Professors wonder how much change there will be with Obama administration

WALTHAM, Mass. – Barack Obama’s election is a watershed event in U.S. history, but it does not assure that American society will be transformed for the better, a panel of Brandeis politics, history and economics professors concluded at a recent forum on the election results.

About 140 students, faculty and alumni crowded Rapaporte Treasure Hall to hear the discussion, which was part of the Brandeis Spotlight Forum series. The event was moderated by Guy Raz ’96, a veteran foreign correspondent who is on leave as National Public Radio’s Pentagon correspondent.

"We have to see how it’s going to be, how he governs," said Peniel Joseph, an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies who achieved national prominence during the campaign as an analyst for PBS and a source for leading journalists.

"We also have to see what this isn’t," Joseph cautioned. "People are talking about the end of racism. I don’t think it is necessarily going to be that.

"Obama’s victory doesn’t eliminate poverty, it doesn’t make Harvard or Brandeis hire more black faculty, which they should," Joseph said. While the first press conference, the first State of the Union message, and the first family pictures from the White House all will be historic, "if there is no difference between 2009 and 2013 in the number African Americans in positions of power, then we will have to question the transformative influence."

John Ballantine Jr., a senior lecturer at Brandeis International Business School, said that it is unclear whether the election will be a transformative event or merely a swing of the political pendulum toward the center or center-left.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a new American system out of the ruins of the economic crash of the 1930s, but the role FDR carved out for government was deeply resented by a core of Americans who finally succeeded in undoing Roosevelt’s New Deal with the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and the deregulatory fervor that started with President Reagan and continued through the administration of George W. Bush.

Now, with the country already in deep economic difficulty and a wave of bankruptcies, recession and panic in prospect, Obama will not easily be able to finance the changes in energy, health-care and taxation policies that he has promised, Ballantine said.

Mingus Mapps, an assistant professor of politics, presented extensive analysis of data from the last quarter-century and from this week’s balloting and asserted that the Republican Party is in much deeper trouble than the loss of a single presidential election might indicate.

The data show that many people of color – whose proportion in American society is steadily increasing – have formed solid loyalties to the Democratic Party. Alleged resentment of Obama by Hillary Clinton supporters and of blacks by Latinos – both subjects much discussed during the campaign – did not materialize on Election Day, when Obama ran extremely well among women and Hispanics.

Much racial and gender polarization exists in the electorate and was apparent in the primaries, Mapps said, but this did not negatively affect the Democrats in the final contest. The fact that the Democrats could put a black candidate at the top of the ticket and not drive other types of voters away makes this ``an important historic and symbolic moment,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, "the Republicans are in a demographic trap," Mapps said. "The Republican strategy is about maintaining as a base a group [whites] that is becoming more and more of a minority."

Jill Greenlee, an assistant professor of politics who studies women in politics, said the 2008 campaign was not remarkable in terms of voting patterns among women, who since the 1980s have consistently supported the Democratic Party in greater proportions than men. Nevertheless, the 56 percent to 43 percent margin by which women favored the Democratic ticket was very significant, Greenlee said.

She pointed out that women achieved record levels of membership in both houses of Congress in this week’s voting, but those numbers have long been on a steady, incremental rise.

Young voters, however, were a major new factor, Greenlee said. The youth vote was more heavily Democratic – 66 percent to 31 percent – than ever before, and young volunteers using new technologies were the backbone of the campaign.

She, too, said it remains to be seen whether Obama’s victory "is a lasting change or a blip on the screen."

If new young voters attach themselves strongly to the Democratic Party and continue the activism they demonstrated in the campaign, Greenlee said, "this could mean a sea-change."

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