presidential primaries have also produced some disturbing signs of Balkanisation in both the Democratic and the Republican races, adding perhaps unappetising elements in the electoral political salad.
First, the Democratic primaries have strained to some extent the political relations between blacks and whites as well as creating new tensions between female and male voters, as well as between African-Americans and Hispanics and even between different members of social-economic and age groups.
Indeed, exit polling that has been conducted during the recent primaries, suggest that the Democratic coalitions that support Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama are quite different in their makeup: Mr Obama enjoys the support of the majority of African-American voters, a plurality of both black and white men and is backed by most of the Democratic voters between the ages of 18 to 50 as well as those who are affluent and have graduate degrees.
Mrs Clinton is winning the votes of the majority of white Democratic female voters, Hispanics, voters above the age of 50 and lower-middle class and less educated whites.
That the majority of African-Americans have deserted the Clinton camp has been quite a dramatic development when one takes into consideration that most of them voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
The shift reflects not only the pride in the fact that a bi-racial candidate - a son of a Kenyan-born man and a white American woman - who identifies himself as an African-American is running for president. There has also been a lot of anger among blacks over what they considered to be a calculated effort by the Clintons to win white voters by depicting Mr Obama as a 'black candidate'.
Indeed, that Hillary has been gaining the majority of support of white voters - beyond the more affluent and educated regions - in large states like California, New York and New Jersey and in the South, is making Mr Obama's job of winning the Democratic nomination more difficult.
And more importantly, it raises doubts about Mr Obama's ability to win the support of the majority of white middle-class voters during the general election where he is expected to run against Republican candidate John McCain.
Mr Obama and his aides are confident that the new young voters they have mobilised into their campaign will help him win both the Democratic primary race as well as the general election. But then, young people tend to turn out to vote in smaller numbers than older ones.
And Mr Obama also faces the problem of overcoming Hillary's enthusiastic support among female voters who would like to see a woman rather than a man - even if he is black - occupying the White House for the first time in American history.
Most troubling for Mr Obama is his failure to make inroads into the expanding community of Hispanic voters. Experts interpret the pro-Hillary sentiments among the Hispanics who are becoming an important voting bloc in key states like Florida, Californian, New York, Texas and Ohio, as a reflection of their admiration for the Clinton Dynasty.
Other analysts point to the growing tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics in large urban centres like Los Angeles and New York, and suggest that the pro-Clinton vote should be seen as an anti-Obama-the-black vote.
Ironically, one of the reasons that Mr McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, hasn't been popular among the more conservative elements in his party - including white southerners and the Religious Right - has been his support for Congressional legislation that would allow illegal immigrants, most of whom are Hispanics, to become US citizens.
Indeed, if Mr McCain is distrusted among the white and conservative anti-immigration members of his party, he enjoys wide support among Hispanic voters in his state of Arizona and elsewhere, which explains why he has done so well in the Republican primaries in California and the states on the East coast.
All of which could make for a very interesting primary season and a general presidential campaign in which the new and growing ingredient in the electoral political salad, Hispanic voters, could determine the outcome of the races.
In March, Texas with its huge Hispanic population and Ohio, where Hispanics are also increasing their presence, will hold the primaries that will decide whether Mr Obama or Hillary become their party's presidential nominee. Mrs Clinton's strong electoral base among Hispanics could help her emerge the victor.
At the same time, if Mr Obama runs against Mr McCain in the general election, the Republican candidate could count on his strong support among Hispanics while Mr Obama will continue to rely on his electoral base among African-Americans.
From that perspective, Hillary could have a better chance than Mr Obama in competing against Mr McCain over Hispanic voters.
Some pundits are speculating that Mr McCain would try to counter Mr Obama's strength among blacks by choosing am African-American running-mate (Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice), while Mr Obama or Mrs Clinton could select an Hispanic vice-presidential candidate like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in order to secure the Hispanic vote for the Democratic candidate.
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