A Terrible Tie

October 31, 2008

By Stephen Noriega

This could possibly happen, so I’m going with it in my election predictions. It would be tantamount to betting that the top three horses in a race will fall but I think the odds are actually better than that. Due to some unusual provisions in our Constitution, this election could result in an Obama / Palin Administration. Don’t batter me with hostile question marks and laughter, yet.

McCain could surge and wins every battleground state except Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Mexico (and he has a great reputation for comebacks). The Bradley Effect could help him in certain states like Virginia, Ohio and Nevada. Voter suppression efforts could help him with North Carolina and Florida. Colorado and New Mexico have filled with liberal migrant voters and are turning blue. Pennsylvania has Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to make it safe for Obama. This would result in a 269 – 269 tie.


So, per Article II of the Constitution, the choice for President goes to the House of Representatives. Each state has one vote in this procedure, so states with more of one party will vote along those party lines. Currently, there are 27 states with more Democrats in the House of Representatives, 21 states with more Republicans and 2 that are tied. Thus, Obama would win that vote and would become the 44th President.

However, it is not the House of Representatives that decides who is Vice President. It is the Senate. Per the Twelfth Amendment, each member of the Senate gets one vote to decide the V.P. Currently there are 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans in the Senate. One person, Bernie Williams, would vote for Biden. One Independent, Joe Lieberman, may vote for Palin as he has campaigned for the Republican ticket all along. This would result in a tie in the Senate. Guess who breaks ties in the Senate? That’s right, Vice President Dick Cheney would break the tie and Sarah Palin would be the choice.

I know there are variables even within this probability nightmare. Chuck Hagel, an occasional Democrat sympathizer could swing the vote I the other direction. Joe Lieberman might decide to abandon his love of Republicans once his friend McCain is no longer the winner.

Naturally, this scenario is remote from its inception. However, it sure is wild to even see it as a possibility. Remember, the last time there was a tie in our obsolete Electoral College, a similar coupling resulted and our first Treasury Secretary was shot to death by said Vice President (Aaron Burr) over it! Duels are illegal now but what a sitcom to have Barack Obama and Sarah Palin trying to run a country together.


Convention Choreography and Street Disruption

August 25, 2008

In 1972, it was a bit of a scandal when a secret script for the upcoming Republican National Convention was discovered. In The Boys on the Bus, author Timothy Crouse reported on the details of the script—calling it a “stage-managed coronation of Richard Nixon.”

“Spontaneous cheers will interrupt the convention secretary in mid-sentence and at 10:33 the President will be nominated and there will be a ten minute spontaneous demonstration with balloons..”

The Republicans were planning their convention rather than just letting events unfold unpredictably, and this shocked the establishment! Back then conventions were a raucous affair, where it was often the case that delegates didn’t know who would win the nomination when they went into convention, and where serious and divisive debates about platform planks (should the Democrats stand for civil rights in the South, for example) would tear the party to pieces. The fact that the Republicans were working to remove any division or unpredictability from their convention was a surprising new development in 1972—but this strategy was quickly adopted by both political parties.

Today, the primary election process insures that the presidential and vice-presidential nominees are already chosen, debates over the platform have all been worked out , and all other sources of party division are almost always resolved before the convention ever begins. The line-up of speakers has been carefully vetted and planned to the last detail .

So what’s the point? Why do the parties even continue to hold a convention and why do so many voters watch?

Conventions continue to play several roles for political parties, including serving as a single place where thousands of delegates representing different factions of a party can gather to build solidarity and excitement for the hard work ahead in winning an election and serving as a star-studded occasion where lot of big-money donors gather for fund-raising dinners, invite-only parties and other special events to raise necessary millions of dollars for the party.

One of the key functions of a political convention is to serve as a carefully choreographed advertisement to share the values of the party and image of its presidential nominee with the voters.

