The world's American election: a conversation

David Hayes
4 November 2008

The United States presidential election has provoked huge attention in the rest of the world. But there are different kinds of engagement. Some are explored on the day of the vote by three friends in a London cafe, as imagined by David Hayes.

Why are we here and what is this micro-recorder doing, one of you asked on the way in. The reason I decided to invite you is that it seems we have spent most of the last two years obsessing about the United States presidential election. Now it's approaching its climax, and afterwards everything will be different - including the nature of our conversation. So before letting go, I wanted to gather together - on the day of the vote - and to recall what it has been all been about for each of us non-Americans, and to explore and share our different perspectives one last time.

A change moment

Ben: What has been is at its heart is three things. First, an inspiring and epic democratic contest for the position of the most powerful and influential leader in the world - the one with the most capacity to do good or ill.

Second, the American presidential race is the most exciting of all elections - a kaleidoscope of local and national competitions, personal dramas, opinion-poll trends, media surprises, displays of emotion and raw power. It really is – as the BBC correspondent says - "the greatest political show on earth"!

Third, this particular race has been dominated and shaped by the involvement of Barack Obama. He is the most transformative figure to appear on the American political stage for decades. His voice, his story, his message - and the methods of his extraordinary campaign, including his use of new technologies to mobilise supporters and raise funds - have made this a historic election. Whatever happens on 4 November 2008, this is and will always be Barack Obama's election. He has already changed America.

All these are reasons enough to be involved - because we are involved. This is a world story, our story, a 21st-century story; the equivalent of the one in my own country, South Africa, at the end of the 20th century. An epic, thrilling event which I fervently hope ends in the election of a president who represents the true - diverse and multiracial - America to the world, and because of that can begin to repair the terrible damage of the George W Bush years.

It's a privilege to be alive and part of it.

Rona: That's a great blast of enthusiasm. It goes to the heart of what many people feel, that this could be a sort of pivotal moment in history - and not just in the United States. But it's worth mentioning too that this election isn't free of the uglier realities that have disfigured many of its predecessors and can't be wished away. The domination by money, and in grotesque amounts, is one - these bills are going to have to be paid for! Many at every level choose or are forced to make alliances and compromises with business and corporate interests, which leads to them subordinating their progressive agendas. Another notable factor is the language and tone of the campaign, which have been full of distortions, smears and propaganda - not just in political advertising but in much of the media (including new media). It's hard to see how this corresponds to the idea of a festival of democracy.

But it's true that Obama has risen above the worst of that and kept his cool and dignity throughout - that is pretty impressive. He may not be the messiah, but he is a very good boy.

Which side are you on?

Chris: There is something that bothers me in Ben's approach, which relates to what is at stake when non-Americans choose to get engaged in an argument about America from outside the country. This election "belongs" to citizens of the United States in a way that it can never do to non-Americans. It's not our country - we are not citizens, we don't have a vote. It is huge expression of democracy, but it's theirs, not ours. There is an element of appropriation in the way some people (in the media and political class especially) talk of this event, as if they want to "own" it as much as the Americans themselves too. There are a few of these in my native Norway, but many more it seems in London. This also is a danger here of feeding the very narcissism and self-centredness that will have to be overcome if America and the rest of the world are to create a more balanced and healthy relationship.

Ben: The obsession with America is un-American! Chris, what you seem to have missed is that this is a world story. What was it Andrè Malraux said - if it was he: that everyone in the world had two countries, his own and France. Today and for a long time past it has surely been his own and the United States -

Rona: Hers too, I hope...and maybe in the future it will be "and China"...?!

Ben: Yes, and no! Because the US still has a claim to be - to use a phrase that Obama insists on - "the last, best hope of mankind". That is, a country which can show others the image of a better future; play a crucial role in settling their problems in the present; and in the process of leading, find again the best of itself and move towards fulfilling its own great ideals. Think of any big issue you care to name - climate change, the world's financial crisis, global security, living with difference, Iraq and the region, disarmament, sustainable and clean energy, China's peaceful integration, regional conflicts from Israel-Palestine to Pakistan-Afghanistan to Sudan-Darfur. In every one, Washington's leadership and constructive involvement are vital to any chance of progress. The US remains by far the strongest and wealthiest nation on the planet, and it is underpinned by a political system - back to the election again - that has an unprecedented capacity for renewal. All this is even more important to recall after the corrosion inflicted on the US during the catastrophic George W Bush years.

