For years, we've had a running conversation about how much or whether the often vitriolic, seemingly gut level opposition to President Obama is tied to his race as opposed to simple partisanship, opposition to policies and more. It's a tangled question since supporters and opponents each bring preconceptions and commitments to it. And it's a question that is inherently over-determined since the same people who might bear a racial animus toward the President probably also oppose him intensely purely on policy grounds. But we do have a resounding counter-factual always ready at hand: Bill Clinton.
Perhaps a generation has faded memories. And there is a sizable portion of the electorate - notably, one of President Obama's key constituencies - which lacks a living memory of just what went down in the '90s. But suffice it to say that if Republicans have gone batshit crazy on President Obama, it's pretty hard to distinguish the intensity of the crazy from what happened with President Clinton. Bribery, multiple murders, rapes, defections to Russia, endless would be "-gates" rising and falling like bubbles in the international economy before settling down as penny stock scandals with a permanent home at the American Spectator. There was no end of the Crazy. And much of it was aggrieved and intense in ways that today we'd find very familiar.
But if the intensity is comparable, the character seems different. There's a dimension of racial animus today lacking in the Clinton days. TPM has reported on the birther crazy in more ways than I can possibly remember. But I hadn't seen it summed up so perfectly until I read this recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he notes how we've been forced to witness the spectacle of a black president literally forced to 'present his papers' to white people in a way that half tragically, half comically recapitulates a centuries old practice with black men who've overachieved or jumped above their station.
American demography is dramatically different than it was 22 years ago when President Clinton was first elected. The Democratic Party is now demonstrably a multiracial party, with at best a bit more than 50 percent of its votes coming from whites, facing off against a party that is now overwhelmingly white. To whatever extent opposition to President Obama is racial, it's not only because he's black himself, it's because he's the leader of the party that is the institutional representative of black people. Indeed, in a way that wasn't nearly so clear 22 years ago, the Democratic Party now disproportionately represents African-Americans, Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians. It's the most visible force in American political life that stands for an America that looks a lot more like the current Democratic Party than the current Republican Party.