The claims by Barack Obama's pastor of at least 17 years, Jeremiah Wright, that America "started the AIDS virus," "supported Zionism shamelessly" and on September 11, 2001 saw its "chickens come home to roost" are eclipsed by another of Wright's statements, one that presents deeper problems for the Democratic Party. Pastor Wright has insisted that "(Americans) believe in white supremacy and black inferiority, and we believe it more than God."
The Democratic Party is fundamentally a party of special interests. Modern liberalism contends that strong centralized government should redress wrongs to attain a more just society. The nature of those wrongs defines the aggrieved interest groups - and often with good reason. Government in the past did deprive African Americans, women, homosexuals and many other groups of equal rights; therefore, liberals believe government now should act on those groups' behalf.
Conservatives, by contrast, contend that many of these historic wrongs have gone a long way toward being redressed. Post-Civil War constitutional amendments recognized the rights of former slaves, and legislation and court decisions belatedly made those rights a reality. Women long ago won the right to vote and have made long-overdue (if still incomplete) progress in all walks of life. Gays and lesbians have been accepted by society to an extent that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago -- sometimes thanks to government action, especially on the local level, but far more often through societal evolution. The 1997 movie My Best Friend's Wedding for the first time presented a gay man as the most attractive man in the film. That led the way to the sitcom Will and Grace and now countless positive portrayals of homosexuals.
But, conservatives say, liberals face a problem when their interest groups no longer have as much reason to feel aggrieved. They no longer demand to be part of the coalition of the abused and disenfranchised. They no longer need big government to further their special claims. In liberal terms, they become complacent and oblivious to the suffering of others; they become Republicans.
This presents a conflict for liberals. Barack Obama portrays himself as a leader who is transcending racial politics - indeed, special interests altogether. He promises to reach across the partisan aisle to achieve compromises, even if the nature of those compromises on divisive issues like the Iraq War remains vague at best.
Yet to win the nomination, Senator Obama needs to inspire the kind of fervor that led 91% of African American voters in Mississippi to vote for him. That lopsided vote, like the almost equally lopsided vote by older white women for Senator Clinton, reflected more than just pride that "someone like us" is running. Identity politics of this passion requires a continuing sense of grievance.
That's where figures like Pastor Wright or Gloria Steinem come in. They stoke the fires of the faithful for Obama or Clinton. Could Obama get elected without Pastor Wright lashing out against "rich white people"? Perhaps. Could Clinton win without Gloria Steinem denigrating John McCain's years as a prisoner of war? Possibly. But the anger and over-the-top rhetoric of these candidates' most fervent supporters may well be needed to put them over the top.
What about conservatives and their own special interest groups? Rather than rehash the arguments, may I refer you to my previous column, "Transcendental Meditation" (available on fox19.com under Choices 2008). Its basic point was that when, for example, so-called conservative politicians pass special tax breaks for businesses (that it turn support them), those politicians are violating what it means to be a conservative -- at least of a libertarian stripe -- and conservative voters will punish them for it, as they did in 2006.
In sum, both parties must guard against the enthusiasm or corruption of their own partisans. But this need is especially acute for the party representing voters who feel most deeply aggrieved.