“Contemporary conventions are staged primarily as mega-media events designed to electrify the party faithful and to woo undecided voters by dazzling them. Scholars have demonstrated that support for the party’s nominee is boosted immediately after the convention, and the prevailing nostrum seems to be: the better the convention, the bigger the boost. Elaborate effort—and resources—are now lavished on the conventions by party leaders to orchestrate, anticipate, plan, schedule, rehearse, time, and script every detail of every minute of the convention—especially those proceedings that will be aired during prime time.”

— Costas Panagopoulos, 2008 http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol5/iss4/art6/

For four days, the Democratic and Republican conventions will feature long lines of speeches, tributes and video presentations revealing what exactly the party stands for, what kinds of people associate with the party, and what the party intends to do once in power. It is a rare moment for voters to truly watch the party present itself—and this serves a vital purpose for American democracy.

We certainly can’t rely on the mainstream media to help voters learn about core values of a party. Studies show that the average amount of time that a candidate or official is allowed to actually speak, in their own words, on the television news is about 7 seconds. Seven second sound-bites are hardly enough time for parties to present their ideas or values in any kind of nuanced ways.

But at a convention, candidates can give lengthy speeches, and they aired in their entirely o various news stations. Video tributes to party achievements and great party leaders are aired for the voters to experience and learn from . Some people call it a useless advertisement, and there are even some in the mainstream media who suggest that none of the convention should even be covered (in favor of what? 8 second soundbites?)—but the convention experience is not so much a useless advertisement as it is a multi-media classroom that voters can enter to learn about the party and its nominee.

Voters are certainly interested in what goes on in that classroom. Although viewership has dropped in recent decades (although there have been few studies of alternative ways of following a convention such as on-line or through casual conversation with friends), at any given moment, 15% of all television viewers are watching the convention—no small number. And the number jumps during the big speech by the nominee. 15% of all voters also make up their actual election decision while watching the convention—a number matched only by the presidential debates.

Conventions are a way to convey the party and its values to the voters—but the choreography of a convention is always threatened by events in the street organized by demonstrators who are intent on challenging a party, confronting it with opposing ideas, and thrusting an alternative narrative of grass-roots priorities upon the national stage. In 1968, convention demonstrators in Chicago were so numerous and so unruly (as were violent police, intent on squashing grass-roots demonstrations in the city) that the Democratic party looked out of control to voters who saw it all unfold on television. They responded by voting in a Republican president.

To this day, demonstrators seek to recreate the energy and drama of the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests, and party officials try to minimize and silence such street demonstrations that distract from the party’s message.

This year in Denver, party leaders worked with the city of Denver to create a carefully planned parade route for demonstrations that would go nowhere near the convention itself, and passed a rule that all parades had to end before the convention events started for the evening. They designed a “freedom cage” (see previous post on the subject) where other protestors could go to speak out at the convention, also out of sight of delegates and hidden behind a large white tent.

But Denver organizers have threatened to tear it all down. Groups in Denver have named themselves such things as Recreate 68, Unconventional Denver , Disrupt DNC 08 , and Tent State University—and they have claimed that up to 50,000 protestors will be descending on Denver to march in the streets, ignore the rules relegating protestors to small cages, and push the Democratic party to take more strong stands against the Iraq War, against poverty, and against global warming (for example).

Will the demonstrators be able to steal the stage from the Democrats? Do convention demonstrations have a role to play, similar to the Convention choreography itself, in teaching the nation about the political lay of the land? In Denver and in St. Paul over the next few weeks, we will see who truly has the upper hand—the party in the halls of power or the movement in the street.

A Pro-Obama Media?

