"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: October 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama leads McCain in early voting by wide margins

Farooq A. Kperogi

Data from early voting—the process by which voters can cast their vote days before the designated Election Day either in person or by mail—show that Obama is leading McCain by striking margins.

Most U.S. states, except Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington, allow some form of early voting.

Early voting accounted for 22 percent of the votes cast in the 2004 presidential election, and 16 percent of the votes cast in the 2000 presidential election. Given the unprecedented enthusiasm in early voting this year, the Associated Press predicted that it could account for a third of the votes.

So far, according to one estimate, more than 16 million people have cast their ballots in the presidential election. It is estimated that the figure will be considerably higher when early voting ends this week.

(There are currently about 55 million registered Republicans, about 72 million registered Democrats and about 42 million who are registered as independents or without any party affiliation).

Winning the election before the election?

According to the latest Gallup poll of Americans who have already voted between October 17 and October 27, 53 percent said they voted for Obama against 43 who said they voted for McCain.

Similarly, a survey of people who have not yet voted but plan on voting before the Election Day shows a 54 percent preference for Obama against McCain’s 40 percent. Of those who said they would wait till November 4 to cast their vote, 50 percent said they would vote for Obama and 44 percent said they would vote for McCain.

The same poll found that across all registered voters over this time period, Obama leads McCain by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin.

Another national poll, the ABC/Washington Post tracking poll, has similar, if somewhat higher, figures for Obama. The poll found that among individuals who have already cast their ballots, 60 percent voted for Obama and 39 percent voted for McCain.

The poll’s survey of people who plan to vote before Election Day but have not yet done so shows that 58 percent preferred Obama. Only 39 percent said they would vote for McCain. Those who plan to vote on Election Day also prefer Obama, but by a narrower 51 to 45 percent.

State of the states in early voting
Experts in American elections warn that national polls can conceal many subtleties that can potentially render them misleading.

Instead, they advise that attention be paid to states, particularly battleground or swing states (states in which no candidate has an overwhelming support, meaning that any of the major candidates has a reasonable chance of winning the state) and bellwether states (states that have produced the same outcome as the national results in every presidential election since record keeping started in 1904).

In the 2008 presidential election, the states that are often considered to be key battleground states are: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado.

And, historically, the bellwether states are Missouri (which failed to vote for the victorious candidate only once in 1956), Nevada (which missed voting for the winning candidate only in 1976), Tennessee (which missed only in 1960), Ohio (which missed twice in 1944 and 1960), New Mexico (which missed twice in 1976 and 2000), Kentucky (which missed twice in 1952 and1960), and Delaware (which missed twice in 2000 and2004).

That’s why when candidates campaign in these bellwether states they almost always pander to voters by proclaiming, “How you go, goes the nation."

Battle in the battleground states

Most polls give Obama a competitive edge in all the battleground states. A new Suffolk University poll of Florida, for instance, shows that among early voters, Obama is ahead of McCain by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

Statistics from the poll show that enough early votes have already been cast to equal more than a quarter of the total votes that were cast in 2004.

And according to the most recent Times/Bloomberg poll, Obama leads McCain in Florida 50 percent to 43 percent. Interestingly, until relatively recently, Florida was considered to be Republican-leaning state. The state was central to President Bush's election in 2000.

According to The Associated Press, early voting in all of the battleground states appeared to be in Obama's favor. “In North Carolina, for example,” the news agency said, “the turnout for early voting has been nearly a third higher than in 2004 and the number of Democrats has been close to double that of Republicans.”

It added that “Democratic voters in Florida have numbered about 100,000 more than Republicans, and Democrats hold an edge so far in Colorado.”

In Ohio, according to the latest poll released by SurveyUSA, 57 percent of people who have actually voted in the early election voted for Obama against 39 percent who voted for McCain. And among those who have not yet voted but will vote before Election Day, 49 percent said they would vote for Obama and 45 percent they would vote for McCain.

The same poll showed that overall voter preference for Obama is 50 percent. For McCain, it is 45 percent.

In an identical WHIO-TV/SurveyUSA poll released two weeks earlier, Obama was down 1 point and McCain was stable. Now McCain is slipping and Obama rising.

In the state of Colorado, early voting is currently at over 75 percent of 2004 levels with less than one week to Election Day. In this state, Obama leads McCain in early voting by a narrow margin of 38.6 percent to 37.9 percent.

In Nevada, Obama leads McCain 54.4 percent to 29.1 percent among early voters. And in Illinois, Obama’s home state, 58 percent of early voters cast their votes for Obama and only 25 percent for McCain.

SurveyUSA’s comprehensive poll of early voting in other battleground states showed Obama with a commanding lead over McCain.

Unprecedented turnout from young and black people

Because of the unexampled enthusiasm of young people who traditionally didn’t participate in the political process and African Americans who are ecstatic at the prospect of electing America’s first African American president, the turnout in early voting this year has exceeded any previous record.

In the state of Georgia, which as never voted Democratic in decades, early voting is already at 180 percent of its 2004 total. In Louisiana, it is 169 percent of its 2004 total, while it is 129 percent in North Carolina.

