Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Black Generation Gap

This morning we wake up to the disturbing reality that the Rev. Wright issue might actually help to bring down the candidacy of Barack Obama. A portent of the future can be seen by random sampling of Fox News, where you will find an obsessive orgy of race-baiting aimed at the white audience, exploiting the dangerously cathartic effect resentful white reactionaries enjoy when they call black people "racist." Bob Herbert in today's NYT takes the line that Rev. Wright, who stated to the press corps yesterday that Louis Farrakhan is "one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries," is deliberately shooting down Obama. I don't go in for that sort of paranoia (I'm brought up short by the fact that a lot of people actually seem to believe that the Clintons want to sabotage the general election, an outrageous claim), but he might as well be right when we consider today's polling on Real Clear Politics that shows Obama in a dead heat with McCain, while Clinton vs. McCain is at the moment opening up a lead, almost ten points up on the latest AP poll. The real poison was the next thing that Wright said: "Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains." This makes it clear who "the enemy" is.
But I'm not here to pile on. I've posted before to the effect that there is a striking absence of appreciation of, or even listening to, the messages of Rev. Wright and other traditional black voices (Farrakhan, for that matter, develops some of the themes of Malcolm X, who is eminently worth reading). Besides dismissing the ideas of traditional black nationalists as something not worth listening to, there is also no appreciation of the fact that at the nationalist end of the black political spectrum, the more the mainstream reviles you, the more credibility you have. Another factor here is the black generation gap. Older blacks (Bill Cosby, who I admire, is another example) have a sensibility and a worldview reflective of an older, harsher and above all more segregated time (there is even nostalgia for the segregated middle-class neighborhoods of the 40s and 50s, like Russians missing Stalin). Their rhetoric is essentialist, "us" and "them." Obviously this is jarringly dissonant with Obama's attempt at a post-racialist rhetoric.
I don't think that Obama is in any danger at all of losing support from black voters. In fact I think that he might be well-advised to reject Wright in stronger terms than he has so far (Wright appears to be forcing him to do this). But the theme that is emerging on this blog is that Obama has been strategically incorrect in trying to run as a black candidate who is not a black candidate. We cannot overcome our racial problem by going around it (Obama as Ulysses), or over it (Obama as Icarus). We must work through it (Hercules). And whites must remember that racism is a white problem, and that if the country can't elect a black man today that is because the white community must evolve. The best thing about Obama is that he refuses to fall victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy, that we're not ready for him.
Meanwhile as to the proposal, endorsed by McCain and Clinton, of a gasoline-tax holiday over the summer (that is, during the election): shame on the both of them. We need to have a national energy policy that addresses our long-term needs, not pander to the voters with artificial prices that drive up the debt. And cheers for Obama for having no part of it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Climbing Mt. Race

I was struck by some discussion of Obama on TV last night (it was probably MSNBC). Obama's problem, it was suggested, was that he was becoming (through the Rev. Wright flap etc.) to be "identified with the black agenda," and that he was therefore increasingly "threatening" to white voters especially the "Reagan Democrat" working-class whites who are voting for Clinton by large margins. This is emerging as a potentially serious problem as some of these voters are openly telling pollsters that they won't vote for Obama if nominated (it is likely that there are more who think this way but are embarrassed to admit it publicly). There are at least two strategies available for the black politician who wants to climb the Everest of American politics, getting elected President. One is to be the "accidental black man," the charismatic and attractive candidate who just happens to be black. Obama has been perceived for much of the past year as the accidental black man, even as he tapped into a deep vein of longing among white voters for the opportunity to redeem themselves at long last by voting for a black candidate. The obvious benefit of the accidental black man strategy is that such a candidate is non-threatening to white people. The unfortunate corollary to this is that the non-accidental black man is (still) threatening. But the accidental black man strategy hasn't worked in any event. Obama got where he is by solidifying his base among African-American voters (black men support Obama by somewhere around 95 percent). The appeal of the accidental black man strategy is that we all, whites and blacks alike, can pat ourselves on the back and say, congratulations, we're all beyond that awful race stuff. But this is a celebration to which we are not entitled. No, a black candidate is still a black candidate, and has no chance of advancement if he is not, for starters, a champion of the "black agenda," whatever that is (I'm not clear on what that is, but I know that "agenda" is a somewhat loaded word that people use when they want their opponents to appear more sinister than they are, as in "the gun-control advocates' agenda"). So what's the other strategy for climbing Mt. Race? That is for a large enough portion of the white electorate to be brought around to the view that the interests of the black community are not antagonistic to their own. This does not involve black people somehow acting any differently than they do (being "less threatening"), but it does involve educating the larger community, Rev. King-style, about the legitimate needs and concerns of the black community. What I'm suggesting is that Obama's grand strategy for transcending race is premature. If a black candidate can get elected to the presidency today (and I don't know if it's possible or not), he ("she" might be a bit of a stretch) will have to do it by simultaneously offering a coherent program addressing the country's various needs and articulating a credible vision for advancing the interests of the African-American community.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why is Big Media Issues-Free?

