A headline this week announced, in part, that a "New Iowa Poll Give Herman Cain Double-Digit Lead." This followed Fox News' GOP presidential debate in South Carolina that Frank Luntz's subsequent focus group overwhelmingly called for Cain. One among the panel of 29 had gone in preferring Cain to the others; virtually all of the other 28 wound up converts. Said Luntz of the result, "This is unprecedented."
Unprecedented, perhaps, but not unforeseeable. Over a year ago, I wrote, "Remember these words…in two years, we'll all know the name Herman Cain."
His candidacy appeals to conservatives eager to find a black hero they can use to shield them from charges of bigotry. The Atlanta Journal Constitution notes that conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart has openly embraced Cain "as a way to blow the minds of those who label conservatives as racist." Cain's candidacy "would blow up the death star of political correctness that the left uses against the right," he said.
Unfortunately, those charges are apt. Between demanding fiscal austerity only on non-defense discretionary spending (which results in the destruction of social services poor people depend on) and advancing an aggressively xenophobic posture against immigrants (like Arizona's draconian "papers, please" law), the current right wing advocates a set of policies that consolidate obstacles to the empowerment of racial minorities.
Cain addresses this accusation, sort of. At his speech at CPAC this year, Cain said to a white crowd, "Now, you will get called racist, simply because you disagree with the president who happens to be black. Well, they call me racist too, because I disagree with the president who happens to be black. Go figure!" And what could people racked with white guilt want more than Cain's next pander? "Well, I got a breaking news announcement for you: you are not a racist, you are patriots, because you're willing to stand up for what you believe in."
This shameless bigot-cajoling is just the beginning of Cain's attempt to create space for a viable black GOP candidate. Employing his trademark cadence – part Baptist preacher, part Landmark Forum huckster – Cain espouses three framing pillars, designed to excite conservatives.
1. Common sense. One of Luntz's post-debate respondents, asked for a "word or phrase to describe Herman Cain," offered "common sense." Perhaps she derived some inspiration for that answer from Cain's description himself as "common sense."
The appeal of "common sense" has much precedent among conservative populists – the legacy bearing the Tea Party. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in Foreign Affairs:
Intellectually, Jacksonian ideas are rooted in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy – that moral, scientific, political, and religious, truths can be ascertained by the average person – is more than an intellectual conviction in the United States; it is a cultural force. Jacksonians regard supposed experts with suspicion, believing that the credentialed and the connected are trying to advance their own agenda. These political, economic, scientific or cultural elites often want to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America.
This helps to explain Cain’s defense of the deceptively titled "Fair Tax." Prompted by debate moderator Chris Wallace, "According to the experts, the practical effect of the Fair Tax would be a tax cut for the wealthy and a tax increase for the middle class," Cain retorted to applause. "Well, Chris, with all due respect, your experts are dead wrong." Partly to contrast himself with President Obama, often labeled "professorial,"Cain derides elites and sticks to topics where he can claim some self-made expertise.
2. Business. The "experts be damned" position is bolstered by Cain's own status as a businessman (and a CV he proudly points out is devoid of public service).
Luntz's respondents raved that, "He understood about defining a problem and then coming up with a solution" and "He knew exactly… how to outline the problem and find the solution and find the people to solve the problem." It would have been nice if someone had asked them to identify a problem he had solved. Instead, one suspects they developed this impression because Cain is constantly encouraging them to.
"One of the things that I’ve always prided myself on is making an informed decision based upon knowing all of the facts." He detailed his process in this regard more than once in the debate. "How about sending a problem-solver to the White House? How about someone who has a career of defining the right problem, assigning the right priority, surrounding yourself with the right people… and fourth, putting together the plans, and then being able to engage the American public in these common sense solutions."
As chairman and then CEO of Godfather's Pizza, Cain flexed his managerial prowess, returning the company from a slump to profitability. (The slogan "A Pizza You Can’t Refuse" and similar slogans raise their own questions about the appropriateness of a Nebraskan pizza company, not owned by Italians, whose food is available at Hess stations, invoking mafia stereotypes for publicity.) Cain's boast holds quite an allure for the type of audience that can be made to affirm the cinematic excellence of "Atlas Shrugged", but a nation increasingly suspicious of CEOs (the culprits, not the heroes, in the economic crisis) might be a tougher crowd, especially since his Godfather business strategy included layoffs and store closures.
3. God. As Randian as any Republican candidate might aspire to be, he would have to be masochistic to propound the great Ayn's views on the divine ("I am against God"). For Cain, the rags-to-riches family history he recounts is attributable equally to that much over-praised author and a certain Nazarene carpenter. "You can achieve your American dreams, if you believe in God," Cain pronounced, implying that liberals, whom he accuses of "[attacking] the American Dream," are doing the work of Satan.
("The objective of the liberals is to destroy this country," he said at CPAC. "They have only three tactics: S, I, N. They Shift the subject, they Ignore the facts, and they Name-call. Am I right? That's all they do.")
Cain depicts his parents as shoeless farm workers who, through lots of hard work and old-time religion, were able to scrape enough together to raise Herman and his younger brother, Thurman. "What my parents were able to do inspires me, because they wanted us to get a little bit better start than they did. And we did." Absent from this assessment: the primary factors contributing to Cain's generation's relative ease in the world were the federal government intervening in economic and civil matters, a robust welfare state, and a coordinated left-wing black rights movement that conservatives derided, imprisoned and beat as furiously as they could.
But the God that movement preached – the liberation theology sort of God – is unrecognizable in Cain's spirituality. I wrote of his SRLC speech last year:
Diagnosed in 2007 with stage four cancer affecting his colon and liver, Cain attributes his continued life to two factors. Firstly, God didn't let him die on the grounds that Cain had more work to do (God presumably finds that the millions of children who suffer and die of cancer have pretty much accomplished what they meant to, to say nothing of Cain's fellow adults) and, secondly, the fact that ObamaCare wasn't around then, and it – though by what means remains a mystery – would surely have killed him (ObamaCare is evidently a mountain so mightily evil that God Himself isn't able to surmount it).
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The man has got his conservative tropes down. And he's banking on the supposition that the racist birther crowd and its wacky associated groups will adopt the position of Republicans at a national level, who are more than happy to embrace black and Latin folks who toe the line (the Bush administration having promoted Gonzales, Rice and Powell to the highest levels of government).
But we mustn't confuse the progress of racial minorities through the GOP with progress in the fight to advance racial equality in the United States. Ultimately, opponents of racism have to fight not only for the personal success of individual members of repressed minorities but, far more importantly, for the policies that further justice and erode inequality.