Magazine

Herman Cain: The first post-racial candidate?

  • 18 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine
Herman Cain shakes hands at a Tea Party rally
Mr Cain is popular with Tea Party voters

Herman Cain remains a key figure in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet, compared to four years ago, his race hardly seems to be an issue.

Politically, Barack Obama and Herman Cain could not be more different.

Mr Obama is a centrist Democrat, Mr Cain a neo-conservative Republican. Mr Cain believes that people who can't get a job in the US only have themselves to blame; Mr Obama favours government intervention to lower the unemployment rate. Mr Obama is a former community organiser, while Mr Cain is a former CEO.

They only have two things in common: both men received Secret Service protection relatively early in the campaign compared to other candidates, and both men are black.

While the nation engaged in open conversations about race in the 2008 campaign, in 2011 it has not been discussed nearly as much as Cain's 9-9-9 plan, his conservative stance on immigration or his foreign policy gaffes.

Insignificant v incidental

"On one level, it's not a new story because the president is black," says Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. After months and months of exhaustive conversations about race in America in 2008, he says, the electorate is over it.

The election of Barack Obama, however, did not turn America into a colour-blind society. But the dynamics of Herman Cain's campaign are very different to those of Mr Obama's, and the country is very different, too.

"For him it's not that race is insignificant as I think it's incidental," says John White, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington DC. "Largely because I'm not sure if the primary electorate on the Republican side has grappled with the idea that he would be the nominee."

Herman Cain, he argues, is also not taken seriously as a candidate the same way Mr Obama was.

"People right from the beginning pegged Obama as a potential president. At one point in the summer, even though he was 20 points behind Hillary Clinton, Obama was raising significant sums of money. He was putting together an organisation that was credible," says Mr White. "I don't think that that's happened with Herman Cain."

Mr Cain's recent flubs, along with accusations of sexual harassment, have led to him slipping in the polls, though he is still favoured among early primary voters. Still, political analysts believe that Mr Cain is one of several candidates a dissatisfied Republican party is trying on before settling with the safe but unsatisfying Mitt Romney.

As the primaries begin, historians and pundits will get a clearer view of Mr Cain's chances of securing the nomination, and with it the larger implications for American history.

"If we start hearing about him as a viable candidate in the winter of 2012, then I think the discussion of having an incumbent black president and a very serious black contender will begin," Michael Dawson, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

It is not unprecedented for black candidates to shine during this stage of the primaries, Mr Dawson notes. He cites both Colin Powell and Alan Keyes as two black Republicans who showed early promise but failed to secure the nomination.

Mr Powell, who never declared a candidacy, still won the 1996 New Hampshire primary on a write-in campaign. Mr Keyes took second.

The authenticity question

The few conversations about Mr Cain's race have pitted him against Mr Obama yet again, with comparisons over who is blacker - a variation on 2008 conversations about the Obama candidacy.

Some conservatives hinted that because Mr Cain had a more traditionally African-American upbringing than Mr Obama, he was the more authentic black candidate.

Barack Obama devoted an entire speech to race during his campaign

Progressives, meanwhile, have complained that Mr Cain's declarations of "Shucky Ducky" and his penchant for singing spirituals pandered to white stereotypes.

But that those topics have failed to take off outside of a few blog posts and TV talk shows speaks to how racial discourse has evolved since Mr Obama's election.

"I think the discussion in the country around racial authenticity is more sophisticated partly due to the conversations we had around President Obama's candidacy in 2008," says Mr Dawson, author of Not In Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics. "I don't think that discussion itself has as much traction as it did four years ago."

Mr Cain and Mr Obama, says Mr Dawson, both present as "politically white". Removed from black activism and nationalism, they therefore appear less radicalised to voters. Mr Cain, on the right, is even more familiar.

"None of his major policy positions in terms of foreign policy, fiscal policy, in terms of how he views race in the United States, resonate at all with the majority of the black community. In that way he's very much within the mainstream of the socially conservative tradition," says Mr Dawson. Indeed, the complaints of racism against Barack Obama were often strongest when he was pushing progressive legislation.

"Conservatives are delighted because Herman Cain is disproving the notion the right wing of the conservative party, that the Tea Party is racist or not a big tent," says Mr Joseph, author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.

"In 2011 his race doesn't matter and might even be a plus," to conservative supporters, says Mr Joseph. "You can say that's a kind of progress."

Mr Joseph also suggests that the outsider in this election is not the black candidate, but Mr Romney, who is Mormon and - even worse - a moderate.

Herman Cain is not making progress, however, with black voters. "We have some test polls that show the African American constituency solidly behind Barack Obama. They're unshakeable," says Mr White.

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