Saturday, January 05, 2008

Anne Applebaum on Barack Obama and the meaning of America

Whatever else happens between now and November, the fact that the next President of the United States will most likely be either a woman or an African-American is already a phenomenon of historic importance.

And putting it that way, by itself, misleadingly oversimplifies Barack Obama's social identity and its political significance. As Ann Applebaum points out in a post-Iowa piece than ran in Britain's right-of-center Daily Telegraph (see below), what is striking about Obama is his conspicuously mixed background--ethnic, racial, religious, multi-national, and otherwise--combined with his sweepingly trans-racial appeal and his unapologetic insistence on a politics of the common good. All this is part of what makes the Obama phenomenon complex and also, whether or not you support the man for President, deeply encouraging. Some highlights:
--------------------
On the day when Barack Obama first entered America's consciousness I was sitting glumly in the audience. It was the summer of 2004, at the Democratic Convention in Boston. [....]

Hardly surprising, then, that when this Senate candidate got up to speak, I (and several million other Americans) listened with something akin to relief. He was amusing, speaking of himself as a "skinny kid with a funny name". He was cheerfully optimistic, talking about a "generous America" where "you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential".

Best of all, he eschewed stereotypes. Instead of denouncing his opponents, he denounced "the pundits who like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states" (that is, Republican states and Democratic states).

In what became the most quoted lines of the convention, he went on: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states…and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

To the British ear it might sound overblown, but the rhetorical combination was brilliant: Obama had taken the ringing repetitions and soaring metaphors beloved of black preachers and politicians - and mixed them with the language of the Founding Fathers and the American Dream.

Still, it was only a speech. Obama was not yet even a senator. Even if elected, he would still be the only black man in the Senate. "Hardly a likely candidate for the presidency," the Washington press corps told itself. "What a pity."

Cut to January 2008, and everything looks different. Two days ago, Obama made another speech, celebrating his own victory in the Iowa caucuses. His very first words addressed the old conventional wisdom: "They said this day would never come," he declared - and his supporters cheered. [....]

Obama's momentum may well be halted by Hillary Clinton's campaign machine next week in New Hampshire, where at the moment she leads decisively. A month from now - after more than 20 states vote on Feb 5, dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday" - he may be out of the race.

Nevertheless, even if Obama goes on to lose New Hampshire, the nomination and a shot at the presidency, it is still worth pausing to mark this moment in American political history, to ask how it is that a black man achieved what was supposedly impossible, and whether - even theoretically - he could win a nationwide election, too.

Some of the explanation of Obama's success lies in his background, as well as in the rapidly changing ethnic landscape of America. Though he describes himself as "black", is married to a black woman and was converted to Christianity in a black church, Obama represents something more complicated.

He is the son not of African-Americans but of an African - a Kenyan student - and a white woman from Kansas. He spent part of his childhood in Jakarta with his Indonesian stepfather, part in exotic (even for most Americans) Hawaii, and much time with his Midwestern family.

He studied at Occidental College on the West Coast and at Harvard Law School, breeding ground of the East Coast establishment. Then he worked as a community organiser in Chicago.

Many discounted Obama on the grounds of weirdness alone. He was not a mainstream white candidate, nor - in the minds of some black leaders - a "real" black American. Coming from Hawaii and Indonesia by way of Harvard and Chicago, he could not be geographically pigeonholed. And conventional wisdom decreed that no one whose middle name is "Hussein" could possibly win an election in middle America.

But all of us who cited that conventional wisdom had forgotten that America is a country of perpetual motion, that old barriers of intermarriage are breaking down, that immigration from Latin America and Asia is at a historic high and that "racial politics" now involves far more than just two races.

A few weeks ago, the writer Andrew Sullivan put it like this: "To be black and white, to have belonged to a non-religious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything - this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities."

Nowadays, to be mixed up is normal.

Perhaps more importantly, Obama is at the moment the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, for whom the "culture wars" of the 1960s were not a formative influence. Though born in 1961, at the tail end of the baby boom, he was too young to demonstrate for or against Vietnam, too young to take sides for or against flower power and women's lib.

He also missed out on the partisan warfare of the 1990s, when the baby-boomers replayed their struggles in Washington, and the Republican Revolution went head-to-head with the Clinton machine. He can talk about red states and blue states as if it genuinely doesn't matter which was which - something neither Hillary nor John Edwards seems able to do.

Whether he would, as president, be as non-partisan, even apolitical, as he sometimes likes to sound is another matter. But in the meantime, his soothing language appeals to a younger generation, one tired of the baby-boomers and their left/right, hippy/straight, long-hair/crewcut political divisions.

Obama's relative youth and outsider status also give him an unexpected perspective on traditional racial politics. He is not only post-Vietnam, he is post-civil-rights-movement, too. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, he did not march in Selma or Birmingham, did not make his name in the struggle.

Both he and his wife, the eloquent and accomplished Michelle Obama - they met when she interviewed him for a job at a law firm - are beneficiaries of the civil rights era, but they no longer use its language or tactics.

