Next steps for president-elect Obama and We the people

[Cross-posted on Berkman's Internet & Democracy blog]

Today an outstanding panel gathered at Harvard Law School to discuss Obama’s election and the next steps for Obama’s administration and the American people: “In Order To Form a More Perfect Union: Next Steps for President-Elect Obama and For We the People”. Panelists included:

* Douglas Blackmon, Atlanta Bureau Chief, Wall Street Journal
* Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
* David Gergen, Professor of Public Service, Harvard Kennedy School; CNN Political Commentator
* Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
* Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Harvard University
* María Teresa Petersen, Executive Director, Voto Latino
* William Weld, Partner, McDermott Will & Emery LLP; Former Governor of Massachusetts

Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Executive Director of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice acted as moderator. He opened the discussion by asking panelists how we should assess the election of Barack Obama.

According to David Gergen, Obama’s election was the best organized campaign seen in years. Obama succeeded beyond the impossible by running a very strategic campaign and by putting together a first class team. He was especially successful in mobilizing Black, Latinos and young voters. (Interestingly, Gergen mentions how Kerry increased the youth vote by 9% and Obama by 35%). Gergen emphasized the great fear of excessive expectations now that Obama is in power – not just in the US, but also in Europe where people are seeing Obama’s election as a sign of hope for change in their home countries too.

Lainie Guinier echoed Gergen’s assessment of the campaign by stressing how Obama’s success in mobilizing people is something which has never been seen on the Left (she juxtaposed this to the Right’s mobilization of evangelicals). For Guinier the challenge now is to keep the ‘movement’ going, where by movement she did not mean special interest group or national leaders, but keeping in motion the organization that Obama put in place.

Sociologist Orlando Patterson expanded on some of his thoughts which he wrote up in this NYT op-ed the day after the election. For Prof. Patterson, Obama’s election should be seen as the triumph of the public sphere and of American democracy. It should not be seen as a radical change but as the culmination of a process: the success of American hybridism, cultural capital fusing and generating America. For Patterson Obama is very much a character of that process. He went on to stress what for him is now the biggest paradox of American society: with Obama’s election black Americans are now fully included in the public sphere but they remain totally excluded from the private sphere. Segregation has worsened in the last decades: schools are more segregated now than in the 1970s and black Americans remain the most endogamous group (less than 10% of unions with other races). For Prof. Patterson the biggest and most fascinating question for him as a sociologist is now: Do black Americans now want to assimilate?

Maria Teresa Petersen explained the election from the Latino community’s point of view – according to Hillary Clinton’s campaign Latinos would have never voted for a black candidate, and this was wrong. Obama got their vote because he was talking about the issues that Latinos care about. Petersen stressed how Obama went into the neighborhoods in a way that no other candidate ever did by focussing on issues such as the education gap, which do not only matter to Latinos but to all Americans. For Petersen the three priorities for Obama are (1) the need to address the education gap (2) to ensure that candidates do reflect Latino communities and (3) that Democrats in general need to solidify the Latino base by identifying different congressional seats to bring Latinos into leadership positions, thus creating a Latino agenda. Conversely, for Petersen Republicans need to figure out whether they should continue with someone like Palin with a really narrow base or whether they need to open up to embrace American diversity.

According to Alan Dershowitz, Obama’s primary responsibility now is to the future of the entire country and the entire free world. For Dershowitz Obama did not win because he was black, but because he was an extraordinay candidate who transcended labels, who needed to present himself as the most qualified to do the job. For Dershowitz Obama now has to figure out a way of governing very differently from the past and  needs to restore integrity to governance. Ogletree went on to ask the panel to answer two more questions: (1) Are we now in a post-racial era? (2) What is the lasting impact of Sarah Palin?

Douglas Blackmon emphasized how during the campaign there were no extreme racial attacks in the press and asked whether that means we moved into a post-racial period. For Blackmon, Obama is as much a product of the times we are in and he is also the creator of these times. Blackmon went on to state that Obama’s most appealing attributes which comforted white voters was the fact that he projected this tremendous sense of reliability and that people believe he is restoring reliability to government. His policy positions may not be completely clear but in people’s eyes he is a candidate of unity and reliability. For Blackmon, Obama brought a new sense of sobriety but if he remains under pressure for perpetual campaigning, there is arisk of creating conflict and unhappiness.