In Florida, early voters already make up 27 percent of total 2004 numbers (in 2004, early voters constituted 36 percent of total votes, according to official estimates).

CNN quotes North Carolina’s Board of lection as saying that more than 1.2 million voters have already voted before Election Day, representing 20 percent of registered voters.

The Florida Department of State also disclosed that as of last Monday, more than 1 million people, out of the state’s estimated 10 million registered voters, have voted at early voting centers throughout the state.

The turnout in the state of Indiana is a little less dramatic than the other states, but it’s still significant nonetheless. Of the 4.5 million registered voters in Indiana, 286,523 voters, that is, about 6 percent, voted early. This number already trumps the record in 2004.

"These numbers are really astounding — they defy all the patterns of early voting we've seen in this modern era," Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that compiles data on early voting, told Politico.com.

He pointed out that research from previous elections showed that "the early electorate tends to be more Republican in their character than the Election Day electorate." Now the tide has turned.

In the last two elections, President Bush won in the early votes in every state, except Iowa. So far, Obama has won every single state in early voting. Will this propel him to a landslide win?

Worries in McCain campaign
Added to emerging statistics on Obama’s decisive lead in the early polls are new disturbing polls showing that instead of closing the gap, McCain is sliding almost irretrievably in the national polls and in battleground states.

The latest national poll by the Pew Research Center found Obama with a 16-point lead among registered voters. The survey said 52 percent of voters preferred Obama and that only 36 percent of voters prefer McCain, with independent voters supporting Obama by a 48-31 margin.

Perhaps the most worrisome news for McCain is that even in his own home state of Arizona, Obama is closing the gap. The Cronkite/Eight Poll on the presidential race among registered voters in Arizona showed McCain preferred by 46 percent of voters, and Obama by 44 percent of voters.

A survey by the same pollster a month ago showed McCain ahead of Obama with a 7-point advantage.

Now, even prominnt McCain supporters speak openly about the possibility that this election might be over for their candidate. Two prominent Republicans who were once on McCain's short list for vice president have echoed this escalating sense of foreboding just this week.

In a fundraising e-mail this week, Mitt Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts and dogged McCain campaigner, referred to "the very real possibility of an Obama presidency."

And the current Republican governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty gave a sullen assessment of McCain's chances in his state, saying Barack Obama "has a pretty good advantage in Minnesota right now."

Early voting as safeguard against “October Surprise”
According to political analysts, one of the key effects of massive early voting, such as we have witnessed this year, is that it can blunt the impact of a phenomenon called the “October Surprise” in American politics.

An “October Surprise” is any dramatic last-minute event that swings the election to the disadvantage of a leading candidate. In the final weeks of the 2004 election, for instance, all the polls predicted that John Kerry would defeat Bush.

Then Osama bin Laden allegedly issued a videotape that criticized Bush and warned U.S. voters that "your security is in your own hands" in the election.

"It changed the entire dynamic of the last five days," Kerry told newsmen early this month. "We saw it in the polling. There was no other intervening event. We saw the polls freeze and then we saw them drop a point, because all the security moms, it agitated people over 9/11."

The term “October Surprise was coined during the 1980 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. A year before Election Day, radical Iranian students had invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and held the Americans they found there hostage.

President Carter worked throughout the campaign to secure the release of the American hostages during which eight American servicemen were killed. According to the Associated Press, “Critics say the Reagan team was so concerned that Carter would gain a boost by winning their release just before the election, that his campaign manager and others negotiated privately with the Iranians to ensure that did not happen.”

This cost Carter the 1980 election.

The Obama campaign is well aware of an “October Surprise” in the form of an engineered terrorist attack. That’s why the campaign has worked so hard to encourage early voting so that in the event of a dramatic, game-changing event that could potentially compel voters to shift their loyalty to McCain, the early votes would be a safeguard.

So what might be the October--perhaps November--Surprise this year? According to Tom Brokaw, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press: "There are some people in the Obama campaign who believe that there's a concerted effort under way to get Osama bin Laden before Election Day and bring him out of captivity, dead or alive, in some fashion."

However, with the unprecedented turnout in early voting, which favors Obama by spectacular margins, this potential “Surprise” may be not be as effective as previous ones.

Worries over voter fraud

Perhaps the clearest evidence of early voting's new importance is the amount of litigation and legal posturing it has generated and continue to generate, according to Politico.com.

Sometime last week, for instance, scores voters in Virginia told newsmen that electronic voting machines changed their votes from Democrats to Republicans. Other voters said their electronic vote for "Barack Obama" kept flipping to "John McCain."

"I pushed buttons and they all came up Republican," Shelba Ketchum, a 69-year-old nurse said. "I hit Obama and it switched to McCain. I am really concerned about that. If McCain wins, there was something wrong with the machines.”

The clerk of the electronic voting machines, Jeff Waybright, a Republican, said the problem was not widespread, adding that 400 other people voted without reporting any problems. "Voting machines are very reliable. I hate the fact that stories like this are printed. It makes everybody get scared.

"That is not good for anybody. Where the fault is, I don't know and the voter doesn't know. There needs to be good communication between the voters and the poll workers."

