Category Archives: citizenship

Obama’s historic election

barack-obama-hopeThe election of Saguaro’s Barack Obama as 44th, and first African-American president marks itself as a truly historic election.  It makes me immensely proud to be an American.

Some notes on the election:

1) voter turnout:  preliminary turnout projections put the numbers between 134 million (Curtis Gans, American U.) and 136.6 million Americans (Michael McDonald, GMU).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. [Some 30 million voted early and some 105 million were believed to have voted on election day.] This would translate into a voter turnout rate of somewhere around 64%, possibly exceeding the all time rate in 1960, or just below this rate.  [Curtis Gans notes on a Metro Connection interview that turnout was very high among Democrats, but actually lower in 2008 among Republicans; Gans notes that some states actually had lower turnout.  Gans notes that one shouldn’t compare votes cast to number of registered voters since once can manipulate turnout rates depending on how recently they cleaned the voter lists for people who moved or died.]  (You can see from below chart that after declining until 1996, it has shot up in the last 12 years).  [David King, of the Kennedy School believes that voter turnout, without counting the absentee ballots was 64.9%, matching the 1960 rates and could rise higher.)  One can see this as half-full or half-empty;  it is disconcerting that even in an election with such important consequences for the future of the nation, and with such compelling personalities (Obama and Palin), and with unprecedented sums spent on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, still over a 1/3 of all eligible Americans did not vote.  But nonetheless, it is a remarkable turnaround in the last 12 years.  Curtis Gans thinks that the trends of civic disengagement from voting are generally occurring and although he hopes Obama brings in a new era of civic engagement, he thinks we shouldn’t infer too much from a couple of close elections in 2000-2008.

presidential-turnout-rates

(Source: Michael McDonald, GMU)

2) youth vote:  Part of the story in the resurgence is youth voting.  We witnessed  huge increases in primary voting among younger voters 18-29 year olds (in many cases doubling or tripling number of youth votes 4-8 years ago in the primaries).  We have written  about what might be the beginning of a 9-11 Generation among youth, preliminary reports from CIRCLE were that youth 18-29 did not make up an increased percentage of voters in the 2008 general election [since all age groups were increasing their voter turnout, the youth’s share stayed constant at about 17%).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. But it appears that the youth are continuing to turn out at increasing rates (from 37% in 1996 to 41% in 2000 to 48% in 2004 to 49-54% in 2008). [CIRCLE is still projecting the youth turnout from the 2008 election; we’ll fill this in when they come in with a definite number, but it could be the second highest youth turnout ever since 1972 when it was 54.5%.]  David King at the Kennedy School says the data indicates it was the highest turnout for 18 year-olds since 1972. Whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation;  voting rates for youth are still significantly below voting rates for seniors, for example.  And young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama.  [See the NYT’s story “Youth Turnout up by 2 Million from 2004“]

3) mobilizing new people into the political process:  2008 was an unprecedented year in terms of the numbers of volunteers and donors to the Obama campaign, and an exquisite combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch” in his campaign (with tens of thousands of door-to-door canvassers coupled with a highly sophisticated use of e-mail, texting, use of cellphone, and websites).  [We’ve written about that earlier here and here. ] But with the massive increases in the number of registered Americans, preliminary reports were that first-time voters were not noticeably higher than they were in 2004 as a percentage of the voters (even though their absolute numbers increased, since the total number of voters increased).  In the process of his campaign, he spurred 50,000 local events, 1.5 million volunteers on the web, 8,000 web-based affinity groups, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million to his campaign. It didn’t hut that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped worked for the Obama campaign. [My colleague David Lazer talks about in “Obama’s Machine” [Forbes], how Obama might unleash this network in the future to his advantage.]

4) What will new Obama administration look like?  What will be their priorities?

In some regards, it is too soon to tell.  But there have been some inklings of important strands announced by Barack on the stump, above and beyond his obvious focus on energy independence, ending the war in Iraq and trying to make the economy work again.

Focus on sacrifice: Alexandra Marks article in Christian Science Monitor discussed this theme which Obama also returned to in his speech last night from Chicago.

Obama in his victory speech: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”

Role of the citizen:  Mentioning Obama’s focus, Michael Sandel noted “…[A] new politics of the common good can’t be only about government and markets. “It must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”  (From Thomas Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, NYT, 11/5/08)

From Obama’s victory speech: “[The campaign victory] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth….[A]bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

– Focus on service:  from Barack’s mention of a bold plan for AmeriCorps expansion as a campaign promise, to his appearing in the ServiceSummit with John McCain and Richard Stengel of TIME, to his invocation of service in his victory speech.  [As Michael Sandel noted, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.” (Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, 11/5/08)]

– Slate magazine’s John Dickerson also had an interesting post on  6 ways that Obama could show he is a new type of leader

And E.J. Dionne (who was a fellow member of Saguaro with Barack) wrote an op-ed today “A New Era for America” talking about how he expects that in the same way as Barack completely recast the campaign process, he will recast politics.

