The Politics of Culture in Southern Cali

The first place I ever really talked about politics was on the swing set of my elementary school playground. It was 1992, and Perot, Clinton, and George W. H. Bush were competing for the presidency. Recess was the time for discussing things – things like the paucity of the snack selection at school, or things like the future of the country. My best friend Grace and I both assumed that the other had watched the presidential debates on TV with our parents the night prior, and we proceeded to conduct a frank discussion about the valor of the candidates’ claims under the glare of the strong Southern California sun.

The element in question was whether George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton was the one who started his speech with the seemingly idiotic phrase, “My fellow Americans.” The person that would actually say something like that in all seriousness was automatically discounted from our primary-school caucus. Our fourth-grade selves had reached a small, pixie quorum that men with big ears (like Ross Perot), or men who were uninventive enough to use that tired terminology, were clearly unfit for office. Inside, we both knew that Clinton was the one who had said it, but I liked Clinton, so I kept quiet and tried to fool her into thinking it was Perot. Grace had by now climbed up to the top of the monkey bars, and from the top of her world, laughed out loud at the pedantic dorkiness of the man who was to become the Commander-in-Chief of the decade that gave birth to welfare reform, the personal computer, and hip-hop as the new definitive music of American life.

There in the small, neglected, lower middle-class desert towns east of the Los Angeles film industry, we became “multi-culti” young politicos by accident. Immigration from East Asia and Latin America in the 90’s meant that it was normal to be Taiwanese, and everyone bragged about their vida loca, if it really wasn’t all that loca.

In junior high, the sounds of TuPac, Pearl Jam, and Selena all got equal turns on our CD players, and while we might of disagreed about taxes or abortion, at least we had an abundance of hair gel to glue us all together. Equipped with burritos, Boba milk tea and barbeque, we were the coincidental characters in Obama’s “next great chapter in the American story.”

Now in my mid-twenties, I live in Washington, D.C., a town full of people trying to actively script the next great chapter in the American story. However, like with most stories, the turns and twists – the variations on the plot – are the most exciting parts.

For professional political operatives, the politics of culture have come to mean more than previously thought. A progressive campaign speaking to the needs of those dis-serviced by Washington’s insiders actually won this time. Come to think of it, Obama might have even have gotten ahead by using the phrase “my fellow Americans”…but that doesn’t much matter now.

What does matter is that our candidates pay attention to the politics that matter most – the politics of every day life.

Back home in California, people have problems with home foreclosures, with environmental racism, with a failing economy. California is the fifth largest economy in the world, yet the state can’t balance its budget. In L.A., many young people don’t vote because they think it won’t make a difference; here in D.C., the most politicized, intellectually potent state of the union, people are very passionate about voting, but feel like they haven’t actually seen it make a difference yet.

It will make a difference, though. Our generation might lack consensus, but we’ll never lack a good soundtrack. We can help each other along the way, much like Lila Downs can maybe help our legislature do a little Capitol Hill cumbia in the direction of fairness, justice, and equality.

I’m from generation of dreams and downbeats – and that’s why I’m voting this November 4th.