However, it’s not only Democrats that are complaining of voting fraud. Republicans, too, have accused Democrats of the same offense. In Indiana, Republicans challenged the opening of three voting centers in an Obama-leaning county, citing fears of voting fraud. The judge ruled to keep the centers open.

Republicans have also alleged that the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an Obama-leaning organization has been involved in fraudulent voter registration.

It would be interesting to see how the election of world's beacon of democracy will be marred allegations of voter fraud.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

As Election Day approaches, high-profile Republicans desert McCain for Obama

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Is it over before it is over for McCain? That’s the question the American commentariat is grappling with in light of the massive exodus of prominent Republicans from the McCain camp to the Obama camp in the last days of the presidential campaigns.

In the last few days, notable and influential personalities in the intellectual and moderate wings of the Republican Party have endorsed Obama. And the list keeps growing every day.

This is happening at a time that McCain is slipping badly in the polls and his campaign dogged by internecine in-fighting and palpable frustration.

A Republican president’s granddaughter opens the floodgates

The first prominent Republican to openly declare support for Obama was Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States who ruled from 1953 to 1961. President Dwight, a five-star general in the U.S. Army, is regarded as a redoubtable icon in American conservative circles.

As president of the Eisenhower Group, Inc, Susan Eisenhower is almost like the custodian of the late President Eisenhower’s legacies. Although a lifelong member of the Republican Party who has fought strenuously to swell the ranks of the party on whose platform her grandfather was elected president, Susan Eisenhower bucked her party and endorsed Barack Obama in January this year.

On August 21, 2008 she officially left the Republican Party and became an independent. And on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, she delivered an impassioned speech in support of Obama, which began with, "I stand before you tonight not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as an American."

She told newsmen that the inspiration behind her support for Obama was her conviction that he is the only candidate who can build a national consensus on the issues most important to her--energy, global warming, an aging population and America's standing in the world.

“Barack Obama will really be in a singular position to attract moderate Republicans," she told the Newsweek. "I wanted to do what many people did for my grandfather in 1952. He was hugely aided in his quest for the presidency by Democrats for Eisenhower. There's a long and fine tradition of crossover voters."

Other prominent Republican political families endorse Obama

Susan Eisenhower’s bold decision to break with family tradition and endorse Obama opened the floodgates to other symbolic family endorsements. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of former President Richard Nixon (who was vice president under Eisenhower and the 37th president of the United States) and granddaughter-in law of Dwight D. Eisenhower, also endorsed Obama.

This endorsement is doubly significant because it represents the goodwill and synchronicity of two prominent and revered Republican political families: the Eisenhower political family to which she is married and the Nixon political family, her own family on the paternal side.

Julie was not as public and dramatic with her support for Obama as Susan was. It was the Associated Press, America’s preeminent news agency, that first reported on April 22, 2008 that records from the American Federal Election Commission showed that Julie Nixon Eisenhower had contributed $2,300 (about 276,000 naira) to the Obama campaign—the maximum amount allowed by law for an individual to contribute to a political candidate.

Records show she made the contributions between February and March this year, that is, when Obama was still fighting for the nomination of his party. That her support for Obama was private made it even more symbolically consequential.

As if these symbolic Republican family endorsements were not devastating enough for McCain, CC Goldwater, granddaughter of Barry Goldwater (former Arizona Senator and Republican Presidential candidate in 1964) endorsed Obama on behalf of herself, her sibling, and some of her cousins.

This endorsement is a heavy blow to McCain in more ways than one. First, McCain, a senator from Arizona, is the immediate successor to Barry Goldwater in the U.S. Senate. (Goldwater ended his career in the U.S. Senate in 1987. He died in 1998 at the age of 89).

But more importantly, like McCain, Goldwater was the Republican Party's nominee for President in the 1964 election. And, like McCain who was a captain in the U.S. Navy, Goldwater served in the U.S. military. He retired as a Major General in the U.S. Air Force Reserve before going into politics.

Similarly, Goldwater embodied American conservatism for a generation. He was frequently referred to as "Mr. Conservative" in numerous media articles because he was credited for inspiring the rebirth of the American conservative political movement in the 1960s.

“We believe strongly in what our grandfather stood for: honesty, integrity, and personal freedom, free from political maneuvering and fear tactics,” CC Goldwater, the granddaughter of Barry Goldwater, said in a blog on the liberal, fiercely pro-Obama Huffington Post. “Nothing about McCain, except for maybe a uniform, compares to the same ideology of what Goldwater stood for as a politician.”
She adds: “Nothing about the Republican ticket offers the hope America needs to regain its standing in the world. That’s why we’re going to support Barack Obama.”

Similarly, Christopher Buckley, 55, author and son of late American conservative icon William F. Buckley and early supporter of McCain (he, in fact, wrote speeches for McCain), caused a stir in conservative circles when he endorsed Obama.

Christopher’s father, William Buckley, founded the National Review, America’s most respected and influential conservative newsmagazine. Founded in 1955, the Review is considered the hub of American conservative intellectual activity.

In a widely circulated article titled, “Sorry, Dad, I’m voting for Obama” first published in the Daily Beast blog, Christopher Buckley joined the lengthening list of “Obamacans” (Republicans who are so disillusioned with McCain that they have decided to jump ship and support Obama).

