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The candidate and the agitator

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 7, 2004

History is being made in Illinois. The U.S. Senate race, between State Senator Barack Obama and Alan Keyes, features the first ever senatorial campaign between two black candidates from the major parties and will produce the fifth black U.S. Senator in our nation’s history. This race, while not close, presents an interesting example of political discourse in America. Illinois faces definite problems. Recent figures show that median income figures of the state have fallen $5,752 since the reign of President Bush began. Manufacturing jobs continue to disappear from the landscape, while the few jobs created pale in comparison in terms of wages and benefits.

Barack Obama, a magnificent contender in this race since the Democratic primaries, vigorously tours around the state talking to people about real issues and real solutions. He has substantive plans to improve education, the economy, and health care for Illinois residents. After giving the most impressive and uplifting speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Obama has not become complacent with his “rising star” status by holding public events all over the state weekly.

Alan Keyes from Maryland – who is so right-wing he scares some Republicans – moved to Illinois last month to replace the disgraced Republican challenger in the senate race. Keyes’ decision to relocate for this campaign is highly suspect considering his scathing critiques of Senator Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign in New York.

Yet, beyond not being from the state, Keyes’ statements reflect his being out of touch with not only Illinoisans, but also most Americans. His only plan for the economy details abolishing the income tax and instituting a national sales tax. This plan would obliterate the infrastructure for progressive income tax policy – which promotes social equity – and replace it with strictly regressive tax policy. Keyes spends more time on talk shows making inappropriate metaphors and playing the culture war game. Abortion, school prayer and institutional homophobia are his only talking points for Illinois voters. In a state with failing schools, a depressed economy and struggling workers, the Republican campaign is politically bankrupt compared to Obama’s.

Additionally, Keyes’ rhetoric of division extends to racial matters. In this historic campaign for black Americans, Keyes declared that Obama – the son of a Kenyan immigrant and American mother – should not call himself an African-American because his ancestors were not slaves in America. Keyes’ move to separate and discriminate within the black community – while not supporting Affirmative Action that exists to support black descendants of slaves – disgusts me as a black American. Slavery wounded the heart of blacks exploited in the Americas and continental African communities that lost their members. The legacy of slavery belongs to all blacks and should be a point of unity and constructive relationships within the United States and between the United States and African nations in peril.

The Illinois senate race – and the presidential race – showcases conflicts between two types of ideas and two types of political discussion. Obama exemplifies political discourse of meaning. He travels and speaks about issues of worth and consequence like job creation, public school improvement and expanding health insurance possibilities. Obama furthers a message of inclusion, progress and hope for the future. He recognizes differences between our citizens, but more importantly sees and focuses on what brings Americans together.

Keyes falls in line with the strategies of Bush/Rove – to alienate, inflame, and distract voters from true problems. The Republican Party has taken the dialogue from culture wars between choice and life, homophiles and homophobes, NASCAR and PGA enthusiasts, lattes and instant coffee and fundamentalists and atheists to divide Americans and further their real agenda of free market economic policies that endanger workers and consumers here and abroad. Whether outright lies or insincere promises, the Republican Party excels in the divide-and-conquer politics of turning neighbors against each other and increasing unrest and unease.

For too long, political discourse has been an embarrassment. As one nation, our fates intertwine in a myriad of ways. Politics should feature discussion of how all Americans can live the promise of our forebearers. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota said it best: “Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives. It’s about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world. Politics is about doing well for the people.”

Barack Obama, John Kerry and the Democrats employ this ideal in their campaigns – and will carry it to Washington. If their opponents continue with their distracting rhetoric, we as voters and constituents must see beyond politics of fear and alienation to constructive policy makers who will advocate for the common good in public service.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major and an Illinois Democrat in exile. She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.