July 28, 2008

“The Biblical term for it is ‘Deliverance,’” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in commenting on the Obama campaign. “We are being picked up and taken where we want to go…”

While Matthews is among the most dreamy-eyed of journalists in his thrilled obsession with Obama, there are many other journalists claiming a widespread pro-Obama sentiment in the media. Consider the following sampling of journalists commenting on the “Obama-love” of their peers:

“The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is all consuming…” — Joe Scarborough

“The feeling most people get when hearing a Barack Obama speech is…I get this thrill going up my leg, I don’t have that too often…” — Chris Matthews

“I must confess my knees quaked a bit…” Lee Cowan

“Its more than love, it’s the kind of love that anybody whose been a ninth grade boy understands this species of love. I think about you when I go to bed, too embarrassed to stand up, its sealed with a kiss love” –Tucker Carlson

Following in the steps of a famous Saturday Night live spoof of the media’s pro-Obama bias, the McCain camp has recently released its own humorous montage of “Obama-moments” in the starry-eyed media. Enjoy them both…

Saturday Night Clip


McCain Camp “The Media Loves Obama” video

Is the hype real? Are media commentators and reporters truly obsessed with covering Obama, and is their coverage slanted in favor of Obama? What do the answers to these questions teach about how the media covers elections?

Evidence of Obamania in the Media

There is good evidence that stories focusing on Obama have received more air and print time throughout the election than stories focusing on McCain. The non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks a wide range of media stories in its “Campaign Coverage Index,” and in every week since the race has narrowed to McCain and Obama, they have found substantially more stories focused on Obama than on McCain. In mid-July, they offered the following coverage chart, and reported that

“Obama was at least a significant presence in fully 77% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 48% for McCain. Obama has led in coverage in all five weeks since the race narrowed to two presumptive nominees. A week earlier, that gap narrowed to 11 points and offered the prospect that the coverage might equalize, but last week suggested that might not be the case.”

Another study, by the Tyndall center reporting the same kinds of findings—discovering three times as many broadcast minutes dedicated to Obama than to McCain stories in the weeks after the primary season ended.

Is More Coverage Better Coverage?

Obama receives the lion-share of media attention, it’s true—but is that necessarily good? The media is known for their penchant for scandal, for their obsession in discovering flaws, conflicts, and contradictions, and then exposing them to maximizing drama and attract viewers. Perhaps much of the coverage on Obama is actually negative—obsessing with such things as Obama’s alleged radicalism, his race, rumors of his Muslim/Madrassa background, and his political inexperience?

There is a sense out there that the media is slavishly pro-obama in their bias. Rush Limbaugh, for example, makes it part of his daily fodder to berate the Obama-love in the air—though relying on Limbaugh as an expert in media balance is a bit like consulting the Flat Earth Society for directions on your upcoming “round-the-world” cruise.

“The Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin all the way up to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, they never got this kind of fawning press from Pravda and they owned it. I mean, they wrote their own press and they didn’t get this kind of good coverage. The Beatles never got this. Princess Di never got this…The Drive Bys have arrested development. They are just a bunch of teenagers here. The only thing they haven’t done is throw their underwear and bras at the guy when he’s up there on stage, yet.” –Rush Limbaugh, on Obama’s favorable press coverage

It’s early in the game, and beyond these kinds of general impressions, there is very little way in the serious scholarship proving whether the media coverage, overall, is biased towards or against Obama. What scholarship there is actually suggests that Obama has perhaps received more negative, rather than positive, coverage from the press.

Here’s an L.A. Times story, summarizing recent findings from a well-respected university media-research center.

“The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington based media center.”

And what about that data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which showed that Barack Obama received substantially more attention from the media than did McCain? Well, it turns out much of that attention might actually not be so great for his campaign. The Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that most of those Obama stories were centered on an obscene Jesse Jackson quote criticizing Obama for “talking down to Obama,” and threatening bodily harm. Two other topics taking up a lot of Obama air-time were documentation of Obama’s evolving/changing positions as he moved to the “center” in order to win the presidential election, and stories focusing on the Clinton/Obama divide in the party. Issue coverage of the economy and Iraq also made an appearance, but they did NOT drive the coverage. It’s not at all clear that obsessive coverage of issues like campaign gaffes, party division, and issue “flip-flopping” helps the Obama campaign. Remember the media pack journalism frenzy over the Reverend Wright comments damning America? Surely, Obama wished the media did not focus so heavily on him and his reverend during those days.

