The Narrow Spectrum and Identity Politics: Obama’s “Puzzlement,” Invisible Primaries, and the Trivialization of U.S. Politics

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama recently told reporters that he was “puzzled at how, after more than a year of campaigning, race and sex are at the forefront as never before” (1). The comment came after Geraldine Ferraro was forced to resign her position in the Hillary Clinton campaign because of comments attributing Obama’s political success to his identity as a black male.  Obama was probably also thinking about exit polls from Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas showing that voters appear to be marking Democratic Party primary ballots largely on the basis of skin color and/or gender.


As the leading Democratic presidential candidates have engaged in occasionally wonky policy discussion during carefully crafted “debates” staged and broadcast by corporate media outposts (ABC, CNN, and MSNBC), voters’ decisions for or against Hillary or Obama have come down to a very pronounced extent to questions of gender and race – to who is black and who is white; who is male and who is female. Again and again during the primaries, attentive monitors of campaign coverage have heard one Democratic voter after another explain their support for Hillary or Obama in terms that relate in no substantive way to their favorite candidates’ policy agenda or public record and which clearly suggest that the truer basis for their vote is racial, ethnic, and/or gender identity.





Obama’s comment is disingenuous and misleading on at least three levels. The first difficulty with his remark is that he knows very well that race and gender continue to be highly relevant disparity- and resentment-generating divisions in the “United States.”


The second problem is that, for all its self-interested claims to have “transcended race” and to represent a widely desired “post-racial” politics and future, the Obama campaign has NOT been above playing the “race card” when it finds it useful to do so. After the New Hampshire campaign and leading up to the so-called “black primary” in heavily African-American South Carolina, for example, Team Obama found it helpful to accuse Hillary Clinton of racism for making the possibly elitist but not specifically racist comment that it took the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, not just the eloquent oratory of Martin Luther King (Hillary forgot to mention the deep pressure of the great social movement King symbolized) to pass the Voting Rights Act. There were also rumblings – very likely encouraged by, if not emanating from the Obama campaign – that Bill Clinton had dismissed the political relevance of Obama in a racially motivated way by supposedly calling Obama’s candidacy a “fairy tale.”  In actual point of fact, all Clinton did was accurately point out that Obama was selling a “fairy tale” by claiming to have been a strong and consistent opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.


Throughout the primary season, the Obama campaign has been playing race and exploiting Obama’s technically black identity in a more elegant way. It has brilliantly cultivated many liberal and other whites’ desire to superficially “put race behind us.”  It has granted them an opportunity to feel good about their rejection of open while simultaneously avoiding serious confrontation with continuing reality of white supremacy by giving them a safe black candidate to support – one who consciously downplays the extent and relevance of racial inequality and oppression in American life. Obama has given white America yet another opportunity to congratulate itself about abandoning what I call “level one racism” (open and legal “state-of-mind” prejudice and discrimination) while ducking the deeper and entrenched problems of “level two” – structural, societal, institutional, and “state-of-being” (regardless of intent) – racism.   




The third and biggest problem with Obama’s comment is that part of the explanation for the persistent role and relevance of race and gender in U.S. political culture is that he and the other American presidential Idols selected for the electorate by the hidden primaries of corporate money and media are not giving voters a lot of substantive policy and ideological differences on which to base their voting decisions.


To a degree that ought to be shocking, the prolonged Hillary-Obama duel has been largely about the candidates and their perceived “character.”  As the leading pollster Andrew Kohut, survey director of the Pew Center, told Wall Street Journal reporter Gerald Seib early in the Democratic primary season, “there is no correlation in the exit polls between the issues people think are important and the candidate they vote for.  It’s about the qualities of the person.” Quoting Kohut in an article titled “Issues Recede in ’08 contest as Voters Focus on Character,” Seib noted that Democratic South Carolina voters who identified “the economy” as the most significant policy issue voted for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as commonly as those who picked health care or the Iraq war as the most relevant issues. In New Hampshire, Democrats favoring a rapid withdrawal from Iraq broke for Clinton despite the fact that Obama seemed to have a more “staunchly antiwar” message (2).


