David Simon On Obama’s Victory And America’s Political Future

The Wire and Treme creator David Simon has a tremendous post up about President Obama’s reelection that is also a back-door explanation for why Simon’s own work in television. He writes, among other things, that:

America is different now, more so with every election cycle. Ronald Reagan won his mandate in an America in which 89 percent of the voters were white. That number is down to 72 percent and falling. Fifty thousand new Latino citizens achieve the voting age every month. America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can comfortably walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance…

This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This phrase stuck out at me, the idea of people “who can comfortably walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference.” My friend Tyler Lewis and I spend a lot of time talking about the real losses that would come to culture from being “post-racial” if such a thing were possible. It makes characters flatter to insist that their experiences living as a person of whatever race they are have had as little influence on their character and outlook as a sip of water has on the tongue, just as it does so to create characters who represent only racial tropes, uninflected by generation, or geography, or profession, or groups of friends, or cultural exposure. David Simon’s work has always occupied a rare space in between the colorless of race neutrality and the obscurantism of race as the only important fact about a character: his characters lives are shaped by race, including, and sometimes even especially in the case of Jimmy McNulty, their whiteness. And Simon is interested in how living as members of particular races and ethnicities have shaped his characters because he’s interested every single thing about the people he conjures to life on screen.

That ability to be interested in difference rather than intimidated by it, and to approach the things that make someone different from you not as a matter of anthropology but out of desire to know them, is critical to the political distinctions Simon is drawing here. For so long, our politics have been split between ideas like Mark Penn’s theory of microtargeting, which aimed to divide up the population into easily comprehensible interest groups based on shared characteristics, or the uglier, more pervasive strain of thinking that President Obama’s blackness, like that of all African-Americans, is the most defining thing about him. It’s time to abandon that tendency to predict–or diagnose–behavior from a distance maintained out of distaste and fear. And it’s time to embrace a politics oriented towards a genuine desire to understand and appreciate difference, a process that allows for mistakes and clarification as a necessary precondition for growth. It’s made for astonishing television. It could make for transformative politics.