At dinner the other night I was asked, "Do you think he will live?" The he in question, of course, being Barack Hussein Obama. Nor was this the first time I'd been asked this. I suspect that such fears are more widely held than you might care to think. And that left me thinking that for all that there's plenty of fine reporting from America in the British press, there has been, in some respects, a collective failure to understand how much the United States has changed. That is to say, it is always easier to focus upon tales of American weirdness, of gun-toting rednecks and bible-thumpers and all the rest of it. These are colourful parts of the American quilt, but they tend to receive disproportionate attention from the international press.
Of course, there are also plenty of Americans, as Dan Drezner suggests, who dismissed the possibility of a moment like this ever arriving too (as did a good number of African-Americans too) and only a fool would suggest that Obama's election itself can end the agonising over race that has, quite naturally, been a central, if not always acknowledged, part of the American experience. (It emains strikingly difficult for blacks to win statewide races, for instance, to say nothing of the gaps in educational achievement, infant mortality, incarceration etc etc.) Equally, its clear that some of the pride many Americans naturally feel today is mingled with an element of surprise that this day has in fact arrived at all.
Nonetheless, we've been slow, perhaps too slow, to appreciate how much has changed in the past 20 years, let alone the past 40. We're familiar with the stories of Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey; Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods; Will Smith and Denzel Washington but we've perhaps failed to fully appreciate the overall impact of the "colourisation" of American culture.
One consequence of this, I think, is how the international press has paid too little attention to the fact that, increasingly, class is replacing race as the biggest dividing line in America. Some of this, for sure, falls along racial lines. But not all of it. In some ways the kid growing up in a trailer park in rural West Virginia has more in common with the black boy in north Philly than either has with the suburban kids aspiring to Ivy League or the leading public universities.
What this means, I think, is that middle-class, college-educated America is indeed, in many ways, a "post-racial" society in which choices may be informed by race but are not necessarily determined by it. In working-class America - especially the poorer parts of the south and Appalachia, stretching through the Ozarks and into Oklahoma - this is not the case. The white working-class that identifies itself as "American-Americans" is increasingly alienated from the rest of the country, just as the corner kids in the inner-city are still being left behind.
By 2023, census estimates predict, "minorities" will make up a majority of children under 18; the country as a whole is predicted to be majority-minority by 2042. As matters stand right now, that's your Emerging Democratic Majority. Which is a problem for the Republican party that, at present, the GOP shows little sign of being able to address.
The challenge for the Republican party then is to find a way to address the needs of the working-class white America that is still reliably Republican that does not repel or trespass upon the sensitivities and interests of middle-class, affluent, suburban America. in other words, finding a way to build a coalition that transcends race and class. Right now, that seems a pretty tough proposition.