On a National Public Radio talk show today with Neil Conan, former President Jimmy Carter and various call-in guests celebrated the nomination of Barack Obama as part of a sea-change in American politics. It was alleged that a new generation of American voters will no longer see race as an inhibiting issue it terms of qualification to hold high office.
There are elements of truth to this analysis, but also elements of irrelevance and potential elements of national harm within the degree of truth therein.
First, there can be no doubt that not all Americans will be affected by such a sea change. There will always be Americans who will vote based on externalities, including race, sex, culture, etc. and some who will vote against a candidate based on the same sorts of criteria. This will always be true in any large heterogeneous society.
On the other hand, what is relatively new in American politics and culture is that young citizens in large numbers may be inclined to vote FOR candidates based on externalities such as race and gender, despite otherwise lack of real qualifications for political office. This is not different from the electability of the amiable dunce, Ronald Reagan, who was short on substance but long on style and won election and great popularity because of highly effective marketing.
Today’s younger generations of American voters are highly vulnerable to effective marketing. They are easily manipulated by superficialities such as the color of a cell phone, the social networking of internet communications, the hype of sex appeal, the glamour of cuteness, and other such superficialities. For such young persons, who were raised on marketing promoting ideas such as "Be like Mike (basketball star Michael Jordan), the multiracial origins of successful golfer Tiger Woods, the fashion statements of the Williams sisters in tennis, the wildly successful evolution of rap music, and similar cultural icons, there is no inhibition in voting for someone like Barack Obama who is young, cool, technologically savvy, smiles a lot, speaks well, and generates excitement through style.
In this way, yes, there is a sort of sea change in American politics. Multiculturalism, multi-racism, dark skin, non-traditional is now cool and reason itself for winning a vote. Minor frailties such as dishonesty, lack of experience, lack of substance are hardly even noticed, much less perceived as disqualification.
It could easily be argued that if Barack Obama was a white man, say like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, he would have a political career, but would not jump to the head of the class as he has. In today’s culture, Barack Obama is hot because he is perceived to be black.
Yet, the fact remains that Barack Obama is not a typical American black man. He hardly knew his biological father, who was an African man and not African American. Therefore, Barack Obama does not have the baggage of history and personal family experience that most African American men have. Barack Obama was born to an 18 year old idealistic white woman who married men of color as her preference. Barack’s mother was more ahead of her time than Barack himself is.
Having never experienced family life in an African American family, Barack Obama can campaign politically in a way unfamiliar to the sensibilities of most African American politicians such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have both run for the office of President of the U.S. Barack Obama is more like Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes than like Al Sharpton. And we all know what chances Alan Keyes had as presidential candidate because he did not have the flash, coolness, glamour and sex appeal of a Democrat candidate like Obama.
It is safe to say that if Barack Obama spoke heartily and forcefully of the Black Agenda he would not be a serious candidate for president, much less the nominee. And yet, the fact that Obama is nominee while ignoring the history of his people in his political speech, is taken intrinsically as sign of progress of the black people of America.
In short, Barack Obama is proof that the sea change in American politics is more superficial than substantive. The trick is to practice self-induced amnesia and dwell on the positives. Obama was smart, he was half white, he had white grandparents supporting him, he got sent to the Ivy League for his education, and he went on to great success in life at an early age. He learned how to play the game by the rules that favor success and he has won so far.
The real question is how will Barack Obama govern once elected. There is every reason to believe that he will behave himself and disappoint those followers who want radical change. How can he produce radical change when he is not radical, but cool?
A prominent bumper sticker one sees now and again states that great women did not obtain prominence because they were well behaved. The opposite is true for Barack Obama. He will lose his power if he forgets to behave himself.