“Let me be the latest conservative/libertarian/whatever to leap onto the Barack Obama bandwagon,” he wrote. “It’s a good thing my dear old mum and pup are no longer alive. They’d cut off my allowance.”

Buckley’s endorsement of Obama so distressed conservative Republicans that they threatened to cancel their subscription (and withhold advertising) to the National Review in which he wrote a regular column. In response to frenetic and furious emails calling for his head, he resigned his column from the magazine his father almost singlehandedly founded.

The intellectual wing of the Republican Party jump ship too
It is not only deep-rooted, high-profile Republican families that are leaving McCain in the lurch; many prominent members of the intellectual wing of the Republican Party have also publicly declared support for Obama. For most of them, McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate is the motivation for supporting Obama.
Andrew Bacevich, a nationally renowned conservative professor at Boston University is perhaps the earliest conservative intellectual to support Obama. In an article he wrote for The American Conservative on March 24, 2008, Bacevich argued that Obama is the best choice for conservatives in this election. “This liberal Democrat,” he said, “has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq,” adding: “Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival."

Prominent nationally syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, an early supporter of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin, shocked her conservative fans when she wrote in late September this year that the Alaska governor is "out of her league" and should resign from the presidential ticket “for the good of the party."

“It was fun while it lasted," Parker wrote. "Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate who is clearly out of her league." She was referring to the series of interviews Sarah Palin granted early in the campaign season that exposed her mortifying lack of familiarity with basic national and foreign policy issues.

After her column was published, Parker received over 12,000 angry emails from disillusioned Republican sympathizers. Some of the respondents said Parker’s mother should have aborted her and thrown her in a dumpster. The irony of this kind of response is that one of the core issues that energize the American conservative movement is their uncompromising opposition to abortion under kind of circumstance.

Another respected voice in conservative intellectual circles who has endorsed Obama is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who began his career at the National Review. He called Sarah Palin “a cancer on the Republican Party.”

Then the respected former publisher of the National Review and current editor-in-chief of Texas-based D Magazine, Wick Allison, endorsed Obama in a widely circulated article titled, “A conservative for Obama.”

But it wasn’t just his endorsement that worried the Republican Party; it was also the stinging indictment of the whole philosophy of his party and of John McCain that riled.

"Today it is conservatives, not liberals, who talk with alarming bellicosity about making the world 'safe for democracy,'" Allison wrote in the September 27 issue of D Magazine. "It is John McCain who says America's job is to 'defeat evil,' a theological expansion of the nation's mission that would make George Washington cough out his wooden teeth.

"This kind of conservatism, which is not conservative at all, has produced financial mismanagement, the waste of human lives, the loss of moral authority, and the wreckage of our economy that McCain now threatens to make worse," he added.

Other prominent conservative intellectuals who have abandoned McCain include: Christopher Hitchens (who said McCain "lacks the character and temperament to be president" and has characterized Palin as a "disgrace"), Peggy Noonan, (Ronald Reagan's greatest speechwriter and columnist with the Wall Street Journal who condemned Sarah Palin as a "symptom and expression of a new vulgarization of American politics"), Francis Fukuyama (who said "Obama is the only [presidential candidate] who can escape the polarization" of US politics), and so on.

The last straw that would break McCain’s back

It would seem that the most politically devastating of the desertions come from politicians. The first notable Republican politician to forsake McCain in recent time is former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the most powerful and prized members of the Republican Party. On October 19, Powell abandoned McCain, his longtime friend to whose campaign he contributed the highest amount an individual is allowed under U.S. electoral laws, in favor of Obama.

"I think he is a transformational figure, he is a new generation coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I'll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama," Powell said of Obama on the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), one of America’s four major TV networks.

Since Powell’s high-status endorsement, a steady stream of prominent Republicans have followed Powell’s example and crossed party lines to endorse Obama.

Former Massachusetts Republican Governor William Weld endorsed Obama shortly after Powell. In a statement, Weld called Obama a “once-in-a-lifetime candidate who will transform our politics and restore America’s standing in the world.”

Similarly, former Republican Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson jumped the sinking McCain ship and endorsed Obama. “I think we have in Barack Obama the clear possibility of a truly great president,” he said. “I would contend that it’s the most important election of my lifetime.”

And Tricia Moseley, another lifelong member of the Republican Party and former staffer for the late Senator Strom Thurmond, the one-time segregationist from South Carolina, endorsed Obama because she said she was attracted to his positions on education and the economy.

Earlier in the week, Ken Adelman, a prominent conservative on foreign policy matters, announced his support for Obama, telling the New Yorker that his decision was based on his respect for Obama’s temperament and judgment.

Adelman called McCain “impetuous, inconsistent, and imprudent; ending up just plain weird” in his handling of the U.S. economic crisis. He also said he was unsettled by McCain’s choice of running mate. “Not only is Sarah Palin not close to being acceptable in high office—I would not have hired her for even a mid-level post in the arms-control agency,” Adelman said.

The biggest surprise came from Scott McClellan, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush. He endorsed Obama last week to the amazement of political watchers. USA Today reported McClellan as saying that Obama has “the best chance of changing the way Washington works.”

