Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don't "save it for 2050"

Following the collapse of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic party's presidential nomination -- don't forget folks, you heard it here first -- last night The Atlantic published online an article from its September issue describing how it went down, replete with extracts from strategic memos and bitchy emails between her support staff.

It's not remarkable so much for the candid glimpse of Machiavellian scheming that we all know perennially animates -- and sometimes undermines, as in this case -- political endeavour, as it is for demonstrating how investigative journalism, as an example of the flow of information more broadly, has recently transformed. Astonishing how quickly this piece was put together, with the era of electronic communications enabling a rapid campaign post-mortem from materials that once could have taken years to assemble.

I was intrigued by one item in particular; the March 02007 memo (here in full) by Clinton's former chief strategist Mark Penn, which has been highlighted in the last day or two (NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico, and more) for recommending that the Clinton campaign portray Democratic rival Barack Obama as un-American:

All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.

Save it for 2050.

It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.

~Mark Penn, quoted in Joshua Green, "The Front-Runner's Fall", The Atlantic, September 02008.

Race, in this still stubbornly divided country, has inevitably emerged as a key issue in the current election. Penn's is a strategic comment -- he's speaking to what he believes will fly with American voters, as opposed to expressing his own preferences -- about the undesirability of claims to multicultural connection, in contrast to good old "fundamentally American" thinking and values. Whatever those are.

While others can say more profound things than I about the politics of identity in this presidential, er, race, I'm intrigued by the words "Save it for 2050". A member at MyDD, a group blog on progressive politics in the U.S. ("DD" stands for "direct democracy"), comments, "Its meaning is very clear, very clear", and provides links to several sources highlighting the demographic changes forecast over the next half-century (e.g., Angela D. Johnson, "In 2050, Half of U.S. Will Be People of Color", DiversityInc, 11 October 02006).

Penn knows which way the wind is blowing. A veteran pollster, public relations specialist and trendwatcher, in his 02007 book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, he says (pp. 63-64):

In the future, it seems, race will be less divisive than it was.
[A]part from needing our respect and support, interracial families of all sorts are owed our attention, because very quietly they are eroding the assumptions that have guided America's race-related policies, customs, and habits for decades.
One big theme of this book is that America is no longer a melting-pot -- that, rather, small groups are now defining themselves in sharper, starker distinction than ever before. To some degree, interracial families are an exception. For hundreds of years, this country had significant racial divisions, and now those divisions appear to be easing in some very significant ways. But at the same time, people can now express and choose their individuality not predetermined by race or creed or date of birth, but rather as an expression of their life experiences and beliefs. And Americans are learning how to be different and accept differences in new ways. Perhaps what makes interracial marriages such a good sign is that it shows how even old divisions can become unifying forces over time.

(He also notes, interestingly I think, that the first poll he ever made, at age 13, was on race relations [p. 61].)

Now, just to be up-front here, since this is a topic that's sensitive for many people (with good reason), my aim here is not to weigh in on the question of whether Mark Penn is racist or not. If that's your interest, please have at it. I just want to point out the tension between the race-indifferent future toward which he gestures in his book, and the dismissal of that same future in the cut and thrust of competition for the Democratic party's presidential nomination.

When he says "Save it for 2050", Penn is at once both acknowledging and dismissing the changes afoot in the United States. With his political realist hat on, he can simultaneously grant the intergenerational demographic shift towards a more complex idea of what "American" means, and assert its insufficiency to determine the Clinton-Obama contest in the latter's favour.

Well, so far he's been wrong on outcome, although sadly the tactic he recommended, namely playing on voters' past and present unease with difference, was not at all unusual.

Still, I'd like to see a political contest (or indeed, system) in which the anticipated shape of the country (or more broadly, polity) one or two or more generations hence was deemed essential to the success of the candidates.

This is not that contest, and the United States in 02008 is not that country. But we don't need Mark Penn to tell us that it will not always be thus: things are changing.

Let's not wait for 02050 to blow the meaning of "American" open: it is happening, and should happen, now.

The very best of luck to you, Senator Obama.

Update (13/08/08): CNN reports this evening on the latest evidence of demographic shift in America:

By 2050, minorities will be the majority in America, and the number of residents older than 65 will more than double, according to projections released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Minority children are projected to reach that milestone even sooner. By 2023 [i.e., fifteen years from now], the bureau said, more than half of all children will be minorities.
Obviously, the projections will have "very strong policy implications," [Dave Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau's population projection branch] said -- medical care for an increasingly elderly population, for instance, educational needs for increasing numbers of minority children and economic effects for the labor force."


Jake Dunagan said...

Great post. One quick comment: it has been pointed out, at times favorably [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/17/us/politics/17hawaii.html] and unfavorbly [http://news.aol.com/political-machine/2008/02/17/barack-obama-hawaiian-president/] , that Barack Obama would not only be America's first "black" president, but also its first Hawaiian president. On the latter point, it is important to look at the ethnic plurality of Hawaii yesterday and today as an early microcosm of the America of 02050. No one ethnic group in the majority, a true 'melting pot.' Obama doesn't have to wait until 02050 to understand these dynamics, he grew up with it. That is his (and Hawaii's) America today, and all of ours tomorrow.

Stuart Candy said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

There is that 2050 again! Come on bro, 2050 is ridiculously meaningless.

Stuart Candy said...

Alright, Jeff, I'm intrigued. What's your argument on this?