David Gergen took on the question of whether Sarah Palin is here to stay. For Gergen, Palin may have a future in the Republican party, but hopefully they will find alternatives and move forward. Gergen stressed how for him the most distressing thing about the Palin phenomenon was that she came to represent a sense of willful ignorance about the world, the sense that ideas and understanding and knowledge don’t matter. Gergen stressed how on the contrary it is valuable to the country to have an alternative set of ideas and challenging stand points, so conservativism has a role to play in society. Gergen went on to comment how we need the most talented and most thoughtful people in government. Gergen sees the new Obama administration as an opportunity to revive public service: just as JFK was a magnet for the younger generation to come and serve, Obama has the potential to revive public services, especially given that both Obamas were active in these insitutions, and Michelle Obama really committed to this as First Lady. For Gergen the important question is: how do we make public service more attractive to graduates and young people all over the country?

Maria Teresa Petersen went then back to the question of whether we live in a post-racial era, by stating that it is of great concern if we say we are now in such an era era, as this would obfuscate the fact that there are still huge racial inequalities. She made this point by stating that according to FBI data 65% of all hate crimes were committed against Latinos. Although this statement was contentious (especially after we checked the FBI table she may have been taking her data from, which shows that the majority of hate crimes are perpetuated against blacks) – Petersen rightly emphasised the need for real conversations on continuing racial inequalities.

Lani Guinier took issue with David Gergen by arguing that we need to redefine what it means to be talented. For Guinier being talented means working together towards shared purposes, not being the smartest person in the room. For Guinier it is necessary to bring in the perspective of communities and to have a collective intelligence. She stated that having a black attorney general is not simply a plus, but it means having access to different sources of information. For Guinier, it is not individuals wich are diverse, it is groups of people are diverse, so creating a diverse group of people is more effective than hiring talented individuals and aggregating them.

Orlando Patterson followed up on this by asking whether we should emphasize issues rather than identities? As Petersen stressed earlier, for Patterson Obama did well with Latinos because he addressed issues rather than addressing them as ethnic group, therefore issues were more important than identities. Patterson recalls how Obama addressed this in his book “Audacity of Hope”. Prof. Patterson explains how there was a shift in American policies regarding the poor over the years – in the 60s and before, during Roosevelt era poverty was a national issue and a national problem. After the mid-60s the emphasis was shifted to targeting groups to resolve problems and poverty became racialized. This for Patterson was not the best approach in the long run. Obama said his approach will be more universal – indeed, Patterson highlights how the issue of incarceration for example concerns both black and Latinos.

Lani Guinier picked up the conversation by arguing that this election was a triumph for participatory democracy – for Guinier voting is not enough: you need to participate after the elections – she stressed that  while people are concerned that this is an echo of the perpetual campaign, she argues that participatory democracy is a different thing, and is a way for people to get involved in the decisions that affect their lives. This process is valuavle for Guinier because Washington must have access to the expertise of people who live the experiences not just to those who study them. She cites different models of participatory democracy: participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies.  For Guinier, democracy is an ongoing process, election is a moment, but it is not the only moment to make choice: we need people to get much more involved so that they can have confidence in the outcome because they participated to make it happen. The audience asked several question. An interesting one focused on whether Obama is moving America to the centre-left.

Alan Dershowitz replied by stating that we live in a centre-right world. For him, Bush created terrible pressure around the world. Right wing parties everywhere got elected in Europe after Bush, except in Spain because of the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Madrid. For Dershowitz it would be a mistake for Obama’s administration to say we are trying to move centre- left. Governor Weld agreed with the statment that America is a centre-right country, much more conservative (and unattractively so!) (He remarked how If you go to a southern or Midwest state you would be hearing very different conversations than the one had here today! But Obama won Indiana and North Carolina so change is on its way!

Orlando Patterson concluded by asking – what is the centre? For him, we may be entering a phase when certain programs will be implemented such as health insurance which will become the centre and the centre would then move left. Two final interesting remarks came from Blackmon and Guinier – Blackmon mentioned again how Obama does not want to talk about race per se and does not want to be the champion of symbolic issues. Guinier concluded by stressing how this election should serve as a moment of empowerment not just for black but for whites too – Obama is not the president of black America, he is the president of the US – therefore, he will address race as something that we need to use as an analytic tool. All in all this was a truly terrific panel, addressing timely and fascinating issues.

About Corinna

Corinna di Gennaro (BSc LSE; MPhil, DPhil, Oxon) is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School.
This entry was posted in All, Political Participation, Social Capital, The Internet and Society, US elections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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