They are financially and professionally successful by any measure and have raised two lovely, obviously well-adjusted daughters, Natasha and Malia Ann. This too makes them seem less combative, less angry and more self-confident than some of their predecessors.

This subtly different attitude appeals to white voters, but it might also win Obama more enthusiasts among younger minority voters than the pundits have so far assumed. And here I speak with a shred of experience, since one of my (black) university classmates - a law professor who, by age and temperament, is also post-civil-rights-movement - emailed me a few months ago to let me know he was working for the Obama campaign. I was not in the least surprised.

None of this answers the big question. Even if Obama continues his improbable trajectory and wins the Democratic nomination, can he make it to the White House? I find that when my British friends ask this question, what they really mean is: will Americans - in Mississippi, in Alabama, in the red states - vote for a black man? [....]

Perhaps it sounds odd, but at least today, Obama's skin colour suddenly seems like an advantage. His victory makes Americans feel good about themselves. And they might not want to stop feeling good. David Brooks, the centre-Right columnist, put it like this: "When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say 'No'?"

Maybe Hillary will defeat this unlikely candidate in the long run. But, for a few days at least, we can savour Obama's victory as a step towards a post-baby-boom, post-civil-rights-movement - even a post-racist - America.
--------------------

I have to dissent from part of that last formulation, since America is hardly at the point where it makes sense to talk about moving beyond the civil rights movement (as opposed to outgrowing certain political figures who claim to incarnate it). Applebaum also glosses over the fact that Obama's experience as a community-organizing activist in Chicago seems to have played a critical role in his political education. But, overall, Applebaum's discussion captures a lot about the Obama phenomenon that strikes me as important and illuminating.

A similar spirit animated some remarks that Adam LeBor, a British journalist and author, posted a few weeks ago on the democratic-left group blog Harry's Place ("Why I'm Betting on Barack"):
I'm not usually a gambling man. [....] But if I'm useless at gambling I do think, or at least hope, I know something about politics. So I've had a punt on Barack Obama to win the US presidential election. [....] Yup, Barack. A candidate without much experience, whose surname rhymes with the first name of America's enemy number one, who may even be a Muslim at least according to Islamic law, and who is not even 50 yet. (in fact he was born just one day before me).

Why? The main reason is because what many people in Europe, especially our friends on the hysterical anti-American left, just don't get, is that for Americans, America is not just a country, but is an ideal, a dream if you like. There is no greater example among the presidential candidates of the American dream than Barack Obama. I won't start recounting his biography here, but I do think his life story has resonance beyond the east and west coast liberals and can also appeal to middle America as well. [....]
So it appears.

=> Otherwise ... Norman Geras has put together a useful round-up of post-Iowa political commentaries HERE. And for the political junkies among you, I recommend a perceptive and thought-provoking analysis by Tom Edsall of where the Iowa results leave both the Republicans and the Democrats and the stakes for both parties in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary "New Hampshire Will Be Key Battle in GOP Civil War". After Tuesday, the conventional wisdom may have shifted dramatically again, but Edsall's piece can carry you nicely through the interim period.

And if you haven't yet read the illuminating piece on "Barack Obama's Unlikely Political Education" that I referred to above, now might be a good time to do it.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
Daily Telegraph (London)
January 5, 2008
Barack Obama's 'day that would never come'
By Anne Applebaum









On the day when Barack Obama first entered America's consciousness I was sitting glumly in the audience. It was the summer of 2004, at the Democratic Convention in Boston.

For hours I had sat listening to politicians from around the country denounce Bush, Cheney, Iraq. I watched the delegates - suicidally - rally around John Kerry, and I watched Kerry try not to seem like the Massachusetts liberal he had always been.

Hardly surprising, then, that when this Senate candidate got up to speak, I (and several million other Americans) listened with something akin to relief. He was amusing, speaking of himself as a "skinny kid with a funny name". He was cheerfully optimistic, talking about a "generous America" where "you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential".

Best of all, he eschewed stereotypes. Instead of denouncing his opponents, he denounced "the pundits who like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states" (that is, Republican states and Democratic states).

In what became the most quoted lines of the convention, he went on: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states…and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

To the British ear it might sound overblown, but the rhetorical combination was brilliant: Obama had taken the ringing repetitions and soaring metaphors beloved of black preachers and politicians - and mixed them with the language of the Founding Fathers and the American Dream.

Still, it was only a speech. Obama was not yet even a senator. Even if elected, he would still be the only black man in the Senate. "Hardly a likely candidate for the presidency," the Washington press corps told itself. "What a pity."

Cut to January 2008, and everything looks different. Two days ago, Obama made another speech, celebrating his own victory in the Iowa caucuses. His very first words addressed the old conventional wisdom: "They said this day would never come," he declared - and his supporters cheered.

They knew, as did everyone else, that the "day that would never come" was the day that a black man became a serious candidate for president.

