Perhaps because of the red-white-and-blue-tinted spotlight gleaming upon individuality, perhaps because of the utter sensationalization of politics—the American voter is often selecting the person, not the party. It’s one of several things that non-Americans who are (sometimes is seems unavoidably so) aware of the workings of U.S. public life consider peculiar, the relationship between our executive leaders and their party. Barack Obama did not achieve the presidency by first becoming the official chairman of the Democratic party—and I doubt if any Republican would ever consider nominating Michael Steele or Reince Priebus (giggle) for the office. The absence of a Prime Minister, the varied duties of the President, the (rhetorical) focus by many American leaders on seeking compromise—it seems party affiliation in today’s America is more a convenient shorthand, a malleable stamp, than an affiliation that commands allegiance.
Take that and run: what, then, are the Republican and Democratic National Conventions than further emphases placed on symbolic preference? Should we give them any attention at all? The party leaders certainly think we should. We face an election that could well be determined according to a single state—and in the last cycle, the neck-on-neck battleground was North Carolina. Barack Obama overstepped McCain by only a few thousand souls. And it was thereby not at all surprising, and indeed seemed like a well-informed decision, for the DNC to select Charlotte, NC as the site for the 2012 convention. Liberals below the Mason-Dixon line, hold our ground in newly-blue territory! The left is no stranger to optimism.
And, of course, optimism is no stranger to disappointment. North Carolina is far from being decided—in fact, given recent events, her Democrats seem to be subject to age-old disjointedness on social issues. Specifically, May 4th taught us how even despite great mobilization of the considerable student populations, they couldn’t protect the state’s constitution from an amendment securing a narrow definition of marriage.
There is certainly a Christian left, who Democrats have in the past considered, following a strategic cue from the right, yet largely rejected tapping by sacrificing leftist positions on abortion or same-sex marriage. If he wants to secure North Carolina, Barack Obama may in fact have to take that step—at least in a superficial way—which may entail essentially shifting his focus from social to economic issues. Lower-class North Carolinians who could seek retribution from the crime of poverty inflicted upon the lower class in the state—a state with over 17% of its citizens below the poverty line, 3 % more than the national average). And much like the rest of the country, it is (especially) heavily racialized: more than one in every three black North Carolinians live in poverty.
What does this mean for a DNC strategy? There seem to be two dimensions of influence the convention holds, those being how it is absorbed by the public, and how it is absorbed by the party. It would naturally be entirely foolish to say that simply by virtue of location, it guarantees salvation for the NC Democrats. Rather, it seems to draw to NC national attention, which is almost certainly unwanted if the goal is winning over moderates.
Thus is the corner that the Charlotte convention has been backed into: the influence it will have on the public, particularly left-minded moderates, whose gaze will shift towards the unfortunate social chaos that characterizes the North Carolina democrats. A chaos which shows no hope of reordering itself before November: John Edwards will continue to wink at women jurors, junior staffers will continue to quit the Raleigh office charging their officials with sexual harassment, Bev Purdue will continue to suffer sub-50 approval rates, Amendment One will in all likelihood remain in the books.
Despite this, the Convention will certainly serve a not insignificant role within the party itself. This internal dimension will involve who the convention chooses to emphasize—given this is an election whose results are greatly dependent on what direction the American (and, for Ezra Klein, the European) economy drives in the coming months, it seems leftist economic superstars are who the Democrats ought to be affirming. If at the convention, Elizabeth Warren’s anti-corruption, pro-middle class economics can be spotlit, hope could be salvaged and propel the left forward, even if 2012 holds a further fiscal downturn. Of course, Charlotte remains home to some of these very institutions which Warren seeks to reform or rescind, namely Bank of America—and ironically enough, protesting laws generated as a response to the Convention’s placement led to the eviction of the Bank’s primary antagonist, Occupy Charlotte.
Don’t get me wrong, North Carolina should not be abandoned by the party—merely to say that the Convention itself is neither a sufficient, nor necessary, nor even really a notable factor in whether Obama will retain those fifteen electoral votes. Grassroots and GOTV campaigning, particularly via rounding help from the younger voters who made up the minority in the May Amendment One election, ought to be extensive—particularly given that recent polls show Obama leading Romney in the state by scarcely a single point.
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” If Obama’s inaugural pledge (albeit somewhat bone-toss-y) to the major religious affiliations of this country should inspire us to anything, it is resistance. Progressive North Carolinians: prove wrong the notion that your local Democratic party can suffer infidelity, irresponsibility, and incompetence and regain a state’s electorate merely by *more* bone-tossing. Speak out. Stand outside the walls of the Bank of America stadium and demand policy reconfiguration from the party leaders while they’re all in a single place. Democrats account for most of the nation’s non-Evangelicals. Kennedy knew it half a century ago: we have to make this a world safe for diversity.
Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.