But all of these studies are early, and there is no denying the sense out there that the media coverage is indeed pro-Obama. The American public certainly thinks such a bias exists. In a Rasmussen poll, 49 percent of respondents believed reporters would favor Obama in their coverage this fall, compared with just 14 percent who expected them to boost Sen. John McCain. So let’s just assume that there is a love affair with Obama among the nation’s journalists, and that they are delivering obsessive and pro-Obama slanted coverage this summer.

What might account for such a result?

Answer 1: Liberal Bias

One of the most common answers, certainly the answer given by conservative journalists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, is that the media is “liberal” and is biased in favor of Democrats. Political Science textbooks will tell you that allegations of liberal media bias have become staple fare among conservatives, ever since the 1960s. But are the allegations true?

Here are some relevant facts (found in Government in America by George Edwards, et. al., and The New American Democracy, by Morris Fiorina, et. al.)

  • A L.A. times study in the 1980s found that reporters were twice as likely to identify as liberal than were members of the general public.
  • A 2002 survey of 1,149 journalists found that 37% identified as Democrats—only 19% said they were Republicans.
  • Opinion polls show that journalists are substantially to the left of the general public on social and cultural issues—and they are far more likely to take the “Democratic” position on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion in public life, and drug laws.
  • Since 1964, more than 80% of the nation’s journalists have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential contest (including Republican blowouts like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and Reagan over Mondale in 1984).

It is undeniable that the nation’s journalists tend to be more liberal/Democratic than the populace at large. But does that influence how they present the news? Does a Democratic reporter necessarily have to produce pro-Obama coverage? Here’s how a set of leading political scientists address that question.

“The vast majority of social science studies have found that reporting is not systematically biased toward a particular ideology or party. Most stories are presented in a ‘point/counterpoint’ format in which two opposing points of view (such as liberal versus conservative) are presented, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.” — George Edwards, et. al., Government in America, p. 231

Regardless of this evidence, not everyone agrees that the biased background of reporters doesn’t matter. CBS news reporter Bernard Goldberg claims that overall reporting topics and framing of issues is undeniably slanted by the cosmopolitan big-city environment in which most reporters live. He asks: “Do we really think that if the media elites worked out of Nebraska instead of New York; and if they were overwhelmingly social conservatives instead of liberals…do we really think that would make no difference?” (George Edwards, et. al. Government in America, p. 232).

Before a final word can be given on whether today’s media is pro-Obama obsessed or not, we will need more campaigning, more coverage and more serious scholarship. The bottom line is informed opinion is divided on whether the media is pro-Obama or not, and on whether it matters.

Answer 2: The Kennedy Factor

Another commonly cited reason for the media’s (alleged) pro-Obama slant is “the Kennedy Factor.” Many media pundits long for the charisma, the romance, and the wordly charm of the old Kennedy days—and in Obama, they see today’s young Kennedy rising again. Consider the following example, posted on various website, including the media research center and newsbull.com

To mark the 40th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death, Good Morning America’s Claire Shipman filed a fawning report on Thursday in which she compared Barack Obama to RFK. Splicing together footage of Kennedy and Obama, Shipman noted the “similarities” and nostalgically declared: “The search to shift that mantle, futile of course. But also a quintessentially American desire for, if not a happy ending, some sense of completion.”

At the top of the segment, Shipman cooed: “Even 40 years later, most Democrats can’t utter the name ‘Bobby’ without a wistful, ‘what if’ sort of reverence.” A true enough statement, but considering that the rest of the piece was all about Kennedy’s greatness, what does that say about the people who produced the segment? An ABC graphic cheered, “The Vision of RFK: Honoring an American Legend.” Shipman then proceeded to make her comparison clear:

SHIPMAN: Landmark crowds, striking charisma, a focus on healing the divide. [Video of Obama and RFK cut together.]

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us, our house must stand divided.

BOBBY KENNEDY: This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were before it we began.

See the full transcript here, or here.

Along this vein, Any Youtube search will turn up dozens of clips of Obama himself referring to his desire to take up the Kennedy mantle. Those clips even include one featuring Caroline Kennedy (JFK’s son) and Ted Kennedy (JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s brother) claiming that Barack Obama is the candidate to help people:

“Over the years I have been deeply moved by the people who have told me that they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way they did when my father was president….hopefully there is one candidate who offers that same hope and inspiration…” — Caroline Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s daughter, endorsing Barack Obama for President

“Every time I have been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same…I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our countries best days are still to come. I have found that candidate….It is time now for a new generation of leadership. It is time now for Barack Obama.” –Senator Ted Kennedy, President John Kennedy and
Senator Robert Kennedy’s brother, endorsing Barack Obama for President

Answer 3: Covering the Real News

A third reason for the tilt towards Obama in the media coverage (though not a reason for the alleged pro-Obama slant in that coverage) is that media outlets are simply covering the news. It is a fact that the Obama campaign is a ground-breaking, historic campaign. This is the first time a black man has won the nomination of a major party, his candidacy was an unpredicted underdog victory over the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton (who herself represented historic change, which could only double the interest in the Clinton/Obama contest and its eventual outcome), and his campaign has fueled a record-shattering surge of new and young voters across the nation. The fact is that the Obama campaign is NEWS, and it is no surprise that the media outlets cover it.

For his part, McCain has been on the public stage for decades—he simply cannot represent fundamental change or news in the same way the newcomer Barack Obama can, and especially since McCain is generally running to continue much of the legacy of the incumbent. Newcomers and challengers commonly receive more attention than old-timers and incumbents—the news, after all, tends to cover what is new.

When we are faced with the historic nature of the Obama campaign, and with truly newsworthy events by the candidate such as a trip to meet various world-leaders, while the McCain camp tours small towns in America, it is natural that Obama receives more coverage, says Bob Friedman senior vice-president of ABC news.”what are we supposed to do, go gin up some story about McCain to get some rough equality of airtime?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

NBC news president Steve Capus agreed. “We’re just trying to do our jobs. There’s no question that there’s great news value in Sen. Obama’s trip overseas. That’s why we are doing this.”

Other respected news figures such as Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour reiterates this opinion that the coverage of Obama is driven more by the newsworthy events that the Obama campaign is involved in (such as foreign trips and policy announcements) and the newsworthiness of Obama himself, than by some kind of inappropriate bias on the part of the media.

Public Desires and Pack Journalism

A final answer to “why all the coverage of Obama” relates to the phenomenon known as pack journalism. The fact is that the media is a business, with different operations like CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC and all manner of smaller outlets driven by the profit-motive to cover the kind of news people like to see. Competitive pressures to drive up ratings and secure viewers relates to the phenomenon known as “pack journalism”—which simply means that media outlets tend to obsess on the same or very similar stories day after day—stories that are proven winners in bringing in viewers and readers.

If stories about Obama gain more viewers—than journalists will “pack” around those stories, knowing that this is the only way to remain competitive in the race for ratings, advertising dollars, and (ultimately) survival as a media outlet.

The media wolves pack around popular stories, and the numbers don’t lie: Barack Obama is a popular story. The Rolling Stones March 2008 Obama cover was the magazine’s best seller of 2008, selling 40,000 more copies than usual for a month (about 25% more than normal). Some sales figures are mixed, and an Obama cover story is not always a ticket to rising sales, but more often than not, a focus on Obama results in a popular monthly magazine. Here’s how Conde Nast reporter Jeff Bercovici describes the numbers:

The Atlantic also scored big with its December issue, whose cover story was an Andrew Sullivan essay on “Why Obama Matters.” That issue, which sold 73,500 copies, was The Atlantic‘s best seller of the year, performing 28 percent better than average.