The latest, and perhaps the most painful, blow to the McCain campaign is the defection of Charles Fried, a Harvard Law professor and former Solicitor General in the Reagan administration who worked as a prominent member for the McCain campaign until recently.

He announced that he had already voted for Obama. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Fried’s vote for the Democratic ticket is particularly harsh, as he was associated with the McCain campaign.”

He said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for McCain because of his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Trend forecasts a landslide for Obama

In America’s recent political history, there have only been two moments that parallel the current massive cross-over of prominent party loyalists to a rival party. The first notable instance was in 1953 when Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower ran for president. Several prominent Democrats (dubbed “Eisenhower Democrats”) at the time crossed party lines and voted for the Republican candidate. He won in a landslide.

Another historical parallel was the early 1980s when Ronal Reagan, to quote Obama, "was able to tap into the discontent of the American people and...to get Democrats to vote Republican— they were called Reagan Democrats." Reagan also won in a landslide.

Many political pundits argue that if history is any guide, Obama may be headed for a landslide too. Former Reagan political adviser Ed Rollins echoed this sentiment. "Barack has met the threshold," Rollins said. "Once Reagan met the threshold, people wanted to get rid of Carter and they did in a landslide. This is going to turn into a landslide."

Why Obama is attracting Republicans
Obama’s entry into America’s political stage was heralded by a transcendent message that sought to rise superior to America’s traditional political and racial fault-lines.

In his 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, which launched him into national prominence, Obama said, among other things: “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.”

It was the first time in a long while that an American politician consciously tried to transcend partisanship in a partisan political gathering such as the Democratic convention. That speech won him huge political capital.

Since then he has sought to consciously cultivate the affection of Republicans and independents. On February 12, 2008, for instance, he said, "We are bringing together Democrats and independents, and yes, some Republicans. I know there's -- I meet them when I'm shaking hands afterwards. There's one right there. An Obamacan, that's what we call them."

In another speech, he said, "We, as Democrats right now, should tap into the discontent of Republicans. I want some Obama Republicans!"

Former Republican Party congressman Joe Scarborough said many conservatives—including officials of the current Bush administration and even evangelical Christians—sent him enthusiastic e-mails after seeing Obama's post-election speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "He doesn't attack Republicans, he doesn't attack whites, and he never seems to draw these dividing lines that Bill Clinton [does]," Scarborough told Newsweek.

Obama now leads McCain among white male voters
As a result of the historic defections from the Republican Party, Obama is now set to win the largest share of white male voters of any Democrat since the 1960s, according Gallup and Pew Research Center polling.

Before the mid-point of September, Obama’s support among white males was less than 40 percent. Now it is almost 50 percent—the highest number for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter who won 47 percent of white male votes. Before Carter, Lyndon Johnson won a clear majority of white male votes in 1964.

Since then, according to Politico.com, no Democrat has won a majority of white male voters. Not even Bill Clinton.

If the current polls endure till Election Day, McCain’s support among white males may go down in the annals as the lowest for a Republican candidate since 1964. All thanks to the growing rank of Obamacans.

Thinking of home from abroad (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Two Saturdays ago, I participated in a conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, titled “Democracy and accountability in Nigeria: Diaspora activisms and complicities.”

Organized by Vanderbilt University’s Program in African American and Diaspora Studies and facilitated by Moses Ochonu (assistant professor of history at the University), the conference featured such notable Nigerian scholars as Bolaji Aluko, Darren Kew (an American who is an expert on Nigeria), Kiki Edozie, and Okey Ndibe.

The intrepid publisher of SaharaReporters.com, Omoyele Sowore, also presented a paper. So did the articulate and cerebral former Senate President Ken Nnamani and former House of Representatives member Sola Adeyeye. I too presented a paper on public deliberation in the Nigerian diasporic public sphere.

During the question-and-answer session, Bolaji Aluko asked me a question that I think strikes at the core of the problems that confront us as a nation. He wondered why public discussions among Nigerians in the digital diaspora often invariably degenerate into unproductive and unhealthy internecine ethnic bickering.

Why is our ethnic diversity such a lumbering burden on us? Why do most Nigerians have such powerful loyalties to their ethnic identities and a corresponding disdain, even hatred, for other ethnic groups?

I have grappled with these questions on a daily basis since I have been here. My experience is that many Nigerians think our country is unworkable because it is a nation that was “forced” into being by British colonialists. This view frankly amazes me.

Is there any nation in history whose formation is the consequence of a democratic consensus? I don't know what fuels this false, annoyingly ahistorical sentiment among Nigerians. Historically, most nations were formed by conquests, expansionist wars and forceful cooptation, not by consensus.

I have also discovered that Nigerians cherish the illusion that they inhabit the most diverse country on planet Earth. But India, a post-colonial nation like ours, has a lot more diversity than Nigeria has. It has over 800 languages, several mutually irreconcilable religions, a huge landmass that is several times the size of Nigeria, and a human population that is more than that of the entire African continent combined.

Yet it's one country, and was formed in fairly similar ways as Nigeria. Most of the groups that make up present-day India were independent ethnic groupings. They didn't consult any of them before they were integrated into the modern Indian nation. But you don't hear Indians interminably whining about the unnaturalness of their nation, or about the need to “renegotiate” the basis of their existence.