These realities would be relevant at any time, but it is also Barack Obama that makes November 2008 such an extraordinary and - yes - hopeful moment. No one questions that the US faces huge problems, both in its domestic economy and in terms of its global position and profile. It needs leadership that can both inspire the American people and reconnect to those in the rest of the world. It is part of the thrilling nature of this election that Obama's remarkable qualities - tested beyond measure by the pressure of the campaign, and displayed with impressive character in response - have emerged at the exact time when they, and he, are most needed.

This is where the missing link in your attitude is plain. There isn't an appropriation as you call it - we are all involved, whether we like or not. We are all part of a shared reality. To refuse engagement in these circumstances is to abandon responsibility in face of the awful retrogression of the last eight years, and its almost certain continuation - and even worsening - in the next four if John McCain were to be elected. A vote for Obama is a vote for the chance of progress and repair, for hope and even a sort of redemption of past sufferings and wounds. To stand aside from that choice would be an act of selfishness and foolish pride.

This point was well made by one of Jonathan Freedland's columns in the Guardian, where he spoke of how important this election was to the world beyond America. As he wrote:

"This is the reaction I fear most. For Obama has stirred an excitement around the globe unmatched by any American politician in living memory. Polling in Germany, France, Britain and Russia shows that Obama would win by whopping majorities, with the pattern repeated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. If November 4 were a global ballot, Obama would win it handsomely. If the free world could choose its leader, it would be Barack Obama....If Americans reject Obama, they will be sending the clearest possible message to the rest of us - and, make no mistake, we shall hear it."

Chris: This in fact was one of the most revealing columns I read all year, in part because nowhere in it does the author acknowledge that the election belongs first to the American people themselves. There isn't even an "also" in there. It's an astounding example of the appropriation I refer to - as if the voters are nothing more than a stage-army assigned to their place in a preferred global outcome. It leaves an overpowering sense of this hunger to write yourself into someone else's story - and to assimilate the rest of the world to yourself. It is classic colonialism.

Rona: Didn't the Guardian get involved even more directly in the 2004 election, when it tried to persuade people in a swing area of Ohio to vote for John Kerry, and got blasted by citizens there in the process? You would think it would have learned its lesson...

Ben: This is different. It's a writer making a case - including to American readers - for the importance of the election to the rest of the world. It's not someone else's election. Remember 9/11 - "we are all Americans now"? That is as true today. Chris's argument sounds to me like a very circumlocutory way of avoiding taking a stand - and a stand for the right (that is, the liberal-left) and for the passionately reasonable. Indeed, as the scientist Lawrence Krauss says, this is about reason against unreason.

Rona: Which side are you on! That takes me back to my Scottish roots... 

Chris: It's important to be clear about what is not being said here. Everyone has the right to think and feel what they want about politics and elections in every country under the sun - or any other subject. I'm addressing a specific attitude of "ownership" of a reality that it is not the subject's to own. There is a presumptive arrogance at work, which entails a sort of cancelling of others' subjectivity even as it putatively celebrates it. To "stand aside" as you put it is also to maintain a distanced respect for others' integrity and complexity.

This is not pedantry - it goes to the heart of the contemporary and evolving world, a world of irreducible plurality, multiplicity, diversity and true equality on the level of individuals and civic-national (and other) collectivities. To make that coming world a reality, to situate ourselves truthfully within it, we have to understand the ways that it will be both unified and bounded. The combination of solidarity (not ownership) and respect for boundaries (not indifference) is the beginning of freedom as well as wisdom here.

Rona: You've lost me. What has this to do with Obama? 

Chris: The links and the bonds are real. Americans are also citizens of the world, part of a shared humanity. But that is not all they are. They are also citizens of a country with its own reality, integrity, and they are most responsible for its life and betterment. The danger is that the foreign partisans flatten these two distinct elements.The claim to a shared ownership - which is denied by the reality of (nationally defined) citizenship - is costless. It may be satisfying to you but it can be overbearing to the other - and even when it is indulgent, as with members of a shared political "tribe", it is full of subtleties that are so rarely articulated, in part because the eagerness of zealotry closes down space for this. In neither case does it do good.

