New York Times columnist Gail Collins pens a colourful - albeit whimsical - piece on the history of public interest in politics in the United States. She contrasts the rowdy, crowded and often bloody character of US politics a century ago to its comparatively tranquil and staid modern incarnation. While unconvincingly suggesting that video games and women are responsible for this transformation, she briefly points in a more compelling direction:
People are also less enthusiastic about politics because they no longer think of their political affiliation as being central to their identity. Once reformers arrived with the 20th century, Americans were taught to prove they were good citizens by studying the party platforms, not by getting in a fistfight at a bar. Since nobody actually did study the party platforms, folks simply slunk home and waited for the invention of radio and professional sports teams.
If we accept Collins' description as largely true for the US, how does the American example stack up against the world? Take, for example, the nature of student politics, so often the cauldron in which political identities are forged (or not forged). Twinned with violence, bristling senses of political affiliation remain common around the world. One need only look so far as an Indian college campus, for instance, to feel the uncomfortable heat of party political identity. Elsewhere, fierce party identities may induce less violence but are no less prevalent. In British student unions, aspiring student politicians are affiliated with political parties. In their American equivalents, on the other hand, such naked and presumptuous politicking would be totally out of place. Why does party identity persist in many parts of the world and not in the US?
Collins doesn't ask what it means in a democracy for party identity to be out of vogue. But even without the bluster of party tribalism, American politics cannot substitute "modern" indifference for cool, reasoned engagement.
Here’s a first conversational stab at the point that Obama vs. McCain — while it’s not the world’s election — is a world event like no US presidential campaign before it. This is partly the Web effect, which puts millions, maybe billions, of people in the churn of daily information about the campaign. And it’s even moreso the resonance of Barack Obama, who’s been dubbed “Germany’s favorite politician at the moment” (in Germany) and “definitively… the candidate of Europe” (in Portugal), as Shmuel Rosner of Ha’aretz wrote in Slate this Spring.
It’s different and remarkable, furthermore, as the young editor of openUSA, Kanishk Tharoor, remarks in our conversation, that interest abroad in US politics seems based less on calculations of US foreign policy toward nations and continents like China, say, or Africa or the Middle East. The fascination seems rather with “underlying issues like race, like generation, like globalism.” And the provocative effect of the fascination shows up, for example, in a piece written for openUSA from India that asks: “Can there be a Muslim Obama?” Or as Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy puts it in this conversation from London, Obama “unlocks possibility. He unlocks the imagination. If he could do that, what could I do? What could we do?”
While Obama claims to seek the "transcending of race" in the United States, his campaign for the White House is having quite opposite effects elsewhere in the world. According to the New York Times, Obama's success is spurring African youth in France - where institutionalised laïcité suppresses the recognition of religious and racial identities - to return to Négritude, the black intellectual movement of the 1920s and 30s that was pioneered by the late Franco-Caribbean writer and politician Aimé Césaire.
Accepted wisdom has it that Barack Obama's race and mixed background will help repair the image of America abroad. This is supposed to be particularly true in west Asia. As Yasser Khalil wrote in the Christian Science Monitor recently, Obama's Muslim heritage and promised diplomatic approach to the region could herald a new dawn in the US' relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
Nouri Luhemiya on The Moor Next Door blog offers an altogether darker suggestion. Critiquing the way Obama's international appeal has been represented, Nouri writes:
The reporter, like many, focuses on Obama’s blackness as an asset outside of the United States. It is not quite PC to ask whether or not it would be a hindrance. My view is that, when one gets to a certain level of power, his color does not matter whatsoever. He will be treated with respect by heads of state, though there may be some gaffes on the part of European or Asian leaders.
It is interesting, though, to ask, just for asking’s sake, whether or not Turks, Syrians, Egyptians, or other peoples in the Muslim world would elect someone like Barack Obama. My guess is that they would not. (The status of blacks in Middle Eastern countries, in everyday life and even folk traditions lead me to this conclusion.) This also makes me skeptical as to the extent to which Obama’s “face” could dissuade people in the region from becoming or remaining anti-American. There is an exceptional amount of severe contempt that many Levantines hold for black people (and other dark skinned people), that many Westerners, especially Americans, entirely miss. I do not know for sure where it comes from on the whole. Part of it is surely the identification of blackness with social and racial inferiority, the result of the fact that blacks and most dark-skinned Arabs have slave ancestry (Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people). Being black is not as much an asset in the Muslim world as it is in American white liberal circles.
