Watching a Red State Turn Blue

Dec 302008

By Jeerawat Na Thalang

I was sent on attachment to The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina to observe the U.S. election for 10 days. I felt very grateful that the program sent me there because I think I have witnessed the evolution of American society, at least from the perspective of this southern town.

I have been to the U.S. before. But I spent most of my time in the “blue” states. Raleigh, or North Carolina, was traditionally seen as conservative compared to others. There are quite a few churches around the hotel where I stayed and people I met often referred to their churches in our conservation. And there is a big group of African Americans. Besides, Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases, is located in North Carolina. And this is a strong base of Republicans.

From my shallow observation, I could see the rough distinction of Republicans and Democrats during the rallies that I’ve been to. Republicans are the white, military and older demographic group of people. I didn’t see much of African Americans during John McCain’s visit. Meanwhile, a large group of enthusiastic crowds, most of them African Americans, middle class whites and youngsters, turned up in full force during Barack Obama’s rally.

That reminds me of the political scene in Thailand where the supporters of opposing parties are so distinctive and one party is – rightly or wrongly – perceived as being for the urban and the other for the rural. And unlike the Americans, this political division in Thailand is getting worse. And there is the current debate in my country about whether it’s productive to have political affiliations that make the country divisive. Perhaps, we can look at the American system and see how people with different political beliefs and values can live together.

North Carolina has never been a competitive place during presidential elections… But North Carolina is changing. It is one of the fast-growing cities with new high-rises. Thus, it attracts migrants from other states who might not care as much about “values” as their economy. With the growing urbanization, North Carolina might reflect the changing face of America where the distinction between the two colors [red and blue] will be blurred.

I am amazed by the use and role of the TV ads and the late-night TV shows in U.S. politics. In Thailand, the TV commercials for politicians are new and the politicians tend to coyly introduce themselves on the TV ads. The American politicians seem to use the TV ads to their full advantage. Mud slinging is not new in Thai politics. But Thai politicians tend to speak it out instead of using the highly-stylized TV commercials to attack their opponents. Thai politicians still have certain reservations about using TV ads. Perhaps because it’s new in Thailand. The most effective tool that Thai politicians use is the billboard, with lots of promises. Behind the scenes, some politicians choose to leak to the press certain tips that can be character assassination of their opponents instead of blowing up the allegations on a TV ad, like the question of religious faith that North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole ran against Kay Hagan, her challenger from the Democratic Party.

And that may reflect the American culture and the influence of the media here. TV became the battlefield for the politicians. I managed to learn who’s who in North Carolina politics within a few days. I think that’s the benefit of the repetition of the political campaign ads on TV at all levels. I was also amazed by the role of the Late Night Shows on the politics: Saturday Night Live and quite a few of late night shows which tend to parody the political candidates. These shows become a factor to reckon with. This is a lesson for whoever covers the U.S. election that it is not only about pure politics, but the media, the celebrity and the pop culture.

The writer is senior writer for The Nation in Bangkok, Thailand.