The morning after the Pennsylvania primary, I'm not sure there's much more to say about the Democratic race. The voters are speaking the way the polls were speaking during President Clinton's impeachment trial, and like then the power-brokers and the pundits can ignore the voice of The People for so long and no longer, and in the end we will have the Obama-Clinton ticket, because that's what The People have (already) commanded. The Party may yet disobey this command, but that, I predict, would be a grave error.
This morning something a little weightier interests me. I'm a politics junkie and handicapping the horse race is good fun and all, but the degree to which our political discussion has become issues-free is striking. In the past I've thought that our collective aversion to serious debate was a combination of being too fat and happy and America's legendary anti-intellectualism, but that theory doesn't really do the work it has to do in the spring of 2008. I think it's the very gravity of the situation that is rinsing out even the thin film of policy debate that usually passes for substance in Big Media. Conspiracy theorists are more optimistic than I am: they tend to think that finite groups of willful persons are successfully manipulating events. I think, on the contrary, that we have a tiger by the tail: large structural changes are generally driving things and, for the most part, nobody's in charge. Here's this morning's take on why there is now no substantial policy discussion happening on our politics-saturated television screens:
Dynamic systems, like flowing water, tend to seek equilibrium. Our two-party system, for example, has been successful for a long time because it adds another level of stasis to our political institutions. Where I live here in Puerto Rico, for another example, the public has distributed itself almost precisely into the half of voters who support the "populares" (the pro-status-quo party) and the half who support the "nuevoprogresistas" (the pro-statehood party). 50-50 splits are stable arrangements that are easier to get to than the stability of total victory for one side (and obviously more desirable from the small-"d" democratic point of view). It has always been thus, but the larger the system the more homogenous it appears, and we are now living in a fantastically huge system, not only in terms of persons (hundreds of millions in-country, highly integrated with global billions), but also in terms of information (both in terms of bits and of sources).
Both the proliferation of sources (not only the internet but also cable and satellite TV and radio and, contrary to popular hype, even more print media than ever before) and the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of the population leads to informational and political "cocooning." Individuals are now able to choose their sources of news and opinion and most people very actively construct a customized information environment that largely echoes back their preconceptions (I'm guilty: lately I've been experimenting with networking on Facebook and I very quickly worked myself into Liberal Intelligentsia Land). People now have huge, interactive information resources to work on developing their own world view and theories of what to do and how to do it, and thus the political news becomes simply handicapping the horse race. Big Media is no longer the arena where minds are going to be changed, except in superficial ways (Does he cheat on his wife? Is she obnoxious? Do they cheat on their taxes?).
But most importantly of all, and this is really the thought that is driving me here, real discussion has simply become too radical to be handled by the stasis-maintaining Big Media, because the changes that are necessarily being considered by any real discussion are much more radical than they've been in decades. Tax policy is wildly regressive by any historical standard, and reform means a substantial redistribution of wealth. Health care is similarly dangerously maldistributed, and reform means changes in government, medicine, insurance. America has to stand down as global gendarme and cease to flood the world with weapons, but many communities and whole regions depend on military industry. Can you spell "global warming"? And so on. The irony of our current situation is that it is precisely because the choices that we must make are so radical that we cannot bring ourselves to even discuss them. A paradox is that the more pundits proliferate on the cable news shows, the less they have to say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Day Before Pennsylvania

