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Obama: American Idol Phenomena or Mandate for Change?

By Lucy Belnora
Review | January 11, 2010

barack-obama-1.jpgSALINA, Kan. - The ninth season of the hit television program American Idol is scheduled to begin tomorrow night, almost a year after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States. Professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at the University of Maryland Law School, authored a provocative essay exploring the link between the two phenomena.

From Idol to Obama: What TV Elections Teach Us About Race, Youth & Voting appears in the recently released collection of essays Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America's New Leadership. The book, edited by Manning Marable, professor of history and political science, and public affairs at Columbia University includes the contribution of over a dozen scholars analyzing the significance of the election of President Obama.

In her essay, Ifill makes the argument that "elections" on television programs like American Idol strongly influenced young people who ultimately entered the electorate during the period of Obama's presidential campaign. Rather than just isolated pop culture phenomena, she believes that these television talent programs have essentially shaped the voting expectations of millions of young people.

Ifill notes that each year more than 32 million votes are cast each week in the final weeks of American Idol. The use of telephone voting, the ability to cast multiple ballots for one candidate, and even the dramatic racial controversies that have emerged on American Idol over the years, have all influenced young voters.

She says that Obama's campaign tapped into a young electorate that had been trained by television voting, and used techniques that seemed familiar to those voters.

Whether using text messaging (to inform his supporters about the choice of Senator Joe Biden as his running mate) or encouraging "early voting" (putting voter convenience ahead of the traditional crunch of "election day" voting), Obama's campaign appealed to young people whose formative voting experiences were shaped as part of a television "electorate."

Ifill also argues that we can learn important lessons about how to improve the political election process, by examining voting on programs like American Idol.

Other essays included in Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America's New Leadership collectively examine the evolution of black leadership and politics since the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the nation's most influential intellectuals bring together original scholarship to examine politics in the context of American race relations.

"Manning Marable has assembled an impressive array of thinkers to insightfully probe the varied dimensions of American black politics in the Age of Obama. While keeping their eyes on the nation's first black president, they also look to the larger landscape of social and political forces, and figures, that gave rise to the Obama phenomenon and to which Obama and all other black politicians must respond. This book is a brilliant primer of progressive black political analysis, and a forceful reminder that race is still a formidable feature of American life in a time where too many believe that we have completely overcome our brutal racial past." - Michael Eric Dyson, author of Can You Hear Me Now?

Various authors look at the phenomenon of Barack Obama while others put Obama's rise to power in an entire continuum of African American political leaders.


1 Comment

Thanks for another great article, Lucy.
I love book reviews.
Now, I know what to read next!


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