Battle of hearts and minds: music as a tool of US public diplomacy

By Sophie Wilson in Sydney, Australia

27 October 2014

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here

Since the killing of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State terror group, speculation surrounding the individual militant responsible has focused on British rapper-turned-jihadist, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary. Some news articles have drawn a link between Bary, his rap music, and hip hop generally, addressing a merging of gangsta rap and jihad.

Sure, this extreme form of hip hop could very well be used as part of one of IS’s slick social media recruitment or propaganda campaigns. However the link between Islamic–US relations and hip-hop consists of much more than the extremist, jihadi rap perpetuated by Bary. In fact, American hip-hop has been harnessed as a positive cultural force by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in an attempt to generate cross-cultural goodwill in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Rhythm Road, a $1.5 million per annum initiative, sends “hip hop envoys” to perform, conduct workshops and classes, and promote positive, relatable sections of American culture abroad. Those of the envoys who are Muslim speak to local media about living as a Muslim in America.

The US government’s embrace of hip-hop is recent, but the idea behind the initiative is not. Mobilising music as a tool of public diplomacy began during the Cold War, when jazz was employed to improve the nation’s image in the face of communism. Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were sent to perform their popular "American Music" in the Soviet Bloc, Middle East, and Africa.

Jazz and sphinxWhile designed as a foreign policy strategy to represent America as a whole, the jazz initiative served to particularly highlight the place of African Americans in the US national identity. The benefit of this from a diplomatic standpoint was that it encouraged a favourable opinion of Americans in spite of a disdain for their government, and challenged crude American stereotypes.

Today the US must address ideological difference, restore credibility, and encourage a positive image of America in the Middle East, where anti-Americanism is rife and non-state actors, such as IS, pose an increasing threat. This is not an easy ask, and entrenched anti-American views cannot be reversed via the exercise of hard power. So, the State Department continues to adopt public diplomacy initiatives such as Rhythm Road, using music as an unconventional tool of soft power to tackle equally unconventional threats.

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According to a 2008 Brookings Institute report, the role of art and culture in the US's relationship with the Muslim world has enduring importance in perpetuating or reversing negative stereotypes. Hip-hop is the genre of American music considered most likely to bridge serious present-day cultural divides, and, importantly, encompasses Islamic ideology thanks to pioneering hip hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa.

This sentiment is echoed by Hisham Aidi, author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. According to Aidi, the US Government is aware of the importance of hip-hop to youth identity formation and mobilisation, and recognises the enduring role 1990s politicised hip-hop had in “introducing Muslim youth to black history, the African American struggle, freedom movements, and figures like Malcolm X.” Today, as it has done for decades, the music acts as a "natural connector" between American and Middle Eastern Muslim youth, representing a primary vehicle of global youth culture.

In 2010 — shortly before hip-hop rose to provide a soundtrack for the Arab Spring, and Time magazine named Tunisian rapper El General one of the 100 most influential people of 2011 — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that "hip hop is America," that “there are certainly times when music conveys American values better than a speech,” and that music is integral to using “the full range of tools at [the nation’s] disposal.”

Clinton’s comments make clear the importance of public diplomacy in American foreign policy. By adopting political theorist Joseph Nye’s strategy of "smart power," the government exercises both hard and soft power — a strategy that the United States is in the unique position to advance, given its military capability and the global pervasiveness of American popular culture.

However, the success of such public diplomacy initiatives depends upon other policies operating in tandem, particularly the use of force, and, even then, success of cultural programs is difficult to measure. While there’s no doubt that Syrian youth watching Brooklyn-based hip hop artist Chen Lo and the Liberation Family perform in Aleppo provides a moving and persuasive exchange for all involved, the top-down government initiative could also be viewed as unwelcome and antagonistic. Not only that, the government’s use of hip hop — one of America’s most significant forms of musical protest against social inequality — could be seen as insincere.

Nonetheless, smart power encourages the use of all resources at one’s disposal, and as Clinton has said, cultural diplomacy is but one piece in a very tricky foreign affairs chess game.


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American Daily: October 24, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

24 October 2014

  • Is Pat Roberts making a comeback in Kansas?

It took some work — national Republicans cleaned out the Roberts campaign and started over with their own people — and some time for outside money to come to his aid. But with less than two weeks to go, Roberts has climbed back into the race and holds a narrow 0.5-point edge, according to TPM's PollTracker average.

He's done it by playing hard to the conservative base that nearly ousted him in the Republican primary this summer and relentlessly pounding Orman as a closet liberal who would boost Obama's agenda. But therein lies a risk. Roberts has rebounded by going hard right — but he has to hold onto some moderates to counter Orman's appeal to the middle and his nearly universal support among Democrats.

What could Republicans and Democrats come together on? There is a short list. Trade promotion authority — easing the way for the White House to pass two gigantic new pacts under negotiation — seems like a strong possibility, as does the passage of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Corporate tax reform is less likely, but potentially doable. Republicans also might pass a pared-down version of immigration reform, expanding visas for skilled immigrants and beefing up border security without touching the thorny question of what to do with the 12 million undocumented individuals already here. Democrats might not like it, but they might find such legislation hard to filibuster or to veto.

We're seeing an interesting test of this right now in Colorado. The state is home to three very close, very well-funded races: the House race in the 6th CD (Coffman v. Romanoff), the U.S. Senate race (Udall v. Gardner), and the governor's race (Hickenlooper v. Beauprez). TV commercial breaks are absolutely filled (like, seriously, there are no other ads) with fierce attack ads between these various candidates, with the notable exception of those in the governor's race. Governor John Hickenlooper (D) and his opponent, former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), shook hands last month in a pledge to not run negative ads against each other.

In Washington state, African hair braiders can open a salon with just a business license. At least, that's what Sylla thought, until inspectors from the Department of Licensing told her she needed a cosmetologist's license to braid in hair extensions.

James K. Polkachu

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American Daily: October 23, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

23 October 2014

  • Eulogising Ben Bradlee, the editor who oversaw the Washington Post's Watergate coverage.

The obituaries will properly give Bradlee credit for building, along with the owner, Katharine Graham, the institution of the Post. (Abe Rosenthal, Bradlee’s rival and contemporary, deserves credit for his stewardship of the Times, but he inherited an infinitely more established paper.) Together, Bradlee and Graham took a mediocre-to-good paper and turned it into something ambitious, wealthy, and brave. The Bradlee-Graham partnership was behind the publication (along with the Times) of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, which made plain the extent of Presidential deception and folly during the Vietnam War. And they were behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, which led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration. Those same obituaries will cover the familiar ground of Bradlee’s close friendship with John F. Kennedy—a relationship that was, at best, deeply problematic for a journalist in his position (he was then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek), but which lent Bradlee much of his dash and glamour. A certain post-Watergate overconfidence also seemed to help fuel a scandal, in 1981, when a young staff writer named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee was able to survive a scandal of that scale, as others would not have been, because he set a standard for immediate and investigative correction of Cooke’s confabulation—and because he had the long-standing affection of the owner and everyone in the newsroom. Even if you were quite sure he didn’t know your name, you were prepared to go to fantastic lengths to live up to his standards. And he was fun, the embodiment of how much fun journalism could be. Ben Bradlee was the least dull figure in the history of postwar journalism.

Believe it or not, Kansas is currently the tightest race in the nation, with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and independent Greg Orman each averaging about 45 percent of the vote. Roberts, who is seeking a fourth term, has rebounded in recent weeks as the beneficiary of a spree of GOP spending and visits from high-profile Republican luminaries. He's now playing up his opposition to gay marriage and abortion in the western half of the socially conservative state with a rare foray into the culture wars by a Republican this midterm cycle. To stem the tide, Orman is relying on super PACs to come to his rescue, but this race is now trending toward Roberts. "Orman might actually be running one of the worst campaigns now, worse than Roberts a month ago or even Bruce Braley in Iowa," remarks a GOP consultant involved in the race.
  • Do Democrats see new hope for victory in Kentucky?
The decision comes after the big-spending party committee said last week it had no plans to up its buy on the air in Kentucky until Election Day, a sign many interpreted as meaning that Washington Democrats had given up on the race. But with the new ad buy and ongoing DSCC investment in the Grimes voter turnout effort, Democrats are signaling they believe they can still pull off an upset in one of their few pickup chances.
  • Map of the day: 50 per cent of Americans live in the counties shaded blue.

Half of America lives here

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American Daily: October 21, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 October 2014

These contests might lack the drama of a presidential election — and there are plenty of signs of voter apathy in this cycle — but they make up for it with their diversity, collectively addressing some of the most important and analytically compelling questions in electoral politics.

Earlier in the cycle, Republicans had many pickup opportunities yet only appeared to be safely ahead in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. In the last few months, though, Republicans have maintained small leads in some of their target races — and small leads in five states in mid-October are more likely to produce five wins than similar leads in July or August. Meanwhile, Democrats have failed to generate any likely takeovers of their own, with the party's chances in Kentucky, Kansas, South Dakota and Georgia failing at least so far to turn any of those seats around.
  • No matter the results, US government will remain unrepresentative in one important way.

October is to political prognosticators what February is to florists and April is to accountants; namely, the time when a profession that’s peripheral to our daily concerns momentarily becomes the center of our attention. This season’s forecasting for the midterm elections is largely occupied with the partisan balance of the Senate. (The Times’ Upshot column has it seventy-one per cent likely that the Republicans will gain control. FiveThirtyEight puts the G.O.P.’s odds at sixty-one per cent.) The uncertainty hinges on about ten races that are too close to call, despite the finely calibrated statistical divination of experts. There is, however, one outcome that requires no sophisticated simulations to predict: the Senate will not look like the country. There are currently eighty male senators. Women, who make up fifty-one per cent of the population, hold just twenty per cent of Senate seats. The Senate, notoriously, is not proportional in its representation, but the highest number of seats that women can hope to hold next year will still be fewer than thirty. Currently, three states have two female senators, but thirty-three states are represented by two men.

If calling America isolationist in the 1920s and 1930s is wrong, calling America isolationist today is absurd. The United States currently stations troops in more than 150 countries. Its alliances commit it to defend large swaths of Europe and Asia against foreign attack. Recent presidents have dropped bombs on, or sent troops to, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. Last month, President Obama sent 3,000 American troops to battle an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And while Americans fiercely debate particular military interventions and foreign-aid programs, the general presumption that the United States should play a leading role in solving problems far from our shores is largely uncontested in the American political mainstream.

With the approach of the US Congressional elections, questions about the health of America’s political institutions and the future of its global leadership have become rampant, with some citing partisan gridlock as evidence of America’s decline. But is the situation really that bad?

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Is there still a GOP Senate in America's near future?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

20 October 2014

2014 Senate

The Senate race, through the eyes of and Sabato's Crystal Ball

A bit more than two years ago, a month prior to the 2012 election, I wrote a post titled "There's a GOP Senate in America's near future." This was my argument:

[W]ith six year terms, the Senate has a habit of periodically returning to the mean, and this year has Democrats defending big gains in 2006. By all rights, Republicans should be well-placed to install Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader next year.

And yet, due to a combination of Obama's coattails and poor nominees (e.g. Todd Akin), Nate Silver currently gives Democrats an 80 per cent chance at retaining control of the Senate this election. If Obama wins re-election, he might start his second term with an unfriendly House, but his party will probably control a majority of the Senate's votes.

That's unlikely to last, however. A second Obama term would likely see a Republican controlled Senate at some point. Remember, Democrats not only had a good cycle in 2006 — 2008 also worked out for them as well. That's the election that handed them, for a short while, a filibuster proof majority. And the six year terms they won then will be the one's they have to defend in 2014.

If, as predicted, Democrats (and Democratic-aligned independents) end up with 52 Senate seats after this election, Republicans will have a tantalizing array of possible pick-ups in 2014.

Democrats actually did even better than predicted: they emerged from the 2012 election with a caucus 55-members strong. This was rather extraordinary, considering that they were defending big gains they made in 2006. They were indeed helped by the coattails of a president winning re-election, but also by a number of Republican nominees that proved too conservative and controversial for public tastes.

