I've been trying to think of something incisive to say about Jimmy Carter's claim that much of the opposition to President Obama is motivated by racism. However, Andrew Sullivan has now written a thoughtful and balanced account of the episode, and I agree with almost everything he says.
Just a few reflections to add:
I think Carter had half a point (as far as I can tell, as a mere transatlantic observer). Some, but by no means all, of the most rabid anti-Obama rhetoric has a racial undertone.
But I think he was characteristically naive and unhelpful to express it in the way he did, and at this delicate moment in the health care debate. As Sullivan says, the former president's political touch remains 'eternally off-key' (as we've seen in his ham-fisted interventions in the Middle East). Thanks to Carter, Obama had to spend precious time during his weekend TV interviews discussing 'race', when he'd rather have been making the argument for his health care plan. And bringing the issue up now plays into the hands of those who want to characterise him as 'the black president', rather than as a president for all Americans.
I half-agree with those who see nothing new in angry demonstrators questioning the legitimacy of an elected president. Bush had it from the left, and Clinton got it from an equally outraged right. And challenges to the legitimacy of an administration aren't necessarily based on race. In Britain, the Tory resentment against incoming Labour governments has often been class-based, deriving from a sense that they are the 'natural' party of leadership.
But even if race is only one (possibly minor) factor in the 9/12, tea-party, town-hall protest movement, some aspects of the movement remain extremely worrying. When demonstrators carry signs comparing the president to Hitler, and threaten 'Next time we'll bring guns', it's not only Nancy Pelosi who fears a return to the political violence of the Seventies.
Incidentally, watching the story develop from this side of the Atlantic has made me reflect on how different the recent histories of Britain and America have been. Over here, we just don't have any equivalent of the culture wars that have riven the States in the last couple of decades. And our extreme right wing is now confined to fringe parties that (despite some recent electoral successes) remain a pariah in mainstream politics (compare this to the US, where the lunatic right finds a regular cheerleader in a major cable news channel).
The day after Carter's interview, I heard Boris Johnson being interviewed on the floor of the New York stock exchange, giving support to Obama's call for greater regulation of financial services. I was reminded of Polly Toynbee's claim that, whatever else you think of New Labour, Blair's government at least moved British politics to the centre and established something of a social democratic consensus. Now, even Cameron has to be careful to express support for the NHS if he wants to win power. Can you imagine a leading Republican supporting financial regulation or public funding for health care?
Finally, check out these interviews with some of the tea party protestors at last Saturday's demonstration in Washington (via Englishman in New York). Sometimes, having fun at the expense of the Christianist far right is just too easy: