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My New Book!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30, 2011: Elected Representatives

Every election for every office, and every accompanying political campaign, has its unique and salient contexts and details, and one of the easiest but most dangerous things an AmericanStudier can do is to use a particular election (most often a presidential one, but this can apply easily to congressional elections as well) as a bellwether for broader national political or cultural trends. Certainly such trends are often part of an election's contexts--no one can dispute, for example, that the rise of the Tea Party influenced virtually every congressional election (and many others besides) in 2010--but they are not necessarily any more important than the candidates' personalities, narratives that become central to a campaign, significant local issues or histories, or any number of other factors.

On the other hand, I do believe that it is both possible and important to identify individual campaigns and candidates, and perhaps especially salient moments in relation to them, as particularly exemplary of certain broader trends. And to that end, I would highlight two Virginia Senatorial campaigns from the last two decades, and more exactly two individual moments during those campaigns, as hugely illustrative of changing political and cultural trends. The first moment was actually a repeated quote from Oliver North, the former Reagan administration official who managed to shed his Iran Contra disgrace and come very close to winning a Senate seat in 1994. North came as close as he did largely because of his very public status as a born-again Christian, a fact he highlighted again and again on the campaign trail by holding aloft a Bible and stating that "we know every word in the Bible is true." While North's marriage of religion to politics was partly personal (whether we read it as entirely sincere, a pragmatic move to distance himself from his criminal past, or some combination of both), it also signaled, as did the 1994 Gingrich revolution more generally, the full emergence onto the national stage of the Christian Conservative wing of the Republican Party, a wing that has in many ways come to dominate that party in the decades since.

The second exemplary moment was quite the opposite of North's repeated and staged line: an off the cuff remark from former Virginia governor and 2006 senatorial candidate George Allen that happened to be videotaped and so became a national and hugely significant story. Allen was holding an event in Southwest Virginia when he noticed S.R. Sidarth, a young man who was working for the Webb campaign (Allen's opponent) by attending and taping Allen's public events; Sidarth is Indian American and visibly dark-skinned, and Allen, seemingly responding to that fact, called the young man "macaca" (a word of ambiguous origin, possibly related to a North African monkey that Allen had seen during his youth in the region, possibly just a nonsensically racist term) and welcomed him "to America and the real Virginia." The subsequent outcry contributed significantly to Allen's eventual narrow loss to Webb, in an election that (like much of the 2006 congressional midterm) can be read as a foreshadowing of Obama's 2008 victory (in which he won Virginia, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had done so in decades). But I would also argue that every aspect of the moment signals not only just how fully multi-ethnic and -cultural identities had come to define 21st century America (Sidarth was born in Virginia to immigrant parents), but also how blatantly racist or fearful responses to such identities would remain part of our discourse but would no longer go unchallenged.

I'm not going to go so far as to claim that as Virginia goes, so goes the nation--much of the state is still significantly more conservative and thus Republican-dominated than the national political landscape. But certainly these individual moments and elections demonstrate how fully the broadest trends can be reflected in, as well as influenced by, elections in one state, including Ole Virginia. More tomorrow, the August recap,


PS. Three links to start with:

1) A 1995 article that includes North's (and Allen's) contributions to a national conference sponsored by a Religious Right organization:

2) The video of Allen:

3) OPEN: Any influential political campaigns or moments we should better remember?

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