But the dynamic hasn't changed in the 2014 midterms; the Democrats coming up for re-election this cycle won in 2008, a year so good for their party that it briefly claimed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. In 2014, nearly everything is working against these senators. HuffPo's poll aggregator gives Barack Obama a 42 per cent approval rating — belonging to the same party as an unpopular president doesn't help win elections. Further, the president's party rarely picks up seats in the midterms; since the Civil War, it's happened only in 1934, 1998, and 2002, in response, respectively, to the Great Depression, resentment over the Clinton impeachment, and the 9/11 terror attacks. And, finally, Republicans have been smarter about keeping their candidates on message — and perhaps at filtering out the genuine crazies this time: there are no apparent Todd Akins, Sharron Angles, Christine O'Donnell, or Richard Mourdocks in this race.

That's why it looks likely that Republicans will do what they should have done in 2012 and take control of the Senate. Nate Silver currently rates their chances at 62.2 percent.

Let's pull something else out from my 2012 post: my list of 2014 races to watch:

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  • Alaska: currently held by Democratic Freshman Mark Begich — Republicans will be eager to win back Ted Stevens's old seat
  • Virginia: currently held by Dem Frosh Mark Warner — Virginia went Obama in 2008 and may again in 2012, but it still has a lot of time for GOP politicians, and Republicans will fight hard to win this seat back.
  • North Carolina: currently held by first term Dem Kay Hagan — outside Charlotte and the Research Triangle, North Carolina remains pretty red.
  • Arkansas: Dem Mark Pryor won a second term without having to face a Republican opponent, but he might not be so lucky in 2014. The Natural State hasn't turned away from Democrats as decisively as the rest of the South, but if Republicans get their act together, this is territory ripe for the picking.
  • Louisiana: Three-termer Mary Landrieu has done well by moderating her views for her conservative electorate, and in 2008 won with 52 per cent of the vote. Louisiana does have a Democratic base — the state voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and has a not insubstantial African American contingent — but is increasingly hostile to Dems.
  • Colorado: Another purple state that sent a freshman Dem to DC in 2008, in this case former Congressman Mark Udall. Republicans fumbled a good chance to pick up a Centennial State Senate spot in 2010 by nominating Tea Partier Ken Buck. Expect another closely fought race next time round.

I also mentioned West Virginia and Montana as likely GOP pick-ups, which, combined with the above, would give Republicans a 53-seat majority. 

So what's changed since then? Well, some good news for Democrats: surprise three-way races in Kansas and South Dakota have made safe Republican seats highly unpredictable. The race in Georgia has both proved closer than I had anticipated, though Republicans are slightly ahead. (Then again, they are also doing well in Dem-held Iowa.) Democrats are putting up a tough fight in Arkansas, Louisiana, and, especially, North Carolina, all states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. And while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is so dismayed with Alison Lundergan Grimes's much-criticised campaign in Kentucky that it has pulled its funding support, Grimes still has an outside chance at unseating Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell.

So although Republicans are likely to finally claim a majority this time round, the story isn't that different from 2012: the party is having to fight harder than it should to win or defend seats that should naturally be theirs. If Democrats somehow hang on to their upper house lead, that will be why.

Republicans need to hope they don't though. In 2016, the reverse dynamic applies: the party will have to defend seats it won in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Seats in blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin will not be so easy for the GOP to hang on to if the economy is still growing and the larger and more diverse electorate seen in a standard presidential year is voting.


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American Daily: October 17, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 October 2014

Wednesday was an ugly day for the global economy. British and German stocks each fell around 3 percent. Greek stocks fell 6 percent. (That’s huge.) In the U.S., a trifecta of economic indicators—retail sales, the producer’s price index, and a manufacturing report—were all disappointing. That sparked an early morning selloff here with investors fleeing into safe-assets like U.S. Treasuries. The interest rate on the 10-year-bond hit a low of 1.86 percent, a drop of more than 16 percent. (Again, that’s really big.) Equity markets closed down around 1 percent and U.S. Treasuries rebounded, closing the day around 3 percent.

