Monday, June 02, 2008

Conversation Recap for June 2, 2008

We met as a smallish group on this cloudy day.

Our topic today is race and gender in the current political contests. So we asked people to come up with the “most irritating moment” in the campaigns and the coverage during the last few weeks.

One participant recounted the tale of a superdelegate from our state who recently made a move in the direction of Clinton. An email barrage erupted urging people to berate this person, and to send her entreaties to change back. The level of enmity seems to make people forget that people get to make decisions.

One participant told a story that brought the themes together—it is a dead end to try to decide whether the race or gender features of the election are more important. Where would this go—if you vote for Obama you are sexist, and if you vote for Clinton you are racist? And people get to criticize candidates without being labeled as racist or sexist.

For example, the recent media coverage of the priest who spoke at a Chicago church (yes, that Chicago church) and accused Clinton of exercising white privilege. Interestingly, the same priest was interviewed at length on the topic of reverend Wright, and the tape of it sounds like a smart and perceptive person…. but then when he gets to Wright’s former congregation, he goes off. There is the possibility, one participant observed, that people lose a bit of their minds when the media cameras and microphones are pointed in their direction.

The media coverage focuses too much on candidate statements about minor matters not related to policy—Clinton finding hope in the possibilities of June, Obama examining links between class, guns and religion, and so on.

Does anyone trust the statements of people who say they will vote this way or that, especially in response to the bitter fight within the Democratic party. The media attention is on the infighting, not policy. How many remember the divisive coverage, encouraged by the campaigns, of how the conflict in the economy is between white women looking for jobs, African Americans looking for jobs, and white working class voters looking for jobs? The media and some campaigns frame issues as confrontations between such groups, rather than looking at shared interests.

We discussed media content for a bit. One participant subscribes to both the TNT and the New York Times, and the former often runs stories from the latter—the headline pitch and the placement are usually quite different.

Is party identification (one’s loyalty to one of the major political parties) really durable? Do other features, like color, gender and class, trump party identification? We told anecdotal stories about immigrant groups that have been defined in part with reference to the color line. And there are plenty of anecdotal stories about individual voters, of whatever background, saying they will stay home, undervote or cross to McCain if Obama is the nominee.

There is a whole lot we do not know about this situation, because we have never seen it before. What will a campaign do? We can not expect the mass media to understand what all is going on and listen to, and report, whatever new developments emerge because of the unusual choices we face.

One participant received emails from a group of people, mostly white men, who find all sorts of reasons to not like Obama. These are fairly cosmopolitan people of means who see the world, etc.—there is a segment of our society that can perhaps never be moved on such a question.

We discussed the way the media categorize people—recall the dustup in the media, fed by Clinton advisors, that Appalachian voters (called white, working class) will not support Obama. How does this play into the election? We never have had the discussion of a real choice—Chris Rock could joke about insincere statements of support for Colin Powell, but it was an idea that did not get tested. (One story: Powell finally decided to not run when his wife told him the risk of his assassination was too great.)

One participant reported feeling hopeful one day, and feeling set up for a big disappointment the next. Recall what Dexter said in an earlier meeting—that this country has to go through race, it can’t go around it. And so this election offers a chance to do some of that, if Obama is the nominee.

One participant shared how gardening is good, when the media coverage just gets to be too much.

One interesting part of this experiment—are younger people more open, or in a more interesting place on the color line, than is the average person? Will a youth effect be stronger along the Coasts, or the West Coast, compared to states like Colorado? Areas like Appalachia do have pockets, towns that defy the stereotypes.

One participant told us about a documentary, Kilowatt Ours (see the website at that is another version of the Thomas Franks “What’s the Matter With Kansas” argument. The documentary includes the idea that people whose economic interests are not looked after by anyone will go toward culture issues when they vote. BTW, Franks missed some important features of Kansas politics—poorer Kansas voters have been going less and less for Republicans over the last quarter century, and Democrats are much more likely to have the state legislative seats in districts with larger proportions of poor residents.

One participant, while discussing the way class can figure in our politics, recalled the film Harlan County (see the description on IMDB at, which says this about the movie: “This film documents the coal miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June, 1973. Eastovers refusal to sign a contract (when the miners joined with the United Mine Workers of America) led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between gun-toting company thugs/scabs and the picketing miners and their supportive women-folk. Director Barbara Kopple puts the strike into perspective by giving us some background on the historical plight of the miners and some history of the UMWA.”). We do see in the media accounts of how distinct are poor, white Appalachian (or other area) voters, and connect that with racism. Perhaps one important piece of political identity in such areas is class. And it would be nice to have a good conversation about class in our politics.

One participant suggested that among the things that motivate people to vote, and to vote one way or another, is their judgment of whether a candidate is a person who will most likely look after my interests (as opposed to, for example, going down a list of issues and adding them up). BTW, there is pretty strong evidence this is true: Arthur H. Miller,, “Schematic Assessment of Presidential Candidates,” The American Political Science Review 80 (1986) No. 2, pp. 521-40.

One participant noted that most young people do not know much about the history of the color line in America—for example, just the other evening one young person did not know about our history of marriage laws prohibiting whites and black from marrying, and defining who is white and black.

We talked a bit about the possibility of the Obama/Clinton ticket, at different times in the conversation. No one thought it was a good idea, or would work, or is likely.

Others have mentioned evidence that the rest of the world would see us very differently if Obama became president.

One participant raised the possibility that the country does not want to confront the idea that the USA is changing, and is not going to look at the way it has, or does not. An interesting comparison of this is Canada, which has made a conscious effort to have a discussion about diversity, has a government commission to study it, keep it in the news, and tweak its constitution with respect to issues that came up.

We discussed identity issues a bit, and one participant shared there are a lot of parts of our lives that serve as anchors of identity. People shared their perceptions of living in diverse neighborhoods, what things are like in the neighborhood surrounding our meeting place, visits to Canada, and Oakland. People shared stories about their observations of families, some suggesting there are trends here.


There is a possibility of having a “Courage and Renewal” retreat, say in September, at the Conversation. More to come about this.