Three men’s magazines have put Obama on the cover so far. Men’s Vogue saw the biggest lift. Its Sept. 2006 issue sold 129,582 copies, the second-highest total for any issue so far, after only the debut issue, which was on newsstands considerably longer. GQs Sept. 2007 issue sold a little better than its average for the period, at 245,105 copies, but 12 percent less than the year-earlier issue, which featured Clive Owen.

Newsweek‘s July 16, 2007 issue sold 124,290 copies, putting it among the top-selling single-week issues of the year. And Time‘s Oct. 23, 2006 cover, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President,” was the title’s second-best selling issue of the year, with 206,000 copies.

If it’s true that the media’s Obama obsession stems first and foremost from the public’s media obsession, it should fundamentally change the nature of the critique. In a free market economy, its hard to blame businesses for giving the consumers what they seem to want. When the public’s appetite for Obama coverage wanes, we can expect that media outlets (which are well attuned to which stories win the most viewers) will tilt their coverage elsewhere.

Obama versus Obama

Does any of it matter? Does it matter if Obama receives more media attention than McCain—and does it matter if that coverage is positive or negative? There have been many studies on the abilty of media coverage to influence or determine the mood or votes of the public—and the scholarly consensus is fairly strong. Scholars tend to pool around what is called a “minimal effects” school of thought when it comes to evaluating whether the media can shape public opinion. Media coverage cannot fundamentally change people’s opinion about issues, and the tone of coverage cannot determine nor much influence how people are going to vote. There are much stronger influences on people’s voting patterns, including the actual issues themselves, the strength of the candidates, and party identification. Media coverage is WAY down the list of factors influencing how someone is going to vote.

Still, scholars have found that although media coverage cannot fundamentally change how people think about things, media coverage does tend to have an effect in helping voters determine which issues are most important in their vote (in other words, which issues are most “salient”), and in helping voters decide how to “frame” the issues and their vote. In other words, the media coverage is unlikely to fundamentally turn a conservative voter in to a liberal, but unrelenting media coverage of Obama and his health care plan could help determine that most voters were highly focused on whether then liked or disliked Obama and his health care plan when they actually voted. Media coverage can help determine whether an election is mostly about McCain and his war record, threats of Middle East terrorism, or Obama’s Iraq plan—though the coverage can’t tell voters how to think about each of these issues.

To that extent, the media’s undeniable bias towards covering Obama might mean that this election will ultimately come down to a referendum on Obama, more than being a “choice” between Obama and McCain. When they pull those levers, voters might more than anything else be thinking about whether they are excited or terrified by the idea of an Obama presidency, and the answer to that question is likely to shape the results of the election. But again, it should be pointed out that the media reporters and executives didn’t force this Obama referendum on the American people—voters themselves, through what they read and what they are talking about, seem to have declared that 2008, more than anything else, is about how they feel about Barack Obama.

Yes We can? Or No We Can’t?

Call and Response: The President and the People

July 11, 2008

During my hiatus of a summer teaching engagement in Berlin, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. I took the occasion to send an email to an old friend, who now worked training dogs to work with immigration control agents.

Here’s what I wrote: “How about Obama? These are wondrous political times to be living through. America is possibly on the verge of a Black president, who seems a bit like the second coming of JFK?! We are in for a hell of a ride, I tell you.”

My dog-training friend responded as follows: I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm regarding politics. I wouldn’t call it wondrous, more like something I stepped in at the Canine Center. Don’t put Obama on such a high pedestal, the fall hurts more.”