The fog of regret has meant no one is able to confidently defend or even cleanly describe what’s actually going on: Three in 10 American women have abortions by the time they hit menopause. They are not generally victims of rape or incest, or in any pitiable situation from which they need to be rescued. They are making a reasonable and even admirable decision that they can’t raise a child at the moment. Is that so hard to say? As Pollitt puts it, “This is not the right time for me” should be reason enough. And saying that aloud would help push back against the lingering notion that it’s unnatural for a woman to choose herself over others.
Gupta is as passionate an advocate for racial justice as you could find. At a time when the Obama administration faces a potential Republican majority in the Senate — and having lost a tough nomination battle over the nominee’s connection to a racially charged murder case involving a police officer — they chose a nominee who has spent the last decade attacking racism in the American criminal justice system. Gupta has called for the decriminalization of marijuana, criticized the militarization of local police, and gone after cops engaging in “highway robbery” through civil asset forfeiture laws.

Today we think of Lyndon Johnson as a man unwaveringly committed to prevailing in Vietnam. But at least at first, he shared Mr. Obama’s pessimism. He and his advisers knew they faced an immense challenge in attempting to suppress the insurgency in South Vietnam. “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere,” he said privately in early March 1965. “But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.”

The country’s fastest growing city (population 640,500), Seattle is the pioneer of micro-housing—tiny, one-room dwellings that are in turn hailed as an affordable, sustainable alternative to the high cost of city living, and disparaged as an inhuman experiment in downsizing. They are disruptors—real estate’s version of a high-tech innovator, literally altering the landscape of the city they occupy. But are they are a force for good or ill? Seattle is still figuring that out.

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American Daily: October 16, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2014

Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP's unwillingness to make even token concessions.
But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn't deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

A century of evidence demonstrates that St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries. These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained. When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African-American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses. African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves.

The default assumption of the gaming industry has always been that its customer is a young, straight, middle-class white man, and so games have always tended to cater to the perceived interests of this narrow demographic. Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.

While Grimes may have denied McConnell the ammo to convince Kentuckians to vote against her, she hasn’t given the citizens of the commonwealth many good reasons to vote for her. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis has already criticized Grimes for not using Obamacare to her advantage, but it’s even bigger than any single issue. Grimes’s strategy has been to bank on McConnell’s lack of popularity—never a beloved pol among Kentuckians, his approval ratings tend to hover in the 40s—and hope that, by dint of the fact that she’s not McConnell, she’ll win. That strategy has admittedly worked well with Democratic donors in places like New York and California, who so loathe McConnell that they've eagerly filled Grimes's campaign coffers. One Democratic aide told me that Grimes's national fundraising network is second only to Elizabeth Warren's. But Grimes's crippling caution and debilitating message discipline have done very little to boost her own standing with voters in Kentucky, at least those who don't already despise McConnell. In fact, it's probably harmed it: Grimes holds just a three-point lead over McConnell among female voters, the group that she was banking on to win big and carry her to victory. “The campaign has cocooned her so much that you don’t get the fact that she’s a bright, capable, smart young woman,” says Jimmy Cauley, a Kentucky Democratic strategist who's been impressed by Grimes in his personal dealings with her. “They’ve built this wall around her that hasn't allowed the good parts of her to get through. At some point voters have to know what she’s about.”

Bedtime in America

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Post-partisan America and Obama

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 October 2014


Here's Ezra Klein talking about the gap between what Obama promised for his presidency and what (and also, especially, how) he achieved:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition. The first two years of the Obama administration are the story of Obama being haunted by his promises of a postpartisan presidency, and choosing, again and again, to pass bills at the cost of worsening partisanship.

Like, accurate, but also completely missing the point.

Yeah, I know, Obama promised to be post-partisan and to bring America together. Just like George W. Bush said he'd be a "uniter, not a divider." Obama said it in his first national speech, his most famous address, perhaps his best oratory of his life:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?

Let's be clear. Obama had — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — just read off a laundry list of liberal priorities: health care, education, the protection of constitutional liberties. And now he was telling us in (a way that was accurate culturally but incorrect electorally) that Americans were, despite all evidence to the contrary, a united people. (Americans are desperate to hear that they're united. It's such a fragile part of their psyche that they put the word united right into the name of their country.)

