A few weeks ago, the liberal comedian Bill Maher and conservative strategist and pundit Bill Kristol had a brief spat on Maher’s HBO show, putatively over what instigated the tea party but ultimately over the psychic wound that has divided red America and blue America in the Obama years. The rise of the tea party, explained Maher in a let’s-get-real moment, closing his eyes for a second the way one does when saying something everybody knows but nobody wants to say, “was about a black president.” Both Maher and Kristol carry themselves with a weary cynicism that allows them to jovially spar with ideological rivals, but all of a sudden they both grew earnest and angry. Kristol interjected, shouting, “That’s bullshit! That is total bullshit!” After momentarily sputtering, Kristol recovered his calm, but his rare indignation remained, and there was no trace of the smirk he usually wears to distance himself slightly from his talking points. He almost pleaded to Maher, “Even you don’t believe that!”
“I totally believe that,” Maher responded, which is no doubt true, because every Obama supporter believes deep down, or sometimes right on the surface, that the furious opposition marshaled against the first black president is a reaction to his race. Likewise, every Obama opponent believes with equal fervor that this is not only false but a smear concocted willfully to silence them.
This bitter, irreconcilable enmity is not the racial harmony the optimists imagined the cultural breakthrough of an African- American president would usher in. On the other hand, it’s not exactly the sort of racial strife the pessimists, hardened by racial animosity, envisioned either, the splitting of white and black America into worlds of mutual incomprehension—as in the cases of the O. J. Simpson trial, the L.A. riots, or Bernhard Goetz.
The Simpson episode actually provides a useful comparison. The racial divide was what made the episode so depressing: Blacks saw one thing, whites something completely different. Indeed, when Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of murder charges, whites across parties reacted in nearly equal measure: 56 percent of white Republicans objected to the verdict, as did 52 percent of white Democrats. Two decades later, the trial of George Zimmerman produced a very different reaction. This case also hinged on race—Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen from his neighborhood in Florida, and was acquitted of all charges. But here the gap in disapproval over the verdict between white Democrats and white Republicans was not 4 points but 43. Americans had split once again into mutually uncomprehending racial camps, but this time along political lines, not by race itself.
A different, unexpected racial argument has taken shape. Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.
If you set out to write a classic history of the Obama era, once you had described the historically significant fact of Obama’s election, race would almost disappear from the narrative. The thumbnail sketch of every president’s tenure from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton prominently includes racial conflagrations—desegregation fights over the military and schools, protests over civil-rights legislation, high-profile White House involvement in the expansion or rollback of busing and affirmative action. The policy landscape of the Obama era looks more like it did during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, when Americans fought bitterly over regulation and the scope of government. The racial-policy agenda of the Obama administration has been nearly nonexistent.
But if you instead set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.