In the era of governing through crime, appearing to tolerate any person linked to an act of criminal violence, no matter what its motivation, how long ago, no matter even the absence of a criminal conviction, has been a mark of disloyalty to the American people inherently disqualifying to anyone seeking high office. When Mike Dukakis refused to embrace the death penalty, he indicated that he recognized some humanity in those who have committed heinous acts of murder, a recognition that marked him as unreliable. Bill Clinton was widely viewed as advancing his presidential ambition when he declined clemency to Ricky Rector, a brain damaged Arkansas death row inmate, whose execution coincided with Clinton's rebound after the early damage of the Gennifer flowers affair had harmed his electability.
The right wing attacks on Barack Obama for his tenuous link to former radical activist, and long time Chicago based educator and youth advocate, William Ayers, which surfaced in Wednesday night's Democratic debate, represent the same logic and highlight an early moment in our evolution toward governing through crime in America (see the Chicago Tribune's initial coverage).
Because Ayers was accused of planting bombs as part of the Weather Underground's ill-fated efforts to use dramatic escapades of largely symbolic violence to mobilize opposition against the Vietnam war, he belongs to the foundational moment of our contemporary crime based political order. Richard Nixon's "law and order" election victory in 1968 did not begin the rise of crime politics (in the book I place it in the early '60s, while social scientists like Katherine Beckett, Naomi Murakawa and Lisa Miller convincingly show its development from at least the 1940s if not even earlier in the debates about anti-lynching legislation at the turn of the 20th century), but he did give it a decisive twist toward a focus on the forceful repression of dangerous individuals bent on violence, over the social strategies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Ayers and his comrades in the armed wing of SDS played into this criminalization of politics unwittingly but fatally. Violence was very much on the minds of Americans in the late 1960s, but Nixon framed it in terms of crime rather than social conflict, the predatory behavior of bad people (a later President would call them "evil doers") rather than corrupt institutions of state and local power which were channeling struggle for social change into violent confrontation with authority.
Ayers, the son of wealthy white Chicago entrepreneur, who followed his social conscience into an increasingly despairing struggle for social justice, was forever framed by the war on crime in a way would be repeated again and again over the coming decades on men (and sometimes women) of all races, classes, and political creeds. He represents a criminality that cannot be contextualized in terms of motivation, history, or subsequent behavior. On this logic, the fact that Ayers was never convicted of the violent acts attributed to him, nor the fact that he has spent the following three decades advocating for juveniles growing up in poverty (with no further accusations of crime), matters.
Obama is right to turn this attack rather than joining its invitation to redeem the sad history of the New Left. The fact that Ayers, part of an academic power couple with an extensive social network in Chicago's south side, held a fund raiser for the fledgling state legislative candidate in the area, tells you something about Ayer's political views today, but nothing about Obama's. Let us hope that as President, Barack Obama can lead a sea change in our political response to the violence and despair that once again haunt America, one that looks beyond the stale narrative of uniformly evil and efficiently predatory moral outlaws that has captured our national political conversation for decades too long. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated unambiguously why she cannot be the President who leads that change.