And now he proves that by saying that liberals like innocuous things like baseball and god (duh, says every liberal listening — or, more like, that's right!) while conservatives like gay people and freedom from surveillance. (In 2004, this wasn't so: there's a fair argument that ballot measures opposing gay marriage drove conservative turnout to a great enough extent to ensure Bush's re-election; the GOP was zealously promoting the PATRIOT Act during the years prior to this speech.) And that bit about patriots who support and patriots who oppose the war in Iraq? This was only radical for the use of the word "oppose": liberals were terribly stung by Republican accusations that their opposition to the war amounted to an opposition to America. Why do you think they endorsed a Vietnam War vet as their presidential candidate?

Or listen to Obama running for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008:

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Because at a time when so many people are struggling to keep up with soaring costs in a sluggish economy, we know that the status quo in Washington just won't do. Not this time. Not this year. We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result — because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing.

Here's the thing about that status quo: it was Republican. When the Democrats listening to this speech heard about "the same Washington game with the same Washington players," they were thinking about seven years of Republican governance, of tax cuts and deficits and disrespect. 

The Obama campaign talked about bipartisanship, about changing the way Washington works, but its genius lay in the way it imparted two messages at once by doing so. To its liberal supporters, it promised a bipartisan America where conservatives would realise that they supported Democratic ideas all along ("we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states ... we've got some gay friends in the red states.") Not, note, a bipartisan America where Democrats and Republicans would draw together to compromise over tax reform or single-payer health care or a stimulus. Obama proposed to his liberal base that bipartisanship should mean an embrace of liberalism.

(This is radical, really, because liberals, always so ready to don the hairshirt, love to tell one another about how removed from the American mainstream they are. Foolish promises that America believes in the same ideas you do is usually for conservatives. Obama convinced liberals that they might actually be America.)

That wasn't what you heard if you were a disgruntled Republican or a disengaged independent. You heard a president saying things about bipartisanship that stirred your American fondness for national unity.

Same with the bit about changing the way Washington works. Liberals heard that the way Washington works would change in the most important way — Republicans would no longer be in charge of it. The rest heard bromides about bipartisanship. So Kevin Drum is, to some extent, right when he says:

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.


In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

But Obama knew who he was talking to. He was talking — dogwhistling, really — to liberals. So let's not pretend like he ever promised a golden age where through sheer force of personality alone he could bring Democrats and Republicans together under the spirit of compromise. He tried to enact his ideology on the grounds that it is what the nation wanted. It's what politicians do.

The fact that people are still convinced he really wanted moderation and compromise speaks to his rhetorical success, really.

Obama told liberals that they could be the American mainstream. He was smart enough to do it in a way that even made conservatives think he was saying he would govern through consensus.


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The hardest question

By Shalailah Medhora in Austin, Texas

13 October 2014

Shalailah Medhora is the recipient of the 2014 US Studies Centre – World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States.

“So what the best part of the Fellowship?”

It’s a question that stops me in my tracks. Which is surprising, because I’ve been asked it multiple times over the last two months.

On the surface of it, the question is simple enough: what part of this amazing nine week experience has stuck out in your mind the most? Which meetings were the most beneficial to your career? What will you remember best when it’s all over?

I could answer by listing my favourite cities. Chicago, with its beautiful architecture and rich nightlife. San Francisco, with its breath-taking bay and anything-goes attitude. Austin, with its varied music scene and optimistic liberalism. Minnesota, which reminds me of my hometown of Canberra.

Or I could make note of the amazing people we’ve been lucky enough to meet. Like Jim Pensiero, talent editor at the Wall Street Journal, who answered our assault of questions with grace and enthusiasm. Or Star-Tribune investigative reporter Paul McEnroe, who was open and candid as he talked about reporting during the first Gulf War. Or middle school principal Celeste Douglas, whose fortitude and belief in her students was humbling. Or Stephen Menya, whose belief in himself was unwavering, even in the face of ignorance and outright racism.

I could answer the question by trying to recount some of the exciting professional experiences we had. Sitting in on an editorial meeting at the New York Times. Walking through the bustling CNN newsroom. Being granted rare access to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while immunologists fought to contain the Ebola outbreak. Meeting the head of the Texas branch of the Republican Party.

All of these fantastic experiences aside, if I had to answer the question, the most honest thing I can say is that the best thing about this fellowship — and the most surprising — were my other fellows. They alone managed to reignite my love of journalism. They are ambitious and always act with integrity, even in dangerous and difficult circumstances. I was thoroughly unprepared for how much I would learn from them.

