- by Stacey Prince
What did last week’s election mean to you? How did you feel about it? What do you think it signified for the future—for yourself, for the people you work with? Personally, I felt deflated. While I was relieved that WA state would continue to send a democratic Senator to DC, and happy to hear the news that the greatest number of out LGBT individuals in history were elected to public office, the rest of it was pretty demoralizing. With the GOP controlling Congress, I worry about what’s going to happen with healthcare reform (and their “no compromise” talk doesn’t help to allay those fears), immigration, and a return to big tax bailouts for the wealthy. I wonder if all of the hard won victories around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, domestic partner rights, and adoption by gay and lesbian parents will be repealed (and the Iowa debacle doesn’t help allay those fears). My fantasies of fleeing the country, quiescent since 2008, have returned.
But there is something more, a cultural shift that I am trying to grasp. After all of the tremendous excitement around the election of Barack Obama, what does it mean that just two years in, we can already see the end of this era? What does it say about racism in America, and the ever-widening resource gap between rich and poor, between Euro-Americans and people of color, between the wealthy white people at the top of that pyramid and the rest of us? To help me understand this sinking feeling in my stomach, I turned, of course, to the internet. I found two articles that helped me make sense of things.
The first article, by Jeff Chang, is called It’s bigger than politics, the real shift is cultural. Chang is the author of numerous articles and books about how culture impacts and often precedes political change. Chang sees this year’s election results as a clear indicator that the culture wars are still very much in play, despite some people’s assertion that Obama’s election in 2008 marked the beginning of a ‘post-racial era’. He points out that while baby boomers are 75% white, those under 18 years of age will become a majority non-white within the next decade. Boomers have the most to lose and to fear around “redistribution” of wealth and resources, and this manifests in battles over immigration, education, and “entitlement programs” such as Medicare. Chang points out that the political lines are now drawn not just along a racial divide, but along a generational one as well.
Chang also speaks to the Obama administration’s reticence to appear too “pro- people of color”. He states, “the administration… treats race the way it treats ‘the professional left’. It is sensitive to being perceived as too left, too pro-people of color”. While he says that behind the scenes, the administration is certainly pushing forward with needed reforms, their more public reticence to take a stand is that they have lost some of their young, non-white base. Further, with their aggressive stance on immigration enforcement and deportations, immigration has become a virulent wedge issue.
Finally, Chang speaks to the importance of culture in strategic change strategies. It is, he says, “where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. It is where the national imagination gets moved”. He points out, as others have, that the conservative right has always used culture to move their political agenda—whereas most progressives are much less able to integrate a cultural strategy into their work. He emphasizes the need for narrative and story-telling: that is where the public can connect, not through facts and figures, and culture, he says, can be a “dress rehearsal for political change”.
A second question to consider as we evaluate the election and its impact is how much cultural change did Obama’s election actually represent? Are we actually moving backwards, or just staying in place? While some touted Obama’s election as evidence of great progress, arguments about his national origin and false statements about his religion, revealed continued, underlying xenophobia and bigotry. Others seem to imply that he was elected because he was “the exception,” rather than because the country was truly ready to embrace a Black leader. We only have to look at the demographics of people in other positions of power to see that our country has not come all that far. Columnist Chris Santiago explores this issue in his article entitled Will the US Have Zero Black Senators in 2011? Quoting a Washington Post article, Santiago states that the milestone election of Obama “has not translated into a political renaissance for black candidates”. While he does point to a couple of electoral “avenues for hope,” overall his article indicates that the obstacles are still there, relatively unchanged from pre-Obama times (he points out that the picture is much better at lower office levels and in state legislative positions, but implies that it is still disproportionately challenging for those individuals to move into higher office).
As we move past the election, I want to encourage us as healers to think about how it might impact the people we work with—on a concrete, pragmatic level (such as healthcare reform or the lack thereof) as well as on cultural and emotional ones. I also want to think about how TJP can continue to hold the long view, and look beyond the victories and defeats of the current news cycle to long-term transformative change. The conclusion of Chang’s article is beautiful, poetic, and (I think) so apt for TJP that I wanted to reproduce it here:
“We need to take the long view. Electoral politics is episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movement-building must be constant, long-term, and transformative. It is not a cyclical task. It is work that reaches toward the horizon.”