Professor Reich initiated the discussion by asking the panel about the historical significance of this election. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning History professor, led by identifying Senator Obama’s presumptive victory as the culmination of civil rights equality beginning with Executive Order 8802, enacted by FDR. Also known as the Fair Employment Act, this order prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. He anticipated this election demonstrating that racial issues no longer cut the same they did from 1964 to the 1990s.
Professor Ford from the Stanford Law School sees an encouraging new racial attitude in the United States reflected clearly in this election. He praised Senator Obama’s campaign for “moving beyond the culture wars of the 1960s.” Kennedy argued that the racial attitudes attached to this election were already in place and that Obama “isn’t the change agent but the beneficiary” of this shift in America. He also implied that Senator Obama could be the first and also the last African-American president by neutralizing the issue of race thereby making it a non-issue in the minds of voters. He likened this scenario to 1964 election where JFK’s Catholicism posed a possible threat to victory, an issue that was rendered moot when he took office.
Looking forward, the panelists commented on the future of American ideologies. The consensus on the stage was that ideology was hardly the driving force behind Obama’s expected success. “It has not been his [Obama’s] style to well ideological ground,” Kennedy said. Mr. Lehane agreed that Senator Obama allowed people to invest themselves in him and project onto him, as opposed to subscribing to his ideals. He also attributed Senator Obama’s success to a change in the campaign paradigm through his use of the Internet and formulation of a lengthy list of supporters, as well as McCain’s appearance as “Dr. Strangelove on Red Bull” in his response to the financial crisis. Given that the American dream may be under attack, he advised Senator Obama to pursue “a transformative agenda that he then acts upon,” but questioned whether or not Obama “owes a debt to blacks” once elected.
The focus then changed to gender and its role in politics. Professor Ford commented that the media was less reluctant to talk about gender than to talk about race. He felt that the selection of Governor Palin for Vice President indicated that the McCain campaign had bought into the idea of winning female votes by putting a woman on the ticket. Mr. Lehane, on the other hand, acknowledged that the decision was made prior to the economic meltdown and that Palin reinforced “Maverick brand” of McCain while also appealing to “Walmart Moms” that live in many battleground states.
Throughout the discussion, the clearly Democratic-leaning panelists spoke with a very confident tone of victory. Lehane intermittently dropped an “if Obama wins” in the conversation, but the other speakers paid no such respect to the other candidate. No one in the lecture hall acknowledged the possibility of a McCain victory or the implications of such a victory with regard to civil rights.
The discussion concluded with an Election Day prediction from Lehane: 368 electoral votes for Senator Obama with an eight-point advantage in the popular vote. He also expected an unparalleled turnout of 125 million voters or more, a number America nearly reached with around 122 million total votes cast. Some students expressed concern over the role that race might play once voters entered the booth. Mr. Lehane assuaged this fear citing recent polls showing that an unprecedented percentage of white Americans were supporting the Democratic nominee. While he may have been slightly over-ambitious in his popular vote forecast, his projection of the electoral vote virtually matched the actual results. Professor Steyer closed the discussion in a somewhat-paranoid tone, predicting a closer race than his colleagues.
Only time will tell how Senator Obama’s victory will affect civil rights in America. This much is certain, though: this election will leave an indelible mark on American history.