The Political Times Versus the Political Candidate

I have thought a lot about that email exchange in the last few days, as it gets to the very core of what Obama’s presidency might mean for America. It is vital to begin by clearly stating that my friend’s response missed the fundamental point that I was trying to make in my email. My email was not meant to suggest that Obama himself, nor his politics, were wonderful and energizing. Rather I was trying to say that the political times seemed to be wondrous and full of portent. My email was not praising person, Obama, nor putting him on a pedestal, but rather was celebrating the current mood of the country, and the way that Obama seems somehow connected to a deeper force moving through the people. There is a distinction between

1) the goals and ideas of a specific candidate, and

2) the deeper mood and desires of the people themselves who become inspired by a candidate,

It is that distinction that raises some interesting points about the role of a President is, and about the relationship between a democratic president and the people he ostensibly “leads.”

America’s Political Times: 1960s Redux?

Now this may all seem rather mysterious, so let me be more clear about what I call “a deeper force moving through the people.” Here are some facts about today’s deeper force. About 4 million new voters have already voted for their first time in the 2008 Democratic primaries—a record-shattering number. Hillary Clinton, the clear front-running establishment candidate in the Democratic primaries, was upended by a completely unpredicted surge of anti-establishment and passionate Democratic voters. These activists exploded onto the political scene in a cacophony of “new voter” projects and similar innovations across the blogosphere that are redefining how Americans communicate and network. Many of these new voters and blogosphere dwellers are young—part of the surging generation of “Millenials” (18-29 year olds) who are now the largest demographic in American history and who are just now coming into their own politically (see previous posts of “The Obama Generation” and “Millenials Rising”). With the rise of this demographic, the center of gravity in American politics has shifted downwards—towards a younger, fresher, more energized electorate than we have seen in decades.

It is the convergence of these varied new forces that have upended American politics and put the nation on the verge of electing not only its first Black president, but also one of its youngest presidents, and one who hails from a grass-roots community organizing background to boot. Something unusual and dramatic is brewing, and one cannot deny the powerful youthful energies surging through the country, whether or not one supports the Obama candidacy. Support it or not—it represents something real and meaningful moving through the American electorate.

What may be happening is perhaps not so different than what happened in America in the 1960s. In the 1960s America also witnessed an exploding youth generation (The Baby Boomers), a surge in civic activism, and a youthful president (Kennedy) who symbolized and energized youthful energies across the country. If we are repeating some of those historic patterns, Obama, like Kennedy, can be seen as less of a directive leader, who will govern America with a specific platform and agenda from above, and more of a energizing catalyst, who will influence America by inspiring passionate and unpredictable political forces in the broader community. Obama in this way is not so much offering America a specific platform and set of policies but is rather offering Americans a way to buy into and become part of a growing sea of social movements and community organizing projects surging in their communities. Some people may be unnerved by this growing wave of new voters and community activists–asking “Who are These People, Anyway?”–but there is no denying they are here, and they are fired up.

Experience a bit of the mood of it all in these two videos.

People have become inspired by the Obama campaign, by its invitation to people to organize their own events and community organizing teams, and by the way it has inspired millions of young people to directly involve themselves in politics teams (remember the famous “Yes We Can” video? It was created independently of the Obama campaign).

Letting the Political Genie Out of the Bottle

Where will it all go? That won’t be up to Obama. As president Obama might serve as a catalyst for community activism—but he won’t be its director and will not be able to direct its course.

In this, too, it’s not so different than what Kennedy faced. When Kennedy was elected as a representative of a surging youth movement, and when he gave his famous inaugural calling on Americans to step up, get involved, and “ask what you can do for your country,” he could not have predicted the forces he was helping to set into motion. In fact, he was inspiring forces like James Farmer, a leader of the new Congress Of Racial Equality, who (in the words of Kennedy’s biographer) “had been inspired by Kennedy’s words about change and freedom. He was convinced that this new President wanted to end American segregation” (see Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, p. 123). And so Farmer worked with others to organize dramatic civil rights protests, such as the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses deep into the south, knowing that they would face violence and police riots. Farmer was certain that the President was with him…so he did it.