Nigeria is only about 150 million in population, the 13th largest in Africa in landmass, with some 400 languages (most of which belong to the same language family), two major religions (which share tremendous doctrinal affinities, unlike, for instance, India that has such mutually exclusive religions as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and other Eastern mystical orders). Why is it difficult to conceive that a nation can be formed out of this?

In any case, there is no evidence that mono-ethnic nations thrive better than ethnically diverse nations. The truth is that consensus and homogeneity are not sufficient to hold any nation together.

One supreme illustration that explodes the myth of the "naturalness" and invulnerability of mono-cultural nations is Somalia. There can be no more homogeneous nation on Earth than Somalia. It's a monolingual, mono-religious and mono-ethnic society. Everybody in Somalia speaks the Somali language. Everybody there is not just a Muslim, but also a Sunni Muslim. And, needless to say, they all have the same racial features.

But this country has been in turmoil for years on end, even though it was not a "forced" nation in the sense in which Nigeria is alleged to be. It is often said that Somalia is not just a nation; it's, in fact, a big family. They all have a common ancestor and preserve their ethnic purity through endogamous marriages.

How more homogenous can a nation get? Yet it's an excellent specimen of a failed state. When the people couldn't figure out the differences to exploit to visit mayhem on each other, they decided to invoke "clans".

A less perfect parallel is Algeria, where everybody, except about five percent of the population, is an Arab. The five percent Berbers are Muslims, in common with the Arabs. Yet the country is imploding.

An example nearer home is the former Oyo Empire, which had effectively disintegrated even before the start of colonialism, although it was an ethnically homogenous entity. It was caught in the web of a vicious internal schism that precipitated a debilitating war of attrition, which stopped only with the advent of colonialism.

So homogeneity and consensus are no safeguards against implosion. These conditions have not immunized any nation against internal contradictions and eventual disintegration. Only justice, mutual tolerance, good governance can.

However, the claim about the "forced" nature of the formation of the Nigerian nation needs some interrogation. The history and sociology of pre-colonial relations in Nigeria don't bear testimony to this claim.

A lot of research has been done by historians, notably the late Bala Usman and Elizabeth Isichei, which chronicles the robust relational intercourse between the disparate ethnic groups that populate what is today Nigeria. A notable example was the burgeoning social and cultural melting between Yorubas and people in the North before colonialism.

As the travel records of Arab traders show, the "ambassadors" (or interpreters, if you like) of the Alaafin of Oyo during the Trans-Saharan trade with Arabs were people from the extreme North. And records show that Hausas had been living in Yoruba land in large numbers before colonialism. Same is true of Yorubas in the North.

If you go to Kano, for instance, you will see entire neighborhoods that are peopled by men and women whose ancestral roots are located in Yoruba land. Gwammaja is one of such neighborhoods. Ayagi is another. Prof. Ibrahim Ayagi, the eminent economist from Kano, has a Yoruba ancestry.

Another notable example is Abdulkareem Yahaya, the former governor of old Sokoto State. He proudly tells anybody who cares to listen that his ancestors hailed from Ogbomoso, but that he considers himself Hausa. And these people's ancestors went to the far north long before colonialism.

I’ve also heard that former governor of Lagos State Lateef Jakande and former governor of Oyo State Lam Adesina have Nupe and Ebira ancestries respectively. Of course, I admit that this is apocryphal, but there is a powerful symbolism in all this. And that symbolism is that we are more alike than unlike.

This is not to talk of the vibrant pre-colonial inter-ethnic relations between such northern minorities as Igalas, Tivs, Idomas, etc and Igbos, including other ethnic groups in the former Eastern region. To this day, Igalas and Idomas have councilors in some Igbo states such as Enugu.

To be continued

Monday, October 13, 2008

U.S. presidential campaigns turn ugly, nasty, mean

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Barack Obama’s decisive, almost insurmountable, lead in the polls—and with it the seeming inevitability of his emergence as America’s next president—has Republicans frustrated and bewildered. The sense of helplessness that this reality has spawned among Republicans has provoked one of the rawest and meanest campaigns in America’s political history.

To be sure, negative attacks in the twilight of political campaigns are an enduring feature of American politics. However, many American pundits from a broad spectrum of political persuasions concede that the negativity of this year’s presidential campaigns—where crowds openly call for opponents’ assassination—has no parallel in recent memory.

In the last two weeks, McCain and his ticket-mate Sarah Palin have been hurling vitriolic and racially tinged personal attacks on Obama in a bid to halt what appears like the inexorable certainty of his march to the White House.

In their stump speeches, they have taken to questioning Obama’s patriotism and character by invoking his past associations with a 1960s white American radical called William “Bill” Ayers who belonged to the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist organization that carried out bombings of government buildings, including the Pentagon, to protest against America’s involvement in the prolonged Vietnam War between 1954 and 1975.

Obama was only eight years old when the bombings took place, and he has publicly condemned and renounced Ayers’ acts as “reprehensible” and “despicable.”

Bill Ayers, who is now a key figure in mainstream Chicago political life and works as a “Distinguished Professor” of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, is Obama’s neighbor in the Hyde Park area of Chicago.

