Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On Uncontested Districts and Cronyism

Salon.com has a good article entitled "Rise of the New Black Leaders" going through the history of black uncontested districts and the cronyism that followed. Just as inner city blacks have become frustrated with cronyism and in large part stopped voting for political machines simply because they are black, perhaps now is the time that urban Americans will become frustrated with that trend within the Republican Party.
In fact, Barbara Lee, who replaced Dellums as Oakland's congressional representative in 1998, thinks that the very middle-class values growing among California's black professionals may be critical to a Democratic resurgence in 2006. All the worst qualities of the old black urban machines -- cronyism, incompetence, gerrymandering -- are the hallmarks of George W. Bush's presidency and his supporters in the House of Representatives.

Just as a black middle class is turning its back on such politics locally, so the American middle class is wondering how long the country can tolerate such ineptitude, arrogance and fiscal irresponsibility. If leaders like Lee can link middle-class desires for good government with the basic aspirations of the urban poor, the great gulf between Reagan Democrats and the identity politics of the civil rights era may finally be resolved.

"The shock and outrage at what we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was widely felt, and is strong evidence that people believe that we all have a stake in the kind of society we live in," Lee told Salon. "Coalition politics is about expanding opportunity, fostering prosperity, and valuing diversity. And that is a message that the majority of Americans believe in."

Such analysis is exactly why so many Democratic leaders have pinned their hopes for resurgence on Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. In the last two years, the senator has emerged from the South Side of Chicago as an old-fashioned Truman Democrat, a foreign-policy hawk whose liberal domestic politics are focused on protecting and rebuilding the middle class. When he speaks of his vision for America, he doesn't dwell on the country's history of racism or exploitation, and he doesn't flog his personal journey as an African-American. Instead, he speaks of possibility and American exceptionalism.

Standing at the crossroads of history, Obama said during his stirring speech at last year's Democratic National Convention, "I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair."

As the Republican leadership mortgages the country's future on debt, cronyism and religious divisiveness, Barack Obama may well become America's first truly national black politician.

What I see here on top of the changing culture in gerrymandered black districts, is a new ability to frame issues in a way that gives people a clear vision of the kinds of policies that are going to be pursued. The networks didn't carry Obama's DNC keynote address, perhaps this combined with Kerry's own inability to create any similar narrative lead to the confusion voters had with where Democrats stood on issues in 2004. Too many people didn't see Obama's inspiring and well framed DNC keynote address. Barbara Lee brings it back to essential core values, "expanding opportunity, fostering prosperity, and valuing diversity."

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