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They’ve taught me about how to investigate a story, how to establish new leads, how to tell a story in an engaging and different way.

They have been so much more than classmates, travel companions, and roommates. They have become friends and mentors. They have encouraged me to think of things differently, and that can only be a bonus in my career.

My fellow fellows and I are a breed. We’re inquisitive, cynical, open, and ambitious. We look at issues from a number of different angles, and try to get to the heart of a subject through layers of PR spin and hyperbole. We ask questions all the time. It’s nice to know that I’ve found a place where I fit in, socially and professionally.

I very much feel as though I’m still processing the last nine weeks. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed out on mentioning here. But I’ll end with this point. This nine week experience has been a once-in-a-lifetime one, and I’m very thankful to the World Press Institute and US Studies Centre for giving me the opportunity to undertake it.


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The wrong side of history?

By Shalailah Medhora in Atlanta, Georgia

9 October 2014

Shalailah Medhora is the recipient of the 2014 US Studies Centre – World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States.


The word is spelled out, bold and undaunted, from an exhibit at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  The exhibition is one of the first I see in the American Civil Rights section of the museum. It shows the photos of the segregationist men — and they were all middle-aged white men — who fought tooth and nail to keep the races apart.

As I stare at the less-than-flattering pictures of these men and read quotes in which they passionately argued for the “separate but equal” mantra, I can’t help but feel that they will always be remembered for being on the wrong side of history.

I know very little about these politicians, police chiefs and public servants. For all I know, they could have been loving parents, compassionate Christians, good neighbours. But their segregationist beliefs have, rightly or wrongly, forever stained their reputations. They’ll always be remembered as the angry old racists who fought progress.

Advocates say there’s s a civil rights movement going on right now. They say gay marriage is the new fight for equality. Indeed, it’s an impassioned debate that has eloquent speakers and arguments on both sides. And like the Civil Rights movement before it, marriage equality advocates have organised a grassroots movement that has harnessed public sentiment to force political change.

Polls in Australia have seen public support for gay marriage increase steadily over the past few years. A survey commissioned by the Liberal Party and undertaken by Australian Marriage Equality in June reveals that three out of four Australians want same-sex unions legalised. That’s up from 65 per cent in the previous year.

The majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. The margin is still small — 54 per cent support gay unions, and 39 per cent oppose them — but it has been increasing for nearly two decades.

A US Supreme Court ruling has buoyed LGBTI activists. On Monday the court denied a request to review rulings from lower courts in five states that have tried to ban gay marriage.

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“By denying these requests, the court effectively legalised same-sex marriage in these states,” the Pew Research Center, which has tracked the issue, wrote on its website.

“Soon after the high court’s decision was made known, a number of states, including Virginia and Wisconsin, announced that gay and lesbian couples would be able to marry almost immediately,” the Center wrote.

“It [same-sex marriage] will become inevitable,” Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer fighting on the issue told MSNBC.

“The reality is the reality. This country will soon know its friends, its neighbours, its colleagues as married people who just happen to be gay, and that’s the way it should be,” Kaplan said.

“I think the decision today virtually guarantees that [the gay marriage movement] won’t go backwards because we’re going to have the majority of Americans in the majority of states living in states that allow gay people to marry.”

Australia has been slower to act than the United States, despite having a more secular society with a higher percentage of supporters of gay marriage.

That’s partially due to the type of federalism we have in Australia, which lists marriage as a Commonwealth power. Successive federal governments from both sides of the political spectrum have argued against gay marriage, even if that means going against public sentiment.

High Court decisions have kept the status quo by backing the Commonwealth on its power to create laws relating to marriage.  Unlike the US system, these rulings have underscored the point that same-sex unions will only occur when the federal government decides to change legislation.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard was against gay marriage when in office, but last month acknowledged that her point of view is “old-fashioned.”

“I accept the course of human history now is that we are going to see same-sex marriage here and in most parts of the developed world,” Gillard told Channel 9.

Those comments make me think of the segregationists of the 1950s and 60s. Did they know they were fighting a losing battle? Did they care?

When it comes time to judge our current crop of lawmakers in Australia, will they be on the right side of history, or the wrong side?


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