This past Primary season found me deep in the field, studying the politics of two rust-belt cities in Iowa. From the beginning, the Obama campaign was one to watch.
For example, my first election interview was with Don, vice president of the local bank, a big wheel at the Chamber of Commerce, a known name and leading citizen, and an Obama supporter. “He seems able to bring a couple of the sides together and find consensus”, Don had said, while “the others are running along the same old party lines”.
In a local context, these sentiments seemed only too natural. The economic “restructuring” of the 1970s had swept the captains of industry and populist politicians that once vied for local control from public life. In their place emerged new leaders like Don, who believe that uncertain economic times require avoiding “divisive” issues and reorienting civic life towards consensus driven “partnerships”: coming together to beautify downtown, create cultural amenities, and generally encourage economic development.
Ironically, Obama’s seemingly idealistic message of post-partisan cooperation appeared refreshingly pragmatic in this local context. This won Obama high profile supporters at a time when he was stumping in mostly-empty school gymnasiums, thus making the crucial Iowa caucus win possible.
In an election of historic firsts it is important to not overlook this one: Obama’s message attracted those with an increasingly dominant role in the economic and political life of the cities I studied—and I suspect this was true elsewhere. This could be a significant re-alignment, as further evidenced by nervousness about Obama among some traditional Democratic constituencies. Most probably assume that this nervousness stems from prejudice, but I think this misses the complexity of the situation.
On a local level, governing through “partnerships” often serves to sideline the contentious perspectives of actors insufficiently organized to have a “seat at the table”. If the Democratic Party is orienting itself towards those who favor a similar style nationally, those sidelined locally could loose their seat within the Party. Even a politics without “sides” produces “losers”.