Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Obama Urban Coalition

Wow, what a night. I have to say I was pretty bummed to not be in the US for election night. Watching Grant Park and the city streets across the nation erupt in celebration, it just wasn't the same sitting alone in my apartment at five in the morning. Still it was an amazing moment, seeing the celebrations across the world as the Bush era was declared definitively finished.

I started the evening by going with some American friends to a US election party at the town hall of the 3rd arrondisement here in Paris. We were expecting your classic election party, with television, food platters, drinks, etc. Instead we found an art exhibit! Apparently the French conception of an 'election party' involves an exhibition of photography from the US election and the screening of a conceptual art film about American politics. And no booze! There was a large screen showing French coverage of the election, but it was outdoors so the prospect of hanging out to watch the results there for six hours wasn't too enticing! Still it was interesting, when people heard our accents they were very eager to talk about the election. They were really fascinated by it, as the art exhibits reflected. And as the only Americans there we were the self-appointed experts of the moment.

We sort of moved around from cafe to cafe but after it started to get late I went back to my apartment to watch the results. I live on a street with a lot of expat bars and the place across from me was having an election viewing party, but I don't think they realized how late the result was coming because when they finally called it at 5am I went to look out the window to see if they were pouring into the street, and the bar had already closed! So I was a bit jealous as I talked to my friends in the US and they told me how people were pouring into the streets to celebrate. It was really wild. I spoke with one friend who lives in DC, he was outside the white house among the huge crowds that had gathered outside the lawn. He said it almost looked like they were going to storm the gates and drag Bush out themselves. Another friend called me from Grant Park in Chicago and said it was absolutely amazing, unlike anything he had ever seen. It wouldn't be hyperbole to say it looked like a third world country that had just overthrown a dictator. Here's a video someone took from a window in New York's east village.

So what prompted this huge outpouring of jubilation? Certainly it was an extremely unusual reaction to an election result in the US, especially in the last ten years, when election nights were more likely to see people crying in the streets of American cities. To understand why US cities erupted in celebration like this, you have to look beyond the current campaign and look back at the last ten years. Since the election of 2000, which most Democrats considered to have been stolen from Al Gore, residents of American cities in the Northeast and the West Coast have felt as if the Bush Administration was literally at war with them. The Republican Party's strategy during this time has been to appeal almost exclusively to rural white voters, vilifying urban dwellers and using social issues like abortion and gay marriage to drive cultural conservatives to the polls. The strategy worked, and the GOP was voted into office again and again by turning out rural votes. This left American city dwellers feeling almost completely powerless. as if they had no power and no voice while their country's leaders continually vilified and insulted them.

The same playbook was used by the McCain campaign in this election, dividing the country into "real America" and "fake America." So when that strategy didn't work this time, it signalled to city-dwellers that their long period of exile from power was finally over.

Of course there was another reason for the celebrations as well. Part of the GOP's process of vilifying urbanites also involved fostering distrust of African Americans, albeit not with direct language. African Americans felt completely ignored by the Bush Administration, particularly during Hurricane Katrina. Tuesday night the African American community celebrated a minor victory, the defeat of a party which most of them despise, and a major victory, the election of the first black president. No wonder there were tears in the streets. And it was hard not to be moved by them.

What's Next?

The fact is that despite their personal ideology, politicians often take their cues from the people who put them in office. For instance, no matter how much she is vilified as a "liberal" by the American right, Nancy Pelosi has pursued a rather moderate agenda as speaker of the house over the last two years, because she knows Democrats were given their majority by moderate voters in a center-right country. So who put Obama in office?

I thought former speechwriter David Frum made an interesting comment on the BBC Tuesday night, saying Obama was elected into office by a coalition of "the very top and the very bottom." Frum questioned whether over the long term these two groups will have aligning interests. College-educated whites voted almost exclusively for Barack Obama, as did 96 percent of African Americans. But non college-educated whites, especially those in rural areas, voted largely for McCain. Frum insisted on calling this group of McCain voters the "middle class," which I think is debatable. But there is no denying that the majority of blue collar white voters, those in the middle of the income spectrum, did not vote for Barack Obama.

So will this coalition of college-educated whites and African Americans hold? Do they have more in common philosophically than their hatred for George W. Bush? Only time will tell, but early philosophical differences may have already been exposed by the passing of Proposition 8 in California. The proposition sought to amend the constitution to overrule a recent California Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriages in the state, which prompted 18,000 marriages including those of a few celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres. In the end the proposition to ban gay marriage passed by a very narrow margin, and ironically it looks like it was Barack Obama's presence on the ballot that enabled it to pass. Because although the college-educated whites who turned out for Obama would have mostly voted against it, the huge African American turnout that was driven to the polls for Obama would have mostly voted for it. This is perhaps the biggest divide between African Americans, who are largely socially conservative and religious, and college-educated whites, who are often socially progressive and secular.

With control of both houses of congress and the presidency, the Democrats have a huge mandate for action. But what action will they take? it's going to be fascinating to watch.


Steve S. said...

Have you seen the story where Carla Bruni and other French luminaries argue on the basis of Obama's victory that France should adopt a system of affirmative action to better enfranchise racial minorities in France?

I can't help but think they've drawn precisely the wrong conclusion from Obama's success. If Obama were seen as a "token" or a "grievance" candidate, he'd have gotten nowhere.

Dave Keating said...

Ha ha, Carla Bruni, French luminary.