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Let’s Celebrate U.S. Electoral Politics, Just for a Moment

- February 26, 2008

At the risk of appearing naïve, complacent, conservative, or old (are those the same thing?), I want to use this post to celebrate a few features of the American political system. We are in the middle of an engrossing presidential campaign which seems to be deeply important, genuinely democratic, and peaceful. The current president is not, so far as we know, secretly subverting the process of democratic decision-making; the military is staying out of the picture; citizens do not fear for their livelihoods or lives if they get involved in tense political contests; and we are all confident that after a (way too long) period of campaigning, we will have a new president. All of that in some sense self-evident and boring. But that is the point; in many countries, a hotly contested free and fair election is not to be taken for granted. Pakistan and Kenya are recent painful reminders of that fact.

This election cycle also offers more particular features to celebrate. The leading contenders for the presidency are a liberal Black (or multiracial, depending on your taste) man, a liberal White woman, and a conservative who resists bashing illegal immigrants, who as nonvoters are tempting targets. Despite the worries of, among others, my colleague Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, participation of young adults in the campaign is very high (for examples of evidence, click here and here). Despite continuing concerns about the disproportionate impact of the wealthy on campaigns and elections, Obama is raising tens of millions of dollars from small donations (click here for an example). Despite widespread evidence that politics is increasingly a matter of consultants and media buys rather than deliberation and passion, grassroots organizing appears to be making a difference (click here for an example).

Finally, we can celebrate this election cycle because it is a full employment policy for political scientists who study American politics. Which, if any, of the apparent trends in the newspaper articles cited above hold up under closer and more systematic scrutiny? What is the role of nationality, region, class, gender, campaign strategy, or immigration history in explaining Latinos’ votes? How do we explain Obama’s strange-bedfellows coalition of Blacks, nonpartisan Independents, and well-educated liberal Republicans – or Clinton’s equally surprising coalition of Latinos, working-class White men, and severely cross-pressured liberal feminists? Do voters think of Obama as Black, multiracial, an immigrant, or a secret Muslim – and does it matter? Why did illegal immigration suddenly emerge as a crucial problem last year and just as suddenly disappear from the Republican primaries? How did the religious right get largely shut out of the Republican primaries after playing such an important role for years in national elections? Why did the issue of class, at least as personified by John Edwards, have so little traction? How did the new timing of caucuses and primaries shape the momentum of this election? And what on earth are the candidates supposed to do between March and their summer convention? We can confidently anticipate many dissertations and journal articles on these and other deviations from the wisdom offered by conventional political science.

If Obama wins the nomination, or even the presidency or a second term, racism and racial hierarchy will not disappear from the United States. If Hillary Clinton wins, sexual hierarchy and exploitation will not disappear. No matter who wins, the United States remains an imperialist nation mired in a disastrous war; global warming still threatens polar bears and low-lying coastal communities; and girls are still being raped in Darfur. Nevertheless, when we quietly give our names and addresses to smiling blue-haired women or no-haired men, then vote in our primaries and go home to make supper, we should take just a moment to recognize how extraordinary is the event in which we are participating.