THE PLANK OCTOBER 29, 2008
My colleague Chris remains skeptical that Jindal—as yet another “dark-skinned man with [a] foreign-sounding name”—would be able to overcome the backlash from the GOP’s white working-class base, at least in time for the 2012 presidential election. Chris asks some good questions—prompting responses from Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison, and others—but I’d also point out that Bobby has already proven his ability to overcome some of these exact suspicions.
I’ll admit that Louisiana, as an oddball Southern state, is hardly indicative of how the Republican base would react to a Jindal candidacy. But, as I mention in my original post, it wasn’t the multicultural, multiethnic denizens of Louisiana’s cities who sent Jindal to the governor’s mansion. Bobby managed to prevail in that election precisely because he was able to win over the voters who brought David Duke into office, by going from church door to church door in Louisiana’s rural north and giving testimony. There is nothing that seems more rousing for evangelicals than a redemption narrative: Much as Bush’s conversion seemed to atone for his youthful transgressions, Jindal’s intense religious conversion—reinforced by his fundamentalist hardline on social issues—blotted out his foreign-seeming qualities and redeemed him before suspicious voters.
Accordingly, I agree with Ross that Jindal might be able to avoid the brush of Otherness that has dogged Obama, whose "name, ancestry and skin color have dovetailed with other aspects of his background - from his liberation-theology church to the academic-lefty and urban-machine milieu." Jindal has achieved such improbable success because he’s the quintessential assimilationist. Unlike Obama, who has highlighted his experience as a community organizer throughout the election, Jindal’s biography isn’t about overcoming adversity within the system; it’s about meeting and exceeding all the expectations of the system itself. The country’s youngest governor has never stopped being the overachieving, straight-A student at any point in his professional career, catapulting himself through the ranks by winning over senior politicians and scoring a series of series of high-level political appointments. Jindal continues to ride high on his reputation as wunderkind—someone who can make the system better because he’s just smarter than the rest of us—and his social conservatism allows him to pull it off without being tagged as a elitist.
I’d add, moreover, that most of the suspect associations that Ross mentions Obama to a distinctly African American version of Otherness. Jindal’s skin may be dark, but it’s not black. While this may not be an important distinction to all voters who harbor racial prejudices, it could bolster Jindal’s chances in conservative strongholds that Obama still can’t crack. Historically, Asian Americans have been able to assimilate and enter the ranks of America’s power elite more quickly than other minorities; Indian-Americans, for one, are the country’s wealthiest immigrant group. It’s mostly because new Asian arrivals tend to come from more privileged middle-class background than their counterparts, but it’s also because there is a strong tendency to value assimilation and play down “Otherness” within many Asian immigrant families. Jindal, after all, famously began using the name "Bobby" instead of "Piyush" at age 4, after watching the Brady Bunch—precisely the inverse of Obama’s evolution from “Barry” to "Barack."