It is hard to believe that the ascension of a non-white leader to the Oval Office would not change in small part the way much of the world, including west Asia, sees the US. Surely even the most bigoted Levantine would register the momentous nature of an Obama presidency. Nevertheless, Nouri is right in his general scepticism. America observers are not simpletons; a charismatic "change in face" is no substitute for the much more arduous and subtle change in policy.
The US Constitution has come under the cross-hairs of a group that wants to fundamentally change the way America elects its presidents. The National Popular Vote campaign seeks to do away with the elaborate electoral college system by the 2012 presidential election, replacing the "vote of states" with a species of more direct popular election. Calls for the sweeping change - which would have indelible effects on the way campaigns are strategised and run - have gained momentum since 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost out in the electoral college. Lawmakers would be forced to amend the Constitution in order to put such a system in effect, a process that requires the consent of three-quarters of states and a two-thirds majority in Congress.
Proponents of the popular vote argue that presidential candidates ignore so-called "safe states" - like California and New York - in favour of the more contested "swing states" - Ohio, Florida, etc. Its critics fear that a turn to the popular vote would push the already isolated rural communities of the country further off the political map. At the base of the debate is an underlying tension between the city and the hinterland, the coast and the heartland. Would a popular vote - democratic election in its simplest, purest form - strand small-town America in the wilderness?
On Time's RealClearPolitics blog, Bob Beckel - Walter Mondale's campaign manager for the 1984 presidential election - finds clear parallels between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Barack Obama's current political circumstance is eerily similar to that of Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign for president. Both Obama and Reagan, from the beginning of their insurgent campaigns, were viewed as transformative political figures. Both enjoyed passionate grassroots support.
Both men had defeated centrist establishment candidates for their party's nomination. Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush, who was viewed by the growing conservative base of the Republican Party as too moderate. Obama beat Hilary Clinton whose husband had been elected twice by moving away from his party's traditional progressive roots and running as a centrist, a path Clinton herself followed (at least at the beginning of her campaign).
Fair enough, but these sorts of comparisons are made too often, to the point that they risk meaninglessness. Trans-Atlantic banter is rife with them: the moment that brought on the reign of Tony Blair, who is twinned to Bill Clinton, is likened to the supposedly imminent catastrophe awaiting the Republicans in November, which is likely to be replicated in 2010 when the Conservatives sweep into power behind Cameron, who in his powers of re-invention and vision is very much like Obama, who now echoes Reagan, who was an American Thatcher. So by two degrees of this kind of abstracting separation, Obama finds himself hand-in-hand with Margaret Thatcher. Has this improved our understanding of American politics? I doubt it.
There will be Obama Republicans in 2008 just as there were Reagan Democrats through the 1980s. Reagan, however, did not drift far from the anchor of conservative politics. Obama has promised to hurdle the "red-blue" divide. Can he do this while being as progressive as Reagan was conservative?
The extraordinary, compelling race in the United States for the Democratic Party's presidential nominee has been settled in favour of Barack Obama. But a moment of triumph can also be one of danger. The candidate must now think seriously and decide what kind of candidate he wants to be. On the answer will depend his chances of success in the election on 4 November 2008.
A good friend of mine, who is a local personal acquaintance of Obama's in Chicago, mentioned to me an interesting trait of the Illlinois Senator: his personal thoughtfulness, going further than most politicians in thanking people for favours. This seems to come out of the way he identifies himself, as an everyday human being rather than a VIP. As most Americans who’ve known national political candidates will tell you, this is not common among successful politicians, many of whom seem to have turned into the person they have been outwardly exhibiting for years, or who live double identities, one as a normal person behind closed doors, and another who is constantly performing. And as we know, in a television age and an entertainment culture, the demands of constant performance can seem to warp the sensibilities of the performer.
The issue of sexism and whether it hurt Hillary is an important question. There isn't yet equality for women in the USA, not to speak of elsewhere. There needs to be. But the argument is apparently still raging.
Albert R Hunt of Bloomberg news lays out an elaborate case about why Hillary's sex was not what hurt her.
