Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the death of tribalism

The mayoral election here in New York City was far closer than anyone predicted, and with the mayor achieving re-election, having outspent his opponent 16 to 1, it's rather pathetic that the margin of victory was about four points.

On the other side, many in the Democratic Party are wondering what might have been -- with a candidate that so many left for dead months ago (one who, it must be admitted, played possum perhaps a bit too well), it seems like not much effort in getting higher voter turnout or finding funds for a slightly more robust advertising campaign just might have made the difference.
Check Spelling
The Times' postmortem strikes an odd oblivious note
, wondering how it could be that the Democratic Party suffers at the ballot box, despite overwhelming advantages on paper.
The mystery of Democrats’ mayoral failures is considerable, not the least to Democrats. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about five to one in New York City, and unemployment is in the double digits, with joblessness among black males near 50 percent.

“This was a winnable race, no two ways about it,” said Bill de Blasio, who was elected public advocate. “The first and most dominant factor was Bloomberg’s spending. But the spending was a double-edged sword, as it thoroughly alienated people.”

Mr. Thompson, too, had the advantage of a considerable racial and ethnic base, which has been gold to city candidates for close to two centuries. And the city’s economy was listing toward the water line. “The conditions were there all along for a formidable challenge to the mayor,” said Andrew Breslau, an observer of city politics and the executive director of City Futures, a nonpartisan urban policy group. “There was class resentment in this economically fraught time.”

And yet, once again, Democrats struggled to run an effective mayoral campaign.
The article is quick to list the reasons, which include a broken political machine, and high-level defectors seduced by the incumbent's effectiveness, which trumped party loyalty. But in all it sounds a bit like someone wondering why newspapers aren't flourishing, now that paper is so cheap.

The problem isn't this particular match up, it's the larger dynamic shifts in the electorate -- such as it is (turnout, as always, was in the toilet).

What we are witnessing is the logical outcome of a fractured polis and the ascendancy of niche identities. The repeated refrain from Virginia and elsewhere was that without the President's name on the ballot, younger voters simply weren't interested.

But what about the fact that perhaps the President appealed to a movement that has been sorely lacking on the political stage: the appeal to a common cause. So often now we look for candidates that are demonstrably "one of ours"; voters are unwilling to reach across racial, ethnic, regional, or class divides to back a candidate because it's so much simpler to find the candidate that looks and sounds just like you.

No wonder the parties can't mobilize a credible "get out the vote" effort: how can you galvanize 20- or 30-year-olds to join a machine when every other element of their consumer culture is carefully calibrated to appear to be customized?

This isn't some misguided appeal to Cold War conformity; but just as forty years or more have been expended in attempting to add imagination into the public sphere -- allowing for a portrayal of American identity that is diverse -- we now have to shift that imagination within ourselves, and strike allegiances outside of our comfort zones. Can we get the majority of fellow citizens to commit to political action (as simple as casting a ballot) for a larger ideal: not necessarily the enactment of the agenda we want, point for point, but the enactment of an agenda on the part of a representative government that reflects the participation of a majority of its citizens?

That is the only future we have if we're to reject narrow tribalism that lurks in the shadows.

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