Last March 4th I posted "The Morning of Ohio and Texas," and started by saying that by the end of that day, maybe we would know who the Democratic nominee would be. It certainly didn't turn out that way. After that primary day we had a few weeks of everybody (including me) wringing our hands about six more weeks of bloodletting by the Democrats while McCain consolidated his campaign, and that is exactly what we got. The good news is that this dark time didn't really change much. A Republican victory is still predicated on the unlikely circumstance that we have no national discussion at all of any substantial issues: the financial crisis, health care, the environment, education; even foreign policy and crime aren't issues that trend towards the Republicans this time around, and that hasn't changed. Not that it's not possible that we actually won't discuss any substantial issues between now and November. Big Media, that I continue to spend lots of time consuming for some increasingly inexplicable reason, is practically issues-free even now, the latest debate debacle being only the most conspicuous example.
Meanwhile the political situation is remarkably unchanged since I posted on the morning of March 4th. Barack Obama still looks like he's going to secure the nomination eventually, but Hillary Clinton still has a chance and can't be made to go away. I find my interest wandering off to Iran, Tibet, Cuba, Zimbabwe. But I do think that little blogs like this make a contribution, a thousand little voices swelling into a big noise when enough of them harmonize on a single note. And the note that I have to sound is this one: isn't the voter sovereign in our system? The electoral system, that is, is meant to serve the voters, not the candidates or the parties. Reagan understood that when he saw that George H. W. Bush and his buddy-in-arms James Baker had secured somewhere around twenty-five percent of the delegates heading in to the Republican Convention of 1980. Governor Reagan didn't presume to decide on the basis of whether he wanted to work with those guys, much less whether he liked them. He did it the old-fashioned way: he respected the voters. And here we are, Obama and Clinton separated at this point by about a half-million votes out of some 15 million votes cast in Democratic primaries thus far, Clinton running well in most of the big states that the Democrats need to win. I think that the difference between now and last March 4th is that the ticket has indeed been decided: Clinton has shot her way on to it. I would like to see them on the same ticket, but that's not the point. It's possible that we are already at the point where she has to be on the ticket, even if we don't yet see it clearly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Campaign on Facebook and MySpace

Michael Amato, Rowan University '09, sent me this e-mail yesterday:
"Dear Mr. Brown, I am a journalism student at Rowan University all the way out in Glassboro, NJ. I am currently working on a story for my Broadcast News Writing class and could definitely use your input. After reading your blogs for the past days, I thought you would be someone who would have knowledge of the topic...I'm writing a story about the new technology the nominees for President have been using this time around...now they are making profiles on the new fad MySpace and Facebook. I have a few questions about this:
1) Why do you think they have these profiles and who do you think these profiles are intended for?...is this a good marketing strategy?
2) Do you think these profiles may actually have an influence on the voting process?
3) Do you think these profiles could actually be a deciding factor when a person gets to the voting booth. Might someone think, 'Well, from Clinton's profile on Facebook, she seems cool, so I'll vote for her'?"
Michael, I'm glad to know you were reading my blog. It so happens that I have also recently started using Facebook. I can think of three points right off:
1 Since the 2004 election in particular, a key fund-raising tool has been the internet, so expect politicians to try using every available internet application.
2) Facebook and MySpace have youthful demographics: the great majority of people on these sites are under 35. This is a hard group for politicians to reach (a lot of young adults say that they get more info from The Daily Show on Comedy Central than they do from regular news sources). This age group is also a battleground between the two major parties.
3) The most important reason is that Facebook and MySpace actually are quite effective networking applications. For example, the past week I became Facebook "friends" with Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic Party, and with Arianna Huffington, a well-known liberal blogger (Huffington Post). Becoming their friend gives me access to the list of all their other friends, and these are lists of hundreds of people who have similar political views and interests to mine. I was able to find on those lists several other bloggers that I link to on my politics blog, and send them messages asking them to check out my blog and link to it if they wished. This way I increase traffic to my blog, and make connections with people who do what I do. A political organizer needs such lists for fund-raising and for get-out-the-vote drives. In the old days these targeted mailing lists would be sold for large amounts of money by political consultants who worked for years, sometimes, compiling them. When Barack Obama was recently endorsed by John Kerry, for example, he also gained access to Kerry's e-mail and snail mail lists from the 2004 campaign, a valuable asset. With networking applications such as Facebook, a campaign can quickly compile a very efficiently targeted list of people who are likely supporters. So you can see that these lists are more than just a fad.
(Historical note: Mark Hanna, the campaign manager for the successful Republican candidate William McKinley in 1896, is generally credited as the first operative to make mass-mailings of political flyers through the U.S. Postal Service.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Professor Obama