The case is much simpler and can be definitely demonstrated. Hillary didn't win what was hers for the taking because of a political judgement. Had she voted against the Iraq war she would have been the candidate, long ago. She talked about her "experience", not least in her White House years. But these ensured that she and Bill knew how weak Saddam was militarily and that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction. They fully understood the politics of the decision. She also made her call knowing how unpopular it would be with the younger generation in the Democratic Party.
The point I'm making is this: if she had not backed Bush on Iraq, Obama's early, critical distinction would not have existed. She was in poll position to take the nomination, she lost it because she made a fundamental mistake of judgement. The media will go on about how she ran a flawed campaign, was "out-strategised" and so forth. It's nonsense - the media loves to talk about style, methods, techniques, appearances, perceptions, all of which feeds its narcissism. It was political judgement that lost if for her, just as it would have done had she been a man.
The Hispanic vote in the swing states, on a plate. This, in the kind of clumsily indiscreet code language that serves as competition for Obama’s vice-presidential slate, is what New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson regards as the key to Democrat victory. It is not hard to see that he wants the job: when asked directly, he recited the names of those undecided states, Colorado, Nevada and Florida, as if they were courses of a fine banquet.
This was a Monday morning under the gilded fronds and angelic chorus of the Casa de América, central Madrid. Ambassadors to Spain were there, as were the literati, the politically wired, and the media. Miguel Barroso, director of this excellent cultural centre and one of Prime Minister Zapatero’s closest friends, sat by Richardson’s side.
Obama's general election strategy seeks to aggressively court voters in traditionally Republican states. On the one hand, as the New York Times suggests, Obama may not be as committed to a "new politics" as he claims to be, and is readying himself to "play dirty". On the other, Obama is relying on broad-based grassroots and internet organisation to build support. As one seasoned campaigner told openUSA, Obama's many grassroots initiatives, including the Obama Organising Fellows, are unprecedented in presidential campaigns.
Obama deliberately refused to resort to many traditional tactics in his contest with Hillary Clinton, never attacking her personally. In this way, he appeared to rise above the "petty politics" of the past and embody a newer, ennobled mode of political action. Does the groundswell of popular support for Obama echo the newness of his personal politics? Is it possible to turn a bid for the Oval Office into a social movement? And if it is a social movement, what is it about beyond Obama?
With the general election before us, the presidential campaign has at last shifted to the contest most of us have been relishing. John McCain vs. Barack Obama seems a battle of stark contrast: age against youth, experience against brash confidence, the "Great American Century" against 21st century global pluralism. Both project vastly different images of leadership and, consequently, seem to offer equally different options for America.
But what makes both candidates so compelling - particularly in comparison to their predecessors - is that neither are really products of their respective party establishments. As Anne Applebaum points out in the Daily Telegraph, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee won the support of the "bases" of the Democrat and Republican parties - "blue-collar" whites in the blue corner and conservatives in the red corner. Applebaum suggests that McCain and Obama appeal principally to "unpredictable centrists" and represent an unprecedented a-partisan shift in American politics.
Yet the candidates didn't simply navigate away from their party's "bases" into fresh, politically uncharted territory. The earth has moved beneath the parties' feet. Obama and McCain were wise to spot this change, but it is a transformation they have noticed, not made.
Bob Marley and Barack Obama are the absent heroes of the 8th annual Calabash literary festival in Jamaica: Marley, because his music and poetry incarnate the living “reggae aesthetic” (with the pan-African, Judaeo-Christian, sexual, political and celebratory overtones which the poet and Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes expounds in conversation here). And Obama, because he seems to stand for a possibility that is artistic as well as political — for the idea that imagination can lead the way, that shocking transformations can develop before our eyes. I don’t know how many people I heard say things like: “I never thought that I would live to see the Berlin Wall fall down,” or more often: “I never thought I would see the day when Nelson Mandela walked free in South Africa. And I never thought I’d see a black man nominated for president in the United States.” So the suspense of the Obama moment in America touches this gathering of writers and readers in the West Indes. And for many of the writers I interviewed at Calabash, the Obama moment in America has implications that are artistic as well as political. The poet Yusef Komunyakaa made the literary link with Obama this way: “I think it has everything to do with possibility,” he said. “The writer is definitely a dreamer.”
So I asked a number of the writers at Calabash to fill in the connection between the Barack Obama politics back in the States with the stories and poems and dreams being read out to a couple of thousand listeners on a beach in the Caribbean in this late spring of 2008.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50