He also served, along with Obama, on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Project, a foundation set up by a billionaire Jewish American by the name of Walter Annenberg (whose widow, interestingly, is now a McCain supporter) to reform public education in Chicago. This was between 1995 and 2001.

Again, between 2000 and 2002, Obama and Ayers served on the board of a poverty-eradication NGO called the Woods Fund of Chicago.

These bits of information about Obama’s associations with the former radical have become fodder for guilt-by-association attacks on Obama by the McCain campaign.

However, report after report by top U.S. newspapers that have bothered with the issue—the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Yorker, and the New Republic—have said that their reporting doesn't support the idea that Obama and Ayers had a close relationship.

On October 3, 2008, the New York Times ran another front-page story titled “Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths.” The paper concluded that, based on its extensive review of records, Ayers has had no influence on Obama and that “since 2002, there is little public evidence of their relationship.”

Palin and McCain cash in on Times story to smear Obama
However, although the Times and other U.S. media didn’t find any incriminating link between Obama and Ayers, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (who couldn’t name a newspaper when a reporter asked her what newspapers she reads to keep abreast of events in the nation and in the world), cashed in on the Times report to launch virulent attacks on Obama’s patriotism and character.

In truth, though, the McCain campaign had decided, long before the Times report, that the only way they could slow down, and perhaps permanently arrest, Obama’s frightening momentum was to dig up dirt about him from his past.

A McCain campaign official had said that the best way to turn the steam from Obama was to move the national discourse away from the economy. "We are looking for a very aggressive last 30 days," Greg Strimple, a McCain adviser told the Washington Post. "We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans."

A day later, another top McCain adviser reinforced this sentiment. “It [that is, personal attacks on Obama] is a dangerous road, but we have no choice,” he told the Daily News. “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

The Times report on Obama’s associations with Ayers only provided a convenient opening for a well-planned attack strategy.

Obama as terrorists’ friend
On October 4, at a rally in Denver in the state of Colorado, Palin, quoting the Times, began the carefully planned assault on Obama’s patriotism and character. She alleged that Obama is friends with terrorists, is un-American, and therefore shouldn’t be trusted by Americans to be their next president.

"One of [Obama's] earliest supporters is a man who was a domestic terrorist,” she said. "[Obama] is not a man who sees America as you and I do - as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.”

At every subsequent rally, she has repeated the charge, before riotously animated crowds of Republican supporters, that Obama is a “friend of terrorists.” In time, the attacks got traction in the national media.

To guard against the possibility of the attacks being drowned out by the nagging concerns over a perilously faltering economy, the McCain campaign decided to release a new 90-second Web ad on October 9 highlighting Obama's relationship with Ayers—a tactic that has elongated the shelf life of the character assassinations on Obama in the national political discourse.

"Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Friends. They've worked together for years. But Obama tries to hide it. Why?" a voice says before reeling off examples of Obama's ties to Ayers.

"Obama's friendship with terrorist Ayers isn't the issue," the narrator then claims.

"The issue is Barack Obama's judgment and candor. When Obama just says, 'This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood.' Americans say, 'Where's the truth, Barack?' Barack Obama. Too risky for America."

McCain supporters call for Obama’s assassination
The notion that Obama is “too risky for America,” a borderline racist scare tactic that obliquely hints that he would destroy America from within when he is elected president, has led to overt calls for Obama’s assassination by McCain-Palin supporters in several rallies.

The Washington Post is the first newspaper to bring to public attention one such incident. According to the Post, at a rally in Florida, Palin amplified her hate rhetoric against Obama and created enough frenzy to incite a member of her audience to call for Obama’s assassination.

"Now it turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers," Palin was reported to have said during the rally.

"Boooo!" roared the crowd.

"And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,'" she continued.

"Boooo!" the crowd roared again.

"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.

It didn’t stop there. According to the Post, “one Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American [media man] and told him, ‘Sit down, boy’."

This was not an isolated incident. At another campaign rally in Pennsylvania, a McCain supporter screamed, "Off with his head" when Obama’s name was mentioned by McCain.

Later that day in Ohio, a man stood outside a rally holding a sign with the inscription, "Obama, Osama." And at a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, someone in the crowd wore a T-shirt portraying Obama putting on a devil mask.

Now, it has become the defining feature of rallies addressed by McCain, Palin and McCain’s wife, Cindy, for Obama to be called “terrorist,” “traitor,” “Osama Obama,” “Nobama,” by frenzied Republican crowds (or what some people here call “Rethuglican” crowds because of the thuggish behaviors of the crowds).

In all such cases, the speakers either egg the crowds on or indulgently ignore them.
In several campaign speeches, when McCain asks “who is the real Barack Obama?” someone from the crowd would often cry out “terrorist!” according to several media reports.

From a domestic terrorist’s friend to an Arab terrorist
Republican crowds are now increasingly linking Obama with international terrorism. This is the crowning accomplishment of the ruthless but successful conflation of Obama with terrorism through the ceaseless invocation of his alleged associations with a domestic terrorist whose acts took place decades ago when the word “terrorism” hadn’t assumed its current politically, religiously and racially loaded signification.

