The art of successful political marketing involves winning the arguments on the brands and values that you have determined matter.
This process requires campaign teams to force the topics they would want to be debated. Strategists are intentional about what it means to be “tough on crime” to what constitutes “patriotism” and everything between.
In the process, you watch cable news and find campaign surrogates try very hard to connect the rhetoric of candidates to the vision of some beloved figure.
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If the issue is about African-Americans, you are most likely to hear what Martin Luther King Jr. would have presumably wanted. The surrogate’s motivated interpretation of MLK may even not cause them any cognitive dissonance.
In this year’s Democratic primaries, we have seen Bernie Sanders’ eagerness to remind everyone he marched with MLK or that MLK was a democratic socialist too.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden has also maintained that he was part of the civil rights struggle although that assertion has been contested.
Andrew Yang has also quite rightly touted his flagship Universal Basic Income plan as something MLK would have wanted.
MLK appears as a virtue signboard more so than Malcolm X. This is understandable – MLK did not constantly threaten fire and brimstone upon the white establishment.
There is a case that can be made for why Malcolm X was not as anti-American as he has been perceived and another case as to how MLK has been washed down to non-threatening significance.
When Malcolm X asked for the ballot or the bullet, he was channeling the scribes of American national civic virtues who said the government is useful until it is not.
This is the whole point of the Second Amendment.
Malcolm said in that speech:
“…it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.“
He was quite emphatic that his seeming hatred for white people was a reactionary attitude. Potentially, if white people wanted to see a more optimistic Malcolm, it was within their power to do so.
MLK, on the other hand, a unanimous favorite, was not very enthused about capitalism. But capitalism is a philosophy Americans are almost certain to boast about apart from fast foods.
King once wrote, “It is a well known fact that no social [institution] can survive when it has outlived its [usefulness]. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.”
He went on to ask for a “higher synthesis” than capitalism and communism. MLK was careful not to de-center the value of individual work but he singled out American capitalism’s insistence on “rugged individualism for the poor”.
Both Malcolm and King had more in common than contemporary analyses would admit. This laid in their visions of the interplay between economic materialism and social order.
The two were most concerned about the exploitation and degradation of all people who have been chosen by the “white man” to be exploited and degraded.
They recognized the centrality of the white establishment to the American narrative.
Malcolm might have put it better in the same speech identified above:
“…whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether you’re educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you’re going to catch hell just like I am. We’re all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man.”
In the contest to lead the Democrats into the election in November, and even in the election itself, we will see further pandering to what MLK and subtly Malcolm, would want.
We do not know which candidates the two men would have supported. A lot of guesses could be right.