2/15/08 Bus. Times
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
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
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
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
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
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.