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Why Does the Right Adore Herman Cain?

Cain is the most interesting candidate the GOP has yet fielded, and his rise to prominence is an important sign of the times.

headline this week announced, in part, that a “New Iowa Poll Gives Herman Cain Double-Digit Lead.” This followed Fox News’ GOP  presidential debate in South Carolina that Frank Luntz’s subsequent focus group overwhelmingly called for Cain. One among the panel of 29 had gone in preferring Cain to the others; virtually all of the other 28 wound up converts. Said Luntz of the result, “This is unprecedented.”

Unprecedented, perhaps, but not unforeseeable. Over a year ago,  I wrote, “Remember these words…in two years, we’ll all know the name Herman Cain.”


His candidacy appeals to conservatives eager to find a black hero they can use to shield them from charges of bigotry. The Atlanta Journal Constitution notes that conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart has openly embraced Cain "as a way to blow the minds of those who label conservatives as racist." Cain's candidacy "would blow up the death star of political correctness that the left uses against the right,” he said.


Unfortunately, those charges are apt. Between demanding fiscal austerity only on non-defense discretionary spending (which results in the destruction of social services poor people depend on) and advancing an aggressively xenophobic posture against immigrants (like  Arizona’s draconian "papers, please" law), the current right wing advocates a set of policies that consolidate obstacles to the empowerment of racial minorities. 


Cain addresses this accusation, sort of. At his  speech at CPAC this year, Cain said to a white crowd, “Now, you will get called racist, simply because you disagree with the president who happens to be black. Well, they call me racist too, because I disagree with the president who happens to be black. Go figure!” And what could people racked with white guilt want more than Cain’s next pander? “Well, I got a breaking news announcement for you: you are not a racist, you are patriots, because you’re willing to stand up for what you believe in.”


This shameless bigot-cajoling is just the beginning of Cain’s attempt to create space for a viable black GOP candidate. Employing his trademark cadence – part Baptist preacher, part Landmark Forum huckster – Cain espouses three framing pillars, designed to excite conservatives.


1. Common sense. One of Luntz’s post-debate respondents, asked for a “word or phrase to describe Herman Cain,” offered “common sense.” Perhaps she derived some inspiration for that answer from Cain’s description himself as “common sense.”


The appeal of “common sense” has much precedent among conservative populists – the legacy bearing the Tea Party. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in  Foreign Affairs:


Intellectually, Jacksonian ideas are rooted in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy – that moral, scientific, political, and religious, truths can be ascertained by the average person – is more than an intellectual conviction in the United States; it is a cultural force. Jacksonians regard supposed experts with suspicion, believing that the credentialed and the connected are trying to advance their own agenda. These political, economic, scientific or cultural elites often want to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America.


This helps to explain Cain’s defense of the deceptively titled “ Fair Tax.” Prompted by debate moderator Chris Wallace, “According to the experts, the practical effect of the Fair Tax would be a tax cut for the wealthy and a tax increase for the middle class,” Cain retorted to applause. “Well, Chris, with all due respect, your experts are dead wrong.” Partly to contrast himself with President Obama, often labeled “professorial,” Cain derides elites and sticks to topics where he can claim some self-made expertise.

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