Anita Hill asks: Can Obama host a happy Democratic family reunion this summer?

Anita F. Hill

The heart and soul of Barack Obama’s campaign is his message of a new brand of politics that unites the country.  Now that Hillary Clinton has conceded, he can begin to live up to that promise by uniting the party.   The most expeditious formula for putting aside old politics and beginning party restoration is the so called “dream” Obama/Clinton ticket.  But real harmony and meaningful reform require more than window dressing.  If Senator Obama can convince his core, youthful supporters to share power and party vision with the party’s eccentrics, distant relatives and assorted misfits, he may make believers out of Democrats as well as Republicans.

The Party Convention in Denver is Senator Obama’s best chance to showcase his leadership ability, but unification must start now.  His first task is to make sure that family members don’t figuratively grab the guns some of them cling to and turn them on their relatives. Starting now, Obama must make clear that toxic rhetoric will destroy any chance of party unification. As each of these branches vie for the title of who best speaks for the party, he must make sure that some don’t gag others by engaging in the kind of racist, misogynist and classist speech that is aimed more at silencing opposition than promoting a positive agenda. 

Every family has its vociferous members whose candor and tenacity sometimes embarrass other members.  They go by many names—some of them quite pejorative.   During the primary, the role of eccentric aunt (or uncle) was played by the older women and some older civil rights leaders and black politicians who have supported Hillary Clinton to the end.  They understand change.  They got where they are because society changed.  Yet, each is still looking for some resemblance in Obama’s change and theirs. Assuring them that they will have meaningful roles in his administration will demonstrate an appreciation for their legacy and their ongoing involvement. Bringing them on immediately in visible positions as advisors to help him usher in the change he advocates would demonstrate his leadership. Obama cannot come off as repaying their sacrifice by pushing them aside for control of the family just as they were stepping into powerful roles. 

In states like Oklahoma and Kentucky, what we might call country cousins have maintained their allegiance to the Democratic family in territories that have become increasingly hostile to members of their party.  For years, Republican elected officials have had their ear—continually promising them tax cuts to help them fulfill their dreams.  It is no wonder that they start to speak in a language that is unfamiliar to many in the Democratic Party—that sounds like Republican speak.  The country cousins’ branch is comprised of people of all races. Some are hard working. Some are underemployed or even unemployed. Senator Obama must come to them with well-defined policies that address wage and work issues and the related issues of housing, fuel and education costs. In some instances the country cousins’ neighbors are Republicans who are only one generation away from the Democratic Party.  Senator Obama must send these distant relatives home convinced that the Democratic candidate is the one who will make sure they can put food on the table, a roof over their heads and get their children through college so the next generation can enjoy the same educational privileges that Senator Obama has.  They will be his best emissaries. 

Every family also has a few members whose ideas reflect a peculiar view of the world and of other family members.  The party “oddballs” may sincerely believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim who will sell out to Al-Qaeda; or that he is a racist poised to oppress whites. As proud rationalists, most of the leadership in Obama’s camp cannot comprehend where such seemingly wacky thinking comes from.   What he and his advisors must appreciate is that irrational fears often sprout from real, but unaddressed, concerns about safety and security.  The misfits may never conform to mainstream thinking or behavior, but they might respond positively to concrete policies that address their fears.  It’s easy to dismiss them as cranks, but at the very least, they help Senator Obama put his finger on the policies that have failed all of us dismally and dangerously.   

Certainly, each of those branches of the family must be assured that an Obama presidency is much better for them than a John McCain victory.  But lasting party unification and the ability to lead against what is sure to be fierce Republican opposition will only come if their contributions are affirmed and their concerns addressed.

The primary fight has shown that Democrats don’t all look, talk or think alike.  Like the American family, the Democratic Party struggles to appreciate the value of a diverse membership made up of individuals whose concerns transcend stereotypical identity politics.  Ultimately, the party’s task is to come up with a leader and an agenda that can do that as well.   Diplomacy begins at home.  If Barack Obama pulls off a successful family reunion this summer, he will show himself to be an astute politician and perhaps even the president all the country is waiting for. 

Anita F. Hill is a Professor of Law, Social policy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University
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