Over at XX Factor they’re having an interesting discussion about whether Democrats who now say they’re going to vote for McCain are racists . As someone who wrote a whole book about why it’s a bad idea to make this particular accusation lightly, I have to agree with Melinda Henneberger that “supporting Hillary, or now McCain, over Obama does not a racist make.” But there’s a big distinction to be made between liberals who supported Clinton over Obama and those who support McCain over Obama. For a liberal to support Clinton over Obama suggests nothing about his or her attitudes on race because Clinton’s policy positions are liberal. Of course, it might be that support for Clinton was due to racism, just as it might be that support for Obama was due to sexism, but there is really no reason to assume this—it’s not even evidence of racism, much less proof. But when a liberal supports McCain over Obama, that does call for some explanation. Why reject the candidate whose policy positions are in line with your own? T his is still is far from proof of racism, but it makes you go hmmn , as Arsenio Hall would put it.
Of course there are a lot of explanations that don’t involve racism. Maybe some Democrats for McCain really buy into the experience line; maybe some voted for Clinton mainly due to gender solidarity and actually prefer many of McCain’s policy positions. Personally, I suspect most Democrats for McCain are driven not by racism but a much more widespread, simpler, and more primal motivation: spite.
I suspect a lot of the reason Obama supporters want to tar every Democrat gone over to McCain as a racist is that they suspect that some unsavory motivation underlies this strange shift in political alliances and jump to the most uncharitable conclusion: racism. Juries are apt to do this in discrimination cases, too: If the employer is acting out of favoritism, vindictiveness, or spite, they figure he’s probably a racist, too. But in fact the likelihood of another unsavory motivation, sufficient in itself to explain the decision, cuts against the inference of racism: I f Clintonites could be motivated to support McCain by spite alone, then we have less of a reason to suspect them of racism.
Oh, by the way, before the hate mail from Clinton supporters pours in: I have no doubt that many Obama supporters would have succumbed to a spiteful solidarity with McCain had Obama lost to Clinton. (Oh, oh: Is that just going to get me more hate mail?) Crushing disappointment and a resultant spiteful backlash has been a real risk in this primary of potential “historic firsts”: Someone had to come in second, and some profound symbolic triumph over bigotry and oppression had to be delayed. That’s hard to take, and we can expect the McCain campaign to try to capitalize on the resentment of the losing faction. I think Obama could probably win the election without the racist vote, but he may have a hard time winning without the spiteful vote. Let’s hope those liberals for McCain decide they like their faces enough not separate them from their noses.