Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Obama's Win: an instance of social change?

By Dr Dana Rosenfeld

So Barack Obama won – not by a landslide, but close enough, and certainly by a greater margin than many had predicted. This was, by all accounts, a historically unique election campaign. It was arguably the longest and the most expensive presidential campaign in American history, and one of the most contentious. It had on its slate the first African-American presidential candidate (and one of the youngest), one of the oldest candidates, and the second female vice-presidential candidate in American presidential politics. It galvanized the country, producing what may be the largest voter turnout in United States history; it brought young voters (aged 18-29 – a notoriously hard-to-mobilize group) to the polls in unprecedented numbers. It brought African-American voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers too: 97% of African-Americans registered to vote in the state of Georgia did vote. People who had never voted before – and this included people in their 80s, 90s, and above – voted in this election. It crossed party lines, racial lines, class lines, and gender lines in unexpected ways. It brought race to the fore, and, against the backdrop of the dire economic changes of the last few months, pushed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into the background. It is an election that will inspire discussions and debates for years to come. For we sociologists, there are many questions we can ask, but perhaps the most obvious one is: does this election, and its results, signify social change?

Obama ran on a platform of change: the country, he argued, needed new policies and new directions (and the country clearly agreed). But his platform was also based on a return to long-standing American ideals: a social contract forged on the basis of citizenship and not on gender, race, class, or other social divisions. In America, he argued (and the Republicans did not disagree, not could they), opportunities are open to all. So did Obama’s election change America, or represent it? Will Americans see his election as a change in the country, or as an example of its core character?

This was an election with consequences that were, only a few years ago, unthinkable. A relative political newcomer, and an African-American one at that, will now occupy the White House with his family. Again, is this a cause or an effect of social change? Is an African-American family in the White House, or an African-American president taking the oath of office or meeting with other world leaders, really a discordant image? Do Americans really care about the race of its elected officials? Was this election about race to begin with? Did people vote or against for Obama because of his race, or for or against McCain because of his? As with most instances of political (or any other kind of) decision-making, they are not yes-or-no questions; rather, they signify complex beliefs and understandings about competence, experience, integrity, the relevance of one’s personal biography and attributes to one’s ability to carry out one’s duties, and the like. In a very real sense, these are issues that inform all of our lives, as we make claims about ourselves: campaign, as it were, for jobs and social status and opportunities and even personal connections. These are matters very close to the heart of a core sociological interest in impression management and the production of social identity.

It could be argued, and has been, that Obama actively worked to make his campaign not about race; Obama’s race was noteworthy, but not a critical component of his worthiness as a candidate. Obama and his team – and, indeed, the entire country – worked to produce Obama’s race as relevant in its consequences (we now have an African-American president, and presidential family), but not relevant to those deciding for whom to cast their vote. In other words, Obama’s race was relevant because it was inherently irrelevant – that Obama got elected proved that race could be placed in the background, seen as an important element of self but not as a deal-breaker. In the end, Americans came together around economic issues; race was, it turned out, a much less significant criterion for voting decision-making than people had initially feared.

This is not to rob the African-American community of its hard-earned victory, or to dilute this victory’s social, political, cultural, and even emotional importance. In the aftermath of the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina (which was the disruption – the Bush administration’s failure to respond in anything approximating a responsible way was the disaster), an African-American president with such a strong popular backing is essential for rebuilding America’s image abroad, and for mending internal rifts. The African-American community has endured endless and unspeakable marginalization and worse over the past centuries, and Obama’s win reflects decades of this community’s dedicated political organizing, from the local and community level to corporate boardrooms and the halls of state and federal government. But the issue of how race played out in this election – how it was framed and used, the connections it forged, its symbolic value, and its social, political and cultural consequences – is, as with most social phenomena, extremely complex and, of course, sociologically fascinating.
Dissertation topic, anyone?

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