Kennedy might have believed in ending segregation, but the record shows that he DID NOT support direct political action such as Farmer’s civil rights protests in order to speed desegregation along. It didn’t matter. Across the country people, especially young people, had been inspired by the IDEAS and SPIRIT that Kennedy represented, and they were on the move—with or without their president. As the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protests took off in the 1960s, Kennedy was worried that they were pushing too far, too fast. He called his political advisors and said “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them!” (Reeves, p. 125). But nobody could stop the growing tide of activism—not even the president who helped inspire it. When Kennedy’s advisor called one Freedom Rider and asked her to slow it down, she replied that “nothing could stop them now. We’re going to show those people in Alabama who think they can ignore the President of the United States” (Reeves, p. 126).

Here’s how Kennedy’s biographer, Richard Reeves, describes the president’s response:

“The President they were quoting actually wanted them to go back home, and did not understand the reach and resonance of his own owords. People were listening to him in a way they listen only to a president. The country was moving again. Kennedy would have to catch up or try pt stop this parade….The travelers on the road to freedom were not listening to the [President’s Advisor’s] words. They thought they had heard John Kennedy’s music.” (134).

Citizen Direct Action: The Coming Storm

This phenomenon is exactly what I referring to in my email to my friend. Across the nation, young voters and community activists are hearing Barack Obama’s music, and responding to the “reach and resonance” of his words. Radio shows are filled with community organizers talking about how they have built an organization of activists through Obama’s campaign, they have built connections between people, and how they intend to stay organized and active even after the election.

In Denver, one Obama organizer on the July 10th KGNU radio show “Swing State” was asked:

“What will it mean to have organized all those people and created all this energy, after the election? What will happen after the election? Will Obama just expect all these people to go home, so he can govern?

She answered: “What we hope to happen is a critical mass of organized people who will be able to hold the next president accountable to their values and goals. Community organizing gives people the tools, so they are not just individuals cheering for a political team, but are organized activists, working together to make things happen.”

This kind of language suggests a storm of community action to come, whether Obama wins or not, and whether he supports the coming storm or not. The Obama campaign has resonated in the people and catalyzed a broader movement—and in this, the power of the presidency is revealed to be far greater than often discussed in America’s classical founding documents and in the textbooks.

Presidential Powers Reconsidered

Certainly most of America’s Founding Fathers did not see the president as a catalyzing agent of broad social movement. The Framers’ Federalist Papers on the subject of presidential leadership generally describe the president as a fairly weak and detached leader, responding to the initiatives of Congress, and certainly not firing up the people with calls for direct action. The Framers didn’t imagine a president with the kind of resonating and emotional connection to the people that some modern presidents seem to have represented.

Still today, the modern textbooks tend to miss something about this role of the President. Review political science textbooks and you will find a great deal of attention on the powers of the President— and these powers (such as the veto power, personnel appointment powers, the power to speak to the public on TV, etc.) are seen as something the President uses to achieve his agenda, to move his policies through Congress, and to bring the nation together around his priorities. There is rarely attention to a different kind of power and role of the President—the power to catalyze a national mood (as Reagan arguably did in the Conservative 1980s) and the power to energize social movements that fundamentally transform the country (as Kennedy did in the 1960s). And there is no attention to the way in which the people can use the presidency and its evocative powers to advance the people’s agenda, the people’s policies, and the people’s priorities.

These kinds of populist powers inherent in the modern presidency are slippery in that they aren’t fully “under the command” of the President, and they often inspire actions far beyond the control of the President–but they are true and real powers of a president and his campaign, nonetheless, these powers to evoke and powers to call forth.

What we are seeing in 2008 is the mysterious unfolding of a new surge in democratic activism, and this surge cannot be separated from the Presidential candidate whose “music” has inspired the hopes of so many. No one knows where it goes from here—and that is what I meant when I wrote my friend that we are living in wondrous political times, and in for a hell of a ride.