Under the futon couch in Lester Spence's office at the Johns Hopkins University, where he's been associate professor of political science since 2005, there's a totem of the rigors of academic life: a sleeping bag. Sometimes, to do the things you love-in Spence's case, wrapping his head around black political empowerment and urban politics in America as an academic and jumping in on the national conversation as a cultural critic-you have to catch winks at work. The all-nighter ethic has paid off: his first book, 2011's Stare in the Darkness, tackled hip-hop's political impact; his award-winning teaching has made his Hopkins classes immensely popular; and his academic writings continue apace with appearances on National Public Radio and other contributions to mass media. Seeking insights on the upcoming presidential election and Baltimore's political culture, we sat down in his office at Hopkins' Homewood campus for a chat.
City Paper: How long have you been studying presidential politics?
CP: You've predicted that Obama is going to win, right? And that's not shaken?
LS: No. It's still possible-this isn't rocket science. I think the FiveThirtyEight Blog [at The New York Times] is really helpful. We've got all these polls, so what FiveThirtyEight does is look at aggregated state polls. In Ohio, like six out of seven polls show Obama winning this, and if you've got six out of seven polls saying the same thing, it's likely to be right. On top of that, the structural things that the Republican Party is doing to suppress the non-Republican Party vote-to suppress the black vote, the youth vote, the Latino vote-they are not going to suppress enough votes to overcome that gap. So that's why I believe Obama's going to win.
The debates, to me, aren't necessarily about determining who's going to win the presidency; they represent an attempt to reconfigure the default approach that American citizens have towards government. The default approach since 1980, since the election of Ronald Reagan, has been that government doesn't work and that, to the extent that we've got problems, they are caused by government, so what we should do is let entrepreneurs and businesses do what they do, because that will create kind of a spillover effect by which we all benefit.
CP: Until it crashes.
LS: Exactly. So what Obama's goal should be is to not just beat Romney, but to show that that mode of government is bankrupt-to let people see with their eyes, because the proof is all around us. He hasn't done that to the extent that I believe he should. But, to be fair, Obama and I have different politics. I'm farther to the left than he is.
CP: Romney, at the end of the second debate, just interjected: "Government does not create jobs." And Obama seemed like he basically agreed. But their policy prescriptions presume that government policy can create jobs.
LS: So the quickest response to "the government doesn't create jobs" is, "Well, why are you applying for my job? If government doesn't create jobs, what exactly are you applying for?" Second, I would say, "Well, why did your vice president just write us a letter asking for stimulus money? Because the stimulus actually provides growth." And he doesn't need to make the argument; all he needs to do is cut down that position. And that's where Obama misses. Because he's drank the free-market Kool-Aid. I mean, hell, I watched the debate on Xbox Live-through the internet. The internet is a government creation! We don't have the internet without government! Right? So when you say "government doesn't create jobs," what the hell are you talking about? That's the type of thing that it's on Obama to actually overturn.
CP: How do you think it's playing among black voters this time around?
LS: The best way to understand the relationship between Obama and black voters is to just think about the relationship between first-term black mayors and their black constituents. So we just think about when [former Baltimore mayor Kurt] Schmoke was elected. Or Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Richard Hatcher [in Gary, Ind.], Marion Barry [in Washington, D.C.]. When they are first elected, there is this moment of extreme joy. It's like, "Oh my god, I never thought this would be possible! Look at this-this is just absolutely awesome!" The whole world looks different, a whole range of opportunities open up that didn't seem possible before. But then, governance kicks in, and politics is extremely messy. The city is constrained by a number of factors-by state factors, by economic factors, by corporations and what they want to do. So the elected official has to deal with nonblack shareholders and partners, and it becomes really hard-and then doubt kicks in and reality sets in. All we have to do is take that and multiply it. So what's happening with Obama is there's this moment of extreme joy, but then governance creeps in, and you see that there are all sorts of ways he's constrained. A number of us still commit to voting for him, but the sheen has worn off. So he's going to get 90, 95 percent of the black vote, like he did last time, but turnout probably won't be the same.
CP: Well, that's the thing-turnout. The marriage-equality question in Maryland motivates a lot of people in black communities, I think.
LS: Yeah, it motivates black religious elites. And it does motivate people on the ground. There's a brother who works here, a real good brother, he works kind of in security, and the last time I talked to him, he doesn't know who he's going to vote for, largely because of the marriage equality issue, and he doesn't support the position that gays should be able to marry.
CP: And that rubs off on his position on whether he should vote for Obama?
LS: Yes. And when I talked to him, he hadn't made a decision. But he's an outlier. The number of people for whom that matters in black communities, above the other stuff, is very small.
CP: But if you're an active church member and your church leader says this is anathema, is that going to motivate?
LS: No. It'll motivate some, but in presidential elections there are a whole series of other motivating factors. So these people are worshippers, but they are looking at other things. You are talking about people now who have three images in their homes: it used to be just Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr., now it's Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Most people are going to say, "No. My pastor, I love him, but no, this guy needs to get in again."
CP: Your doctoral thesis was about Detroit.