At a televised McCain campaign event last week, a woman in the state of Ohio said she wouldn’t vote for Obama because “he is an Arab.” In America, “Arab” has become a byword for “Muslim terrorist.”

A first-year Georgia State University student in Atlanta was even blunter. At a public lecture that featured eight European journalists who shared views on how they were covering the U.S. election for their European readers, the journalists asked if there were any people in the audience who would not vote for Obama because of his race.

A student stood up and said, “I have no problems with his race. But I won’t vote for him because he is a Muslim.” Her response elicited boos from the audience.

Startlingly, however, she was genuinely shocked to realize that she was wrong about Obama being a Muslim.

This was precisely the rhetorical leap the McCain campaign hoped to create in the minds of American voters when they combined three deft but devious strategies to attack Obama: circulating anonymous mass smear emails that allege that Obama is a Muslim, having Masters of Ceremony repeatedly emphasize Obama’s middle name, Hussein, at Republican rallies (which evokes the image of Saddam Hussein), and linking Obama with “terrorists” (note the plural) during rallies.

Although they only mention a 1960s white domestic terrorist to make their case, they subliminally invoke the specter of contemporary terrorism since most Americans are unlikely to emotionally associate terrorism with a white American.

Evidence that this has had some effect in the subconscious of Americans in profound ways was demonstrated in New York recently. According to the Albany Times Union, hundreds of ballots sent to voters in New York State were printed with Barack Obama's last name misspelled as "Osama." County elections officials said it was a typo, although the ballots were proofread by professional proofreaders three times before printing.

Many pundits aver that if the printing of Obama’s name as “Barack Osama” was indeed an unintentional error, it was a Freudian slip that betrayed the internalization—and interpretive extension—of the McCain-Palin attacks on Obama as a “friend of terrorists” and what New York Times columnist Frank Rich called “the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts.”

McCain for Christians, Obama for “other faiths”
As a consequence of the foregoing, the campaigns have assumed explicitly religious overtones. Just last Friday, before McCain addressed a rally in the state of Iowa, a Reverend gentlemen by the name of Arnold Conrad who leads a church called the Grace Evangelical Free Church offered the opening prayers that framed this year’s presidential election as the contest of supremacy between Christianity and other faiths.

"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.

"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he concluded.

The McCain campaign later issued a politically expedient, if insincere, statement dissociating itself from the overtly divisive tone of the prayers.

But McCain’s own personal records don’t help him. During the second presidential debate, for instance, McCain drew wide condemnation when he derisively called Obama “that one”—interpreted by many as a thinly veiled racist putdown.

And this interpretation is not a far-fetched assumption given that, some 25 years ago as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, McCain voted against the House bill that declared Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday.

McCain, Palin playing with fire
The campaign to cast Obama as an un-American “other” has outraged many in mainstream America and has attracted a gale condemnations and denunciations from both Democrats and moderate Republicans.

But by far the most biting and ponderous is the criticism by Civil Rights icon John Lewis who represents Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all,” Lewis said. “They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.”

He also drew parallels between the disturbing hatemongering of the McCain campaign and George Wallace, the unrepentantly racist former governor of Alabama who is infamous for saying “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace also unsuccessfully ran for president in the 1960s.

Lewis’ statement alarmed McCain not least because McCain had in the past publicly expressed lavish adoration for Lewis. In his book Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life, McCain singled out Lewis for high praise for his leadership in the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Similarly, at a forum in August, when McCain was asked to name "three wise men" he would consult as president, he included Lewis. "He can teach us all a lot about the meaning of courage and commitment to causes greater than our self-interest," McCain said of Lewis.

But can Lewis also teach him about the meaning of a clean and honorable campaign?

Taming the Frankenstein’s monster
Partly because of the outrage that his negative campaigning has provoked (an ABC News research showed that almost 100 percent of McCain’s political ads are negative as opposed to Obama’s 30 percent, prompting people to call McCain “McNasty”) and the fact that the FBI has commenced investigation into threats to Obama’s life at Republican rallies, McCain is now toning down the causticity of his personal attacks on Obama.

However, this effort is proving counterproductive. For instance, on Friday during an informal, televised interaction with voters in the state of Minnesota, a supporter told McCain that he was “scared” at the prospect of Obama becoming the next American president.

Mindful of the storm that his erstwhile toleration of similar Obama hate had generated, he was forced to defend Obama by assuring the supporter that Obama is a "decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States." What happened next startled McCain: he was booed by his own supporters for saying something positive about Obama.

The Frankenstein monster he has created may be about to devour him.

The good news for Obama in all this is that while McCain’s negative campaigning is energizing the xenophobic conservative Republican base that would never vote for Obama anyway, it is repulsing Independents, women and undecided voters—the very people who decide elections in America. It has, in fact, attracted many Republican sympathizers to Obama.

Since the negative campaigning began, Obama’s lead in the opinion polls has been widening dramatically. According to the latest Newsweek survey of voters, Obama now leads McCain among men 54 percent to 40 percent and women 50 percent to 41 percent.

Even those aged over 65, a formerly solid McCain stronghold, now back Obama over McCain 49 to 43 percent.

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