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The Color of an Advantage

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

WARSAW -- "Will Americans vote for a black man for president?"

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If I had a 10-euro bill for every time some incredulous foreigner asked me that question in the past week, I'd be a very rich person, particularly given the current exchange rate.

I never had a proper answer prepared -- I don't have a crystal ball, after all, and the polls change every day. But it hardly mattered, since any mildly positive reply wasn't believed. Surely, I told one British acquaintance, the Iowa caucus vote is evidence that at least some Americans will vote for a black man for president. He disagreed, citing the atypicality of Iowa. After all, "there are plenty of states where you hardly see any black faces at all." Alas, he seemed to have forgotten -- or perhaps never knew -- that Iowa is one of them.

One can laugh off these British prejudices, of course -- but they got me wondering how many of them we Americans share. All of us have grown accustomed to the idea that darker skin is a crippling liability in a national election. But right now, at this admittedly odd historical moment, isn't it actually an enormous advantage?

To see what I mean, back up and focus (again) on who is in the White House, how he got there and who wants to replace him. In case you'd forgotten that George W. Bush is the scion of an American political dynasty, or that Hillary Clinton is married to a former U.S. president, let me remind you. And let me remind you also that at many points in the past, these sorts of connections would have been advantages.

Though we like to remember our first president gallantly turning down the chance to be crowned king, Americans love dynasties. Think of the multiple Gores, Landrieus, Browns, Longs, Dingells, Rockefellers and Udalls in politics, not to mention the Adamses, Kennedys and Roosevelts.

And no wonder: Even aside from the money and connections, growing up surrounded by politics is probably a good way to develop political opinions. Marriage to a politician is probably even better. Besides, from the voters' point of view, surnames function as a form of branding, particularly in very large, inattentive electorates such as those of India, Argentina and the United States. In theory, you know what you'll get, more or less, if you elect a Gandhi in India or a Clinton in America: You can save yourself the time it would take to read about them.

Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, she is running for election at a moment when the flaws of oligarchy and dynasty are on display as never before. One of the least talented members of one of our most prominent families -- the wrong brother, as some would have it -- is in the White House. And at least in this narrow sense, she has more in common with him than she does with her husband. Bill Clinton was "the man from Hope." She is the "woman from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

No wonder the clichéd word "change" works like magic for Obama. And no wonder it is beginning to seem, possibly for the first time in history, that it is better to be black. To put it bluntly, for a large, frequently inattentive electorate, there could be no more potent symbol of his differentness, his non-Clinton-non-Bushness, than Obama's dark skin. His race also functions as a form of branding, telling you that he is the anti-oligarch in this contest, "the man from Hawaii by way of Jakarta, Chicago and Harvard." It's even more effective than a famous surname. You don't have to hear him speak to know he isn't related to this president or any other: Just look at his photograph.

Naturally, I can't speak for all Americans, and I have no idea if primary voters, let alone the national electorate, will line up behind him. But I'll bet that if they don't, it won't be because of his skin color. And many of those who do vote for Obama will be motivated by his skin color, just to spite the oligarchs. As for the expats whom I know: I can promise that most of them, even the Republicans, would vote for Obama in New Hampshire or South Carolina if they could, precisely because he is black. At least that would show all of our snotty foreign friends that we really aren't governed by dynasties. At least that would make us feel once again that we come from a country where any child really can grow up to be president.

applebaumletters@ washpost.com


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