A Promise?

The American Dream has been like the polestar for my generation. We grew up trusting its constant light to guide our lives, comforted and inspired by the way it made simple sense of the infinite possibilities out there. For white middle-class Americans like me, the Dream quite simply delivered. We eagerly consumed it, and we took it for granted. We were so complacent about our American Dream that many of us could not truly understand the yearning and deeper implications of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

But the more I followed events in the U.S. presidential race over the recent Labor Day weekend, the clearer it became how much I have taken for granted, and not just socially and politically. In real time, as events unfolded, I was able to check out video clips and documents both historical and recent, read opinions online, gossip and argue with distant friends, and reflect on how it all relates to business and marketing.

After watching Barack Obama accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, with his emphasis on the American Promise and his reference to King’s historic speech, I was able to go back 45 years in a couple of clicks. I watched King again and again on YouTube. And despite all the talk of our “sound-bite culture,” I was able to view his speech in its entirety, rather than just the famous bits. And I was surprised to discover that before he described his dream so vibrantly, King spoke about promises. He started by describing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as promissory notes, promises that had not been kept to the country’s citizens of color.

It’s a stirring measure of how much has changed in 45 years that Obama could stand tall and confident as the Democratic presidential candidate and outline American hopes and aspirations not in the visionary language of dreams but in the concrete language of promises. The promises he outlined were spoken in 21st-century, future-ready language, not just to the white middle class of my youth but to the multicultural America of now that must thrive in order for any of us to regain a sense of good old American can-do.

Dream — out. Promise — in. In this simple shift of language and emphasis, Obama woke me up, giving me an uplifting sense that his life experience and his wife’s embody a promise that can be kept for any and every American.

I took three lessons from watching Obama at the convention, and from later digesting John McCain’s announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The first lesson is about leadership in politics and beyond. There are times in life when leaders emerge who have such robust convictions and who so resonate with our needs that we can rally behind them and believe in their turnaround plans, even if those plans remain works in progress. Reflecting on other areas of need in our country, I couldn’t help but think what might have been different if there had been comparable leadership in the American automotive industry these past five years, or in tackling childhood obesity at the national level, or in untangling the subprime fiasco that has become the key force in sucking the nation’s confidence dry. Leadership counts, and we’ve been very short on real leaders for far too long.

The second lesson I took from the week is the importance of multimedia in modern politics. The campaigning has taken the late John F. Kennedy Jr.’s belief that politics is pop culture (epitomized in his George magazine) and made it real. Certainly, my Labor Day weekend was spent channel surfing, reading blogs, swapping insights and ideas with friends on the other side, in good fun. I imagine Kennedy would be so pleased to know his concept was right on — just 15 years ahead of its time, as most great ideas are. Thanks to our multichannel media environment, hundreds of thousands of Americans were able to revisit Obama’s acceptance speech and compare it with video of previous speeches, as well as King’s famous address, then read coast-to-coast commentary on all of them and maybe even bone up on and debate the finer points of the Constitution.

The notion of media multitasking and politics as pop culture is interesting in itself, but it’s contributing to Americans becoming more and more polarized. It enables us to cluster quickly and easily around outlets that confirm our views and avoid those that challenge them. We’re Fox viewers, or NRA members, MSNBC viewers, or pro-choice. We react positively to Sarah Palin or to Joe Biden and seek out further confirmation of our opinions. We crystallize them fast, and we’re arguing them the same way we speculate on what will happen to Serena and Blair and Chuck in the new season of Gossip Girl.

While our core values and political preferences are clearly more pressing than the lives of our favorite television twits, there is a common thread: Gossip matters. We are thirsting for debate; TV networks and blogs are providing the platform; people are talking — and listening. The sources we’re drawing from and commenting on are a robust mix. From the Financial Times to the Huffington Post to Wikipedia, we’re grazing and swapping our points of view, listening to talking heads expatiate on whether Palin looks like Tina Fey, or if she’s just a populist upstart who’s a second alternative to the American Dream. This is the future, and it’s serious pop culture. Media, and our participation in it, has replaced Starbucks as our new third place, the great American respite.

The third lesson for me has been about the notion of three categories of people in America: the have-hads, the have-achieveds, and the will-haves. Before this election season, I tended to be increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of will-haves in this country, those people who embrace hard work and chase the promise. Now, thanks to Obama, I’ve got a sense of what could reinvigorate American youth to be aspirational without expecting instant gratification for their efforts. The Obamas represent a promise that took hard work, sacrifice, loans and paybacks. Their desire to team up with the Bidens (a family which has been dealt its own share of sacrifice) is a vivid, inspiring example of the American Promise.

Prior to this election season, I often wondered whether our America is just the chauvinistic, white-man’s world of Mad Men with less smoking and more overweight people. But now, I think America can evolve enough to present a blended, multicultural face. Take Biden’s middle-class upbringing, blond grandchildren, schoolteacher wife and son Beau, who ships out next month, and combine them with Obama’s biracial heritage, hardworking single mother, Ivy League loans and hypoallergenic puppy. By choosing these candidates, we are finally putting the best of reality forward. No excuses, no dreams, but lots of promises. The imperfections are encouraging — no denials about inhaling, no pretensions of perfect fathers, no excuses about skeletons that may rattle out of closets. Together, the Obamas and Bidens hold out the American Promise for the rest of the world: We’re real, and we’re ready to join with you, not as a with-us-or-against-us superior force but as a powerful inclusive world leader, ready to bring our strength to the table to address problems near and far.

As for Mad Men, is it just a coincidence that it’s set 45 years ago, when Dr. King shared his vision and Madison Avenue was selling advertising dreams? I can’t help wondering whether some of my generation, and some in the advertising industry, emotionally hark back to that era. Fortunately, Obama’s historic American Promise speech is a wake-up call and a measure of huge progress since that era. We’re moving on from those fashions, those rules of engagement and those arrogant assumptions.

Marian Salzman, partner and CMO of Porter Novelli, is co-author of more than a dozen books including Next Now: Trends for the Future. Her resume includes senior positions at Chiat/Day, Young & Rubicam, Euro RSCG and JWT. The views contained in this piece are the author’s, and not those of her employer or colleagues.