Candidate fortunes this Winter have hinged significantly on campaign marketers’ and corporate media’s messages on which of the two candidates has been: mean or nice; honest or deceptive; personally ambitious or socially committed; funny or humorless; tough or soft; self-assured or needy; positively connected to their spouse or not; likeable or disagreeable; calm or intense; balanced or neurotic; hip or square, and so on. The long drawn out battle over these and other matters of candidate quality, character, and image have developed across numerous media-managed soap operas heavily overlaid with questions of racial, ethnic and gender identity.  The leading episodes have included melodramas over: Obama coldly telling Hillary that she was “likeable enough” (during a New Hampshire debate); the Obama campaign claiming that Hillary had been racist to highlight LBJ over MLK in achieving the voting rights law; the Obama campaign’s outrage over Bill Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s antiwar credentials; the Clinton campaign’s charge (accurate) that Obama had lifted a number of key campaign phrases from the oratory of his friend Deval Patrick, the black Governor of Massachusetts; the Clinton campaign’s charge (accurate) that Obama’s top economic advisor told the government of Canada to downplay the significance of Obama’s Ohio “campaign rhetoric” regarding NAFTA; Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power’s resignation for calling Hillary “a monster” (in a Scottish newspaper);   Ferraro’s racially driven resignation.




The standard media and academic response to identity-, candidate-, and character-centered voting is to fault voters for their childish focus on contender image, soap operas, “the horse race,” and characteristics over more substantive policy issues.  But this is an elitist exercise in victim-blaming that ignores the critical and authoritarian role of corporate media and related money elites and candidate marketers and image consultants in pushing precisely these sorts of political signifiers over matters of policy and ideology. As Noam Chomsky noted in a speech in Boston in early February, the ruling class “leaders” of the “modern democracy” crafted by U.S. elites since the dawn of the corporate and imperial era have long believed that “the important work of the world is the domain of the ‘responsible men,’ who must ‘live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,’ the general public, ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ whose ‘function’ is to be ‘spectators,’ not ‘participants.’” Further (3):


“And spectators are not supposed to bother their heads with issues.  The Wall Street Journal came close to the point in a major front-page article on super-Tuesday, under the heading ‘Issues Recede in ’08 Contest As Voters Focus on Character.’ To put it more accurately, issues recede as candidates, party managers, and their PR agencies focus on character (qualities, etc.). As usual.  And for sound reasons.  Apart from the irrelevance of the population, they can be dangerous.  The participants in action are surely aware that on a host of major issues, both political parties are well to the right of the general population, and that their positions that are quite consistent over time, a matter reviewed in a useful study by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Divide; the same is true on domestic policy It is important, then, for the attention of the herd to be diverted elsewhere.”


A recent study of 2008 campaign coverage by the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) is consistent with Chomsky’s argument.  Examining 1,742 campaign and candidate reports that appeared in U.S. print and electronic media between January 1 and May 31, 2007, the PEJ found that questions of policy were highlighted in just 15 percent of the stories. Treatments of the “horse race” – who was winning, who was losing, who was raising the most money, and who was performing the best on the speaking stump – made up 63 percent of the stories. The candidates’ public record was the focus for just 1.4 percent of the stories but the personal background of the candidates – their families, marriages, personal health (5.1 percent), religion (2 percent), values, and biographies/ autobiographies – made up 17 percent (4).


The PEJ study bears an interesting title: “The Invisible Primary.”


Also deleted in the standard top-down criticism of voters’ “trivial” focus on image and identity is the critical role the “winner take all” and two party nature of the American electoral system plays in narrowing ideological and policy differences to the point where voters have no choice but to choose on the basis of matters other than policy and ideology.





Whatever the causes, the two leading Democratic candidates are not giving Democratic voters much substantive policy or ideological difference to go on when it comes to making their big quadrennial primary decisions. If you listen closely to the debates and study their policy positions and you connect their comments up with their broader behavior and statements, it finally sinks in. They’re joined at the moral and ideological hip.


