In late July, Sen. Barack Obama held a Missouri town hall in which he contemplated the final weeks of the presidential race: "[My opponents] will say, 'He's not patriotic enough,' 'He's got a funny name,' 'He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.' [In short] they're going to try to make you scared."
Unfortunately for Obama, he hit the nail square on the head.
Recent attacks from the McCain/Palin campaign have unleashed a powerful -- and dangerous -- backlash from an emerging faction of supporters. This backlash has blurred the line between the rhetoric of politics and the rhetoric of hate, and it has signaled a troubling shift in the tenor of the presidential race.
These increasingly negative charges were inaugurated by Palin's Oct. 4 allegations that Obama spent his youth "palling around with terrorists." Speakers at McCain/Palin events have taken to using his middle name, Hussein, spitefully and often, and recent third-party robocalls in rural Pennsylvania have identified him by racial epithets.
Doubtless you've seen the results of these attacks. McCain/Palin rally-goers have greeted Obama's name with shouts of "Treason!" and "Terrorist!" Description of Obama's tax policy has elicited cries of "Off with his head!" These angry outbursts may originate from hecklers whom McCain describes as "[the inevitable] fringe attracted to big events," but their language has become a worrisome -- and consistent -- staple of the McCain/Palin campaign.
"Such expression stems from the deepening frustration at the likelihood that McCain/Palin will lose," said University of Pennsylvania political science professor Rogers Smith. "These outbursts are dangerous, especially in this case, because Americans have a long history of using violence against perceived champions of African Americans, from Lincoln through Martin Luther King."
These last weeks of the election have been marked by both overt and inferred racism. Likenesses of Obama have been lynched in effigy, and Obama "monkey" merchandise has appeared at some Republican events. When Palin claims that Obama "launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist," she fuels the flames of racial and cultural hatred. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently wrote, "The campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism and each day the mob howls louder."
We find ourselves insulated from the effects of many of these attacks. After all, we attend a strongly pro-Obama university buffered by one of the most fiercely pro-Obama neighborhoods in the country. Elsewhere, however, the terrorist name-calling has struck a nerve. Friends from my home state of Georgia tell me that some residents -- already strong McCain supporters -- are up in the arms at the idea of a terrorist sympathizer ascending to the White House.
McCain and Palin have seemed inconsistent in their response to these attacks. "If a candidate hears something beyond the pale, it's important that a candidate rebuke those people," said political science professor Jack Nagel. "Sen. McCain has done this, but Gov. Palin has not."
There are many ways to win an election. Playing on tense racial and cultural divides should not be one of them. The Obama campaign has often strayed negative as well, but there is no comparison between the tactics of the two. On Sunday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell supplied McCain's "inappropriate" allegations as a chief reason for his Obama endorsement. Despite the litany of attacks, public opinion is shifting, and not in McCain's favor.
Last Saturday, Obama held another event in Missouri -- this time to the tune of 100,000 supporters, aking it the largest campaign rally in American history. The result of the presidential election may still be in flux, but Obama's place in it -- as the first major African-American contender and as a source of inspiration -- is assured.
Less clear is how Sen. McCain's election role will be remembered. This negative crusade threatens not only to lose him the election but also to permanently tarnish a distinguished senatorial career. The McCain/Palin campaign must rein in the forces they have helped to unleash. The twin specters of bigotry and fear-mongering have reared their heads several times before in American electoral history -- and never with happy results.