I'm of two minds about this week's mini-flap about Barack Obama's comments to the effect that lower-middle class people react to economic stress with xenophobic sentiments about immigrants and minorities, and reactionary conservatism on social issues. Of course this is demonstrably true (these sentiments rise and fall in a statistically significant correlation with economic ups and downs), but it's the kind of thing that professors and columnists are supposed to educate us about. Politicians running for office need to cultivate a positive relationship with communities, not critique them.
On the one hand, I get queasy about the role of the media in the political process, amplifying stories about romantic and financial pecadillos, showing again and again how ridiculous Dukakis looked in a helmet, or Carter looked (or didn't even look) pushing a rabbit away with a canoe paddle, or Quayle telling the school kid that he had to put an "e" on the end of potato, or Bush Sr. allegedly not knowing about supermarket scanners (I think he was just trying to be polite), or even making some more substantive gaffe such as when Ford said that Soviet Poland was a democracy (he said it in a debate, I have no idea if he actually had that belief). I don't have a solution to the problem, but I get queasy, as I said, at the idea that a slip of the tongue can turn an election for President. I'm hoping that the unpredictable alchemy of these media storms doesn't produce a big problem for Obama this time because I don't think that would be fair (the point is that fairness isn't what runs these things).
On the other hand, there are a few observations about the general election and the Democratic candidate that it's not too late to make. Clinton has won all of the big states; the argument that Obama has won a greater number of states than Clinton is not a good argument. Most of those smaller states' electoral votes are going to the Republicans. Working class people, lower-educated people, union voters, older voters, rural Democrats, not to mention women, are all still leaning towards Clinton. Obama has pulled off a number of his wins largely on the strength of overwhelming black support: he has yet to show that he can get much more than 30 percent of white voters, anywhere. He is not, then, the populist hero in this race. That would be Hillary Clinton. And making theoretical observations about the resentments of working class whites like a law professor does not help.
Mary Matalin said on Meet the Press this morning that Obama and Clinton on the same ticket would be "a dream for Republicans." She often impresses me but in this case the opposite is true. Put them both on the ticket and Democratic victory is much more (not totally) assured. As to the numbers showing McCain-Rice beating either Democrat, forget it. It's the novelty of the suggestion exciting people. Rice has never campaigned, is the most undistinguished Secretary of State in memory, and it may very well be that the nominally good idea of pandering the Republicans out of trouble by putting a black woman on the ticket would turn out to be a dud. (Politics is rough stuff: I'd love to see a black woman on a national ticket, but I'd love a Democratic Party victory a lot more.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Is It Just Me?

This morning there is a discussion on Slate about the latest polling data that were also discussed by Chuck Todd of MSNBC last night. Basically the discussion runs like this: polls still show Clinton beating McCain in crucial states (Ohio, Florida) where McCain is statistically tied or beating Obama. This is an extension of what I take to be a Very Good Argument, namely that having won California, New York, Ohio, even doing not so badly in Obama's home state Illinois, not to mention Michigan and Florida (yes I know, but still), it certainly does look (and listen, it certainly does look) like Clinton might be the more formidable nominee for the general election. The pro-Obama response is that Obama changes the map and adds formerly red states such as Virginia and Colorado, and contested states such as Wisconsin, and thus puts together a win without, say, Florida. Which is also a Perfectly Good Argument if not perhaps a Very Good one (because more risky).
But folks: Is it just me? If you put them both together you get the Unbeatable Argument. You get the unbeatable ticket. What is with everybody? Everybody is asking, "Who is the big shot who will broker us out of this impasse?" The best and only answer: the voters. They're doing it, if only the not-so-big shots would listen. The answer is right there. Obama-Clinton. No, I don't care how you feel about it. Let's go!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What is the Function of NATO?

It's not a rhetorical question. I really can't see what the NATO alliance is supposed to accomplish at this point. It is the paradigmatic Cold War institution, the centerpiece of a system of alliances (remember SEATO and ANZA?) meant to guard against Soviet expansion. Today it still can be aimed at no one but the Russians, a fact that quite reasonably vexes them no end, especially now that NATO expansion has moved beyond the Central European states and into traditional Slavic spheres in Ukraine and the Balkans (President Bush yesterday supported Ukraine for membership, a proposal likely to be voted down by the Europeans). Moreover, NATO is an institution bound up with Cold War nuclear strategy (as in Mutual Assured Destruction): under the nuclear standoff over divided Europe between the USA and the USSR, NATO (and the Warsaw Pact) insured that neither side would start anything along the peripheries, at the risk of escalation. Today, such an alliance with dozens of states only insures that should conventional troubles flare up (as inevitably they will), everyone gets drawn in. Limiting diplomatic flexibility in this way serves no current purpose (and look into the origins of World War I). Meanwhile, it is a constant refrain from the Americans (myself included) that the Europeans need to become the guarantors of their own security, while the Europeans lead the global chorus demanding that the US stand down from its role as global gendarme. The whole point of European Union is to provide an alternative to American hegemony, and this must be true both economically and in terms of security. So I ask again, what is the function of NATO? And why on Earth would the go-it-aloners Bush and Cheney be so adamant about its expansion, while they otherwise insist that the US will never be tied by international organization or opinion?