Here, of course, is where I should insert the appropriate caveats. To win the Iowa caucuses is not to win the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency. The rules of the Iowa vote are such that only the most politically dedicated - and atypical - of the state's voters show up.

Iowa itself is atypical; success in this Midwestern, white, rural farming state does not guarantee success in the big urban centres of the coasts or in the small towns of the Deep South.

Obama's momentum may well be halted by Hillary Clinton's campaign machine next week in New Hampshire, where at the moment she leads decisively. A month from now - after more than 20 states vote on Feb 5, dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday" - he may be out of the race.

Nevertheless, even if Obama goes on to lose New Hampshire, the nomination and a shot at the presidency, it is still worth pausing to mark this moment in American political history, to ask how it is that a black man achieved what was supposedly impossible, and whether - even theoretically - he could win a nationwide election, too.

Some of the explanation of Obama's success lies in his background, as well as in the rapidly changing ethnic landscape of America. Though he describes himself as "black", is married to a black woman and was converted to Christianity in a black church, Obama represents something more complicated.

He is the son not of African-Americans but of an African - a Kenyan student - and a white woman from Kansas. He spent part of his childhood in Jakarta with his Indonesian stepfather, part in exotic (even for most Americans) Hawaii, and much time with his Midwestern family.

He studied at Occidental College on the West Coast and at Harvard Law School, breeding ground of the East Coast establishment. Then he worked as a community organiser in Chicago.

Many discounted Obama on the grounds of weirdness alone. He was not a mainstream white candidate, nor - in the minds of some black leaders - a "real" black American. Coming from Hawaii and Indonesia by way of Harvard and Chicago, he could not be geographically pigeonholed. And conventional wisdom decreed that no one whose middle name is "Hussein" could possibly win an election in middle America.

But all of us who cited that conventional wisdom had forgotten that America is a country of perpetual motion, that old barriers of intermarriage are breaking down, that immigration from Latin America and Asia is at a historic high and that "racial politics" now involves far more than just two races.

A few weeks ago, the writer Andrew Sullivan put it like this: "To be black and white, to have belonged to a non-religious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything - this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities."

Nowadays, to be mixed up is normal.

Perhaps more importantly, Obama is at the moment the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, for whom the "culture wars" of the 1960s were not a formative influence. Though born in 1961, at the tail end of the baby boom, he was too young to demonstrate for or against Vietnam, too young to take sides for or against flower power and women's lib.

He also missed out on the partisan warfare of the 1990s, when the baby-boomers replayed their struggles in Washington, and the Republican Revolution went head-to-head with the Clinton machine. He can talk about red states and blue states as if it genuinely doesn't matter which was which - something neither Hillary nor John Edwards seems able to do.

Whether he would, as president, be as non-partisan, even apolitical, as he sometimes likes to sound is another matter. But in the meantime, his soothing language appeals to a younger generation, one tired of the baby-boomers and their left/right, hippy/straight, long-hair/crewcut political divisions.

Obama's relative youth and outsider status also give him an unexpected perspective on traditional racial politics. He is not only post-Vietnam, he is post-civil-rights-movement, too. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, he did not march in Selma or Birmingham, did not make his name in the struggle.

Both he and his wife, the eloquent and accomplished Michelle Obama - they met when she interviewed him for a job at a law firm - are beneficiaries of the civil rights era, but they no longer use its language or tactics.

They are financially and professionally successful by any measure and have raised two lovely, obviously well-adjusted daughters, Natasha and Malia Ann. This too makes them seem less combative, less angry and more self-confident than some of their predecessors.

This subtly different attitude appeals to white voters, but it might also win Obama more enthusiasts among younger minority voters than the pundits have so far assumed. And here I speak with a shred of experience, since one of my (black) university classmates - a law professor who, by age and temperament, is also post-civil-rights-movement - emailed me a few months ago to let me know he was working for the Obama campaign. I was not in the least surprised.

None of this answers the big question. Even if Obama continues his improbable trajectory and wins the Democratic nomination, can he make it to the White House? I find that when my British friends ask this question, what they really mean is: will Americans - in Mississippi, in Alabama, in the red states - vote for a black man?

I won't presume to make predictions, at least not in such an unpredictable election year. But I will note that - at least for the moment - this question isn't being put quite that way by Americans themselves, at least not in the immediate aftermath of a black man's victory in a state as white as Iowa.

The questions being asked, rather, are whether a man who talks more about the "idea of America" than about particular policies can win; whether a man with such a complex personal history can win; and whether anyone can raise enough money over the internet to compete with the Clintons.

Perhaps it sounds odd, but at least today, Obama's skin colour suddenly seems like an advantage. His victory makes Americans feel good about themselves. And they might not want to stop feeling good. David Brooks, the centre-Right columnist, put it like this: "When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say 'No'?"

Maybe Hillary will defeat this unlikely candidate in the long run. But, for a few days at least, we can savour Obama's victory as a step towards a post-baby-boom, post-civil-rights-movement - even a post-racist - America.

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