Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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President Barack Obama’s reelection, despite the weaknesses in his record, points to the future of American society. What we have witnessed tonight is the politics of the old and the politics of the new, at the same time. Obama’s victory shows how traditional political actors and new arrivals are, together, shaping power. The Republican ticket lost, quite simply, because it left too many behind and it ignored too many new arrivals.

The politics of old is the continuing power of the Rustbelt states filled with traditional auto workers, teachers, small town business-owners, and middle-income retirees. These mostly white voters came out in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa to give President Obama the key votes he needed for reelection. He promised empathy and fairness, rather than the managerial flash offered by the wealthy CEO of Bain Capital. Wall Street might attract elite college graduates from fancy universities, but it does not command popular support from the center of the country, and it probably never will.

The politics of the new is the arrival of so many untraditional voters in presidential elections. These are Latino citizens in California, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. Soon Latino voters will shape outcomes in Texas and Arizona too. The more vocal voters also include women, especially educated and professional women, who have become a larger part of the electorate than men. Young voters are also making their voices heard, many voting for the first time in this election.

President Obama won the overwhelming majority of all of these “new” voters, as did many other Democratic Senate candidates in Massachusetts and Indiana. The Republicans ignored and often alienated most of these voters. Mitt Romney is probably the least popular presidential candidate among women and minority voters since Barry Goldwater almost fifty years ago.

Politics is always about strange bedfellows. For all the talk of partisan divides, the real story is about the new combinations and partnerships emerging before our eyes. Rustbelt workers, women, Latinos, and the youth are the new center of gravity in American politics. President Obama brought these groups together with great success in the 2012 presidential election. The question now is if he can covert this coalition into a force for effective governance. President Obama’s skills in leveraging the mix of the old and the new will define his second term, and the future of our country.

 

This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

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American political leadership today is more religiously diverse than ever before. This reflects a tectonic shift that has occurred in the last half-century, but received very little analysis. For all the evidence of stagnation, partisanship, and elitism in American politics, the top offices in the country have become more open to religious minorities than ever before. With Representative Paul Ryan’s selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate this year, the New York Times (8/14/12) observes “not one person in a group of top political jobs – the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of both parties, the Supreme Court justices, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader – is a white Protestant.” That’s correct: not a single white Protestant male in the presidential race, on the Supreme Court, or in the leadership of the House or the Senate!

 

This world was completely unimaginable for Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. They had each witnessed the deep anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of mainstream American institutions, including universities, corporations, government offices, and social clubs. They had seen how national voters rejected one of the most skilled politicians of early twentieth century America, Governor Alfred Smith of New York, in part because of his Catholic beliefs.

 

In 1956 two of the most prominent writers in the United States, sociologist C. Wright Mills and journalist Richard Rovere, wrote scathing books attacking the narrow-mindedness of American leaders. They blamed the racism, inequality, and Cold War militarism of American society on what Rovere called an “Establishment” of like-thinking White male Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) who shared schools, churches, families, and ideas. Brothers of the “Establishment” promoted one another and a vision of the United States that benefited their kind disproportionately, Rovere alleged. In even more radical words, Mills diagnosed the “Power Elite” as a cabal to make democracy and capitalism serve the few, not the many.

 

One can disagree with the tone of Rovere and Mills, but they had evidence on their side. American political leaders looked nothing like they do today. They were, almost without exception, WASPs in the 1950s. The real question was whether one was Presbyterian (Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles) or Episcopalian (Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson). John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the first Catholic president was indeed a breakthrough, but he continued to surround himself with figures from the traditional Protestant backgrounds.

 

Why did this matter? Historians have analyzed that question in depth. Some of the best scholars on the subject (including William Inboden, Andrew Preston, David Hollinger, Seth Jacobs, and Robert Dean) have shown that mainline Protestantism encouraged a sense of national mission in the postwar struggle against atheistic communism. Historians have also analyzed how religious faith informed international networks of aid and support. It mattered enormously to mainline Protestants that the Chinese Nationalists were Christian and the Chinese Communists were not.

 

The social and political upheavals of the 1960s discredited the WASP near-monopoly on political power in the United States. A new generation of well-educated and ambitious non-Protestant Americans asserted a right to rule. A more international non-Protestant group of figures pushed their way into power by talent, money, and selective patronage. That is the story of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, and Paul Wolfowitz – all of whom would have been excluded from political power in 1950s America. No one in Eisenhower’s America could have imagined a presidential contest between an African-American incumbent and a Mormon challenger, each of whom has Catholic running-mates.

 

The end of the WASP “Establishment” has meant a more open American political system. Many are still excluded and money often talks louder than talent. Nonetheless, we should take note of this tectonic opening, as well as the evidence of adaptability in the American political system, and think about ways to enhance these qualities for better policy-making in the future.

 

Can we imagine new ways to open the system for less-monied interests? Can we imagine new ways to incorporate other non-Protestant, non-Catholic, and non-Jewish perspectives that would enhance the effectiveness of American policies around the world? The United States is an evolving political experiment, and as James Madison predicted, the continual evolution of a pluralistic society is messy but necessary. All we can do is take inspiration from our recent past to push for more openness and change, not less. At their core, Americans are an “anti-Establishment” people.

 

This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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