Yes, it is time to hope again….Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician….Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation…. Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest that he intends to do just that.

A Cause Larger Than Self

I disagree with many policy positions of John McCain (among them, his being anti-abortion, appointing judges who would fail to protect Americans’ rights, lack of environmental concern, believing that cheap oil will help solve our longer climate-crisis problems, tax cuts for the wealthy, etc.).   But McCain did sound two notes in his convention speech last night in St. Paul with which I heartily agree (although I shy away from his bellicose imagery): the notion that our gridlock in Washington stems from self-interested politicians and the fact that regardless of our government in power, we all owe it to ourselves to change that with which we disagree.  His notion that if you disagree with government you should work to change it, deeply parallels our suggestion #70 in 150 things to do to build social capital (“When somebody says “government stinks,” suggest they help fix it.”)

Two snippets of McCain’s speech:

1) “The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not for you.”

2) “My country saved me [speaking of his experience as a tortured MIA soldier in Vietnam]. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.

“My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them….

“Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an — an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed.

“Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.

“….And with hard work, strong faith, and a little courage, great things are always within our reach.

“Fight with me. Fight with me.

“Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.

“Fight for our children’s future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all.

“Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.

“Stand up, stand up, stand up, and fight.

“Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up.

I must admit I still heavily favor Barack Obama and having been burnt by George W.’s meaningless claim that he would be a “compassionate conservative”, I am naturally distrustful of McCain’s rhetoric.  Moreover, Republicans have had 8 years in power and McCain voted with Bush 95% of the time in 2007 and 100% of the time in 2008, according to Congressional Quarterly.  With most of the same Senators and Representatives likely returning to Washington, I am skeptical that McCain could achieve real meaningful change even if he wanted to.  But I do agree that we all have the power to refashion a better and more engaged America, and it is at least refreshing to hear from the bully pulpit that we have larger duties to our country than shopping (as George W. suggested).

While we’re on shout-outs, a hearty praise to Barack Obama’s wonderful nomination acceptance speech In Denver last week and his assertion to open the doors to higher education for those who serve our nation.  “[W]e will keep our promise to every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.”  It echoes a promise made by Bill Clinton in the “rights and responsibilities” mode when he first promised AmeriCorps in the 1992 presidential campaign, although the reality that he and we were able to achieve on AmeriCorps was far smaller than Clinton’s promise (not nearly all young people, and they only got a $4,725 educational voucher for their year of service).   Let’s hope that Obama is better able to fulfill his vision; our ability to compete in the global economy will depend on the better education of our citizenry (see Glaeser Op-Ed “The Dream for a Human Capital Agenda“, Boston Globe, 9/5/08).  It is also worth noting two things: 1) that the World War II GIs who went to college through the G.I. Bill were extraordinarily grateful to their country and would up paying back in the country in so many ways beyond their higher earnings; and 2) more educated Americans tend to be more socially and civicly involved so this education-through-service approach is likely to further enhance America’s social capital.  [For more information on Barack and national service, see this earlier post.]

On the theme of McCain/Obama and civic engagement, both candidates have mini essays in the current issue of Teaching Tolerance:  Obama writes in Choices for a Rising Generation:”[A]t this historic moment, we must ask our rising generation to serve their country…. Because that’s how real change has always come — from ordinary people coming together to do extraordinary things.” In A More Peaceful and Prosperous World, McCain writes, “After 9/11, leaders in Washington missed an opportunity to call young people to service. Young men and women, who are willing to give of themselves and sacrifice, want a leader who will ask something of them.”  [And see Sabrina Karim’s critiques of these essays.]

And one final un-related note on the conventions:  I think Rudoph Giuliani would be a bit less nasty and more effective if he actually had served as a community organizer (a hallowed role that he mocks).  If Sarah “Barracuda” Palin is the pitbull in lipstick, Giuliani is just a plain old pitbull (or pitbully) and it makes one realize why so many New Yorkers disliked him when he was Mayor.

Back to the Future of Playgrounds

A New York Times op-ed (Danger: Playground Ahead) by Allison Arieff (5/29/07) points out that playgrounds were originally invented to train future citizens in a social democracy, but to reduce liability issues have offered children less and less opportunity to shape their experience.

Her Op-Ed features a handful of artists/architects to reimagine playgrounds and also describes the Imagination Playground that was recently designed that lets children build things, tear them down and start again, so that each visitor encounteres a different experience.

Playgrouds were also used in the Progressive Era to help build stronger social ties among recent immigrants and between them and the longer-term natives.   The Op-Ed serves as a reminder that we may not be doing enough to maximize the social opportunitiy inherent in traditional playgrounds or more updated forms.