Unless forced to do otherwise by angry and organized U.S. citizens or overseas actors, both will essentially keep a large U.S. force structure in Iraq for the life of their (hypothetical) administration, continuing the Holocaust we have imposed on that illegally invaded and occupied nation in the name of freedom.


Unless compelled to take a different path, both will support Israel against the Palestinian people and the Arab world pretty much no matter what. 


Both will sustain the bloody occupation of Afghanistan. 


Both will talk about making certain small adjustments to NAFTA and CAFTA and the WTO and so forth but both will also leave the basic structure and practices of corporate globalization fully intact.


Both will try to tweak the health care system and try to enroll some of the uninsured but both at the end of the day will leave the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations in fundamental control.


Both will make noises about supporting labor and environmental causes and ending special interest domination but will respond most especially to the giant corporations that have the most money and power to influence politicians and policy.  Those special interests are not into helping the labor movement and they’re not excited about serious environmental regulation.


Both will talk against racial injustice and about ending poverty on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday but neither will undertake the kind of significant civil rights and social justice initiatives required to meaningfully tackle the deeply entrenched structures and practices of white supremacy and class oppression.


Both will talk to some extent about the cause of reintegrated ex-offenders into society, but neither will really do anything to confront and undo the racially disparate patterns of mass drug arrest and mass drug incarceration that have turned the U.S. into a charnel house of racially disparate mass imprisonment.    

Neither will follow the counsel of Dr. King and go after the gigantic and bloated so-called “defense” budget that sustains more than 700 overseas bases located in nearly country in the world and which accounts for half of the world’s military expenditures even while more than a million U.S. children live in what poverty researchers now call “deep poverty” – at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.


Both will leave  the basic top-heavy wealth structure of the country intact, doing relatively little about the fact that the top 1 percent owns half the nation’s net worth – a fact that makes real and substantive popular democracy essentially unimaginable for reasons that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote about. 


Both Hillary and Obama will with line up with Columbia and the international business agenda against Venezuela and independent left nationalism in Latin America.


Both will make aggressive noises and threatening moves toward Iran and its nuclear program real or imagined but neither will say much or anything about the dangerous and provocative nuclear arsenals of Israel and India.


Both could be expected to use real and imaginary dangers abroad to compromise civil liberties at home.


All of this comes with the critical qualifier – unless forced to do otherwise by popular masses at home and/or abroad.


How are voters supposed to make strong policy or ideological distinctions between the two corporate-imperial Democrats Hillary and Obama? As Seib rightly observed on Super Tuesday:


“Democrats and Republicans have reached the biggest primary day in the nation’s history with this much in common: No major candidate on either side has yet offered up ideas or policies that amount to a new ideological course for the country…As voting unfolds on this Super Tuesday, the two hottest candidates at the moment – Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama – are most striking for their ability to appeal to independent voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum, and for their willingness to compromise there" (5).


Seib naturally did not mention that the “invisible primaries” of corporate wealth and media worked powerfully to narrow the spectrum of acceptable political debate in such a business-friendly fashion – an admission that might have undermined his focus on voters as the primary agents of “voters’ focus on character.” He also forgot to mention that importance of racial and gender identity gender as electoral proxies for voters forced to make choices between candidates who don’t seem to diverge much on critical public issues reflecting the persistence of what Dr. King called “triple evils that are interrelated” – economic exploitation (business rule and capitalism), racism (deeply understood), and militarism-imperialism.



Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield 2007).  Street is currently completing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.




1. Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, “Racial Issue Bubbles Up Again for Democrats,” New York Times, 13 March 2008, p. A1.


2. Gerald Seib, “Issues Recede in ’08 contest as Voters Focus on Character,” Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2008, p. A1.


3. Noam Chomsky, “‘Good News’: Iraq and Beyond,” ZNet (February 16, 20088), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16522


4. Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center, The Invisible Primary Invisible No Longer: a First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign

(October 29, 2007), read at http://www.journalism.org/node/8191


5.  Seib, "Issues Recede."


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