What is going on here is a form of vicarious identification that is shot through with bad faith. In this it as unhealthy as when it is applied to (say) Palestinians or Venezuelans or Tibetans or Muslims. Americans are no different from these peoples, to relate truthfully as an outsider to them requires the same degree of care and self-awareness and attention to complexity. No one benefits from fellow-travelling. It's fundamentally a religious attitude - and its inner logic indeed tends towards conversion (that is, apply for citizenship - and thus earn the right to join the national conversation).

The claim of shared ownership also tends relentlessly to the reductive; its strange fruit is to caricature or denigrate American who don't belong to your side - even when they are expressing their own citizenship choice in their own country. If an election belongs to non-Americans outside the country as much as to Americans themselves, then there is a presumption that those who do not have a vote or pay taxes or participate in civil society or contribute in any way to the life of the country don't need to listen to or take account of those of its citizens who take a different view of the world.

A number of academics have highlighted the increasing sectarianism of America's political geography, a trend that is reinforced (as Matt Bai's book points out) by net-based political mobilisation. All very exciting too to people from abroad who might want a piece of the action - but it's not clear how constructive this form of partisan engagement from the outside can be.

There and here

Rona: You haven't answered my question about Obama. But there is something very abstract about this line of thinking, as against Ben's directness. You frame it as an argument for respect, attention to difference and complexity, but it also feels remote from the lived realities of people around the world who as never before feel deeply connected to such an event. People in Africa, Asia and the middle east - and not least Kenya and Indonesia, for very important reasons - are watching this moment avidly. That's also why there are so many initiatives from people in other countries staking what you call their their "claim" on the election, which is really only a right to discuss it and engage with it - Voices without Votes, for example.

Ben: Chris also ignores the fact that America is a world country - home to so many diasporas born of migrants who settle there and retain links with their original homeland. It's part of the hedged and assaulted but still real greatness of America that people can come and quite quickly fully belong - become American. That also means that the human bonds are deep on both sides. For millions around the world it is not choice but fate, not will but deep commitment that makes them live this election - even from thousands of miles away.

Anyway, I fail to see what is wrong - in this interconnected, boundary-dissolving, and technology-driven age with mounting problems that require shared and transnational solutions - with seeing the other as oneself. A great poet said that "no man is an island, entire of itself". If the election-bell tolls for Obama, millions around the world will feel energised, uplifted, even liberated. They - we - will share in a shining moment of human solidarity. Why exclude yourself from that? 

Chris: The death of distance and of boundaries has strong elements of myth and technological fetishism. Technology and super-modernity also reinforce boundaries, and help create new or enrich old - including national - ones. To recognise American difference is to see it as more like the rest of the world, not less. To assimilate a particular version of it into ourselves is to deny it to itself. If there is a global future, it will also involve letting America be America in all its strangeness and interiority, in order to rejoin the world on a new basis. 

That may be a painful and costly process, involving a great degree of turning inward in the coming years. It may not help that in this long campaign so few hard truths have been spoken. There will have to be a time when its president speaks truth to the powerless - and that will be when its new leader's real political career will begin. There have been precious few if any signs of that yet.

It's important to get beyond the religiose and the rhetoric to the politics. What you can't see, you don't grasp. Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland is a healthy and brilliant recuperation of the liberal blindness of an earlier generation. The global forces reshaping the world - and the newfound agency of states and governments - are operating in the United States too. The new wave of Latin American leaders is a significant reference-point here. What kind of leader do America's people need and want? What kind of leader do the times make possible? With what sort of agency and in what direction can the coalition that made victory achievable be wielded?

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to be more than cheerleaders. And this is where the engagement of outsiders reaches towards a truth that its practice so often denies. To make Americans "imaginatively" bear the burden of your hunger for a fair globality is wrong. But the aspiration itself is good. What needs to happen is that the idea of global citizenship should be anchored in the irreducible multiplicity of a world of equal individuals and civic-national collectivities. The claim to shared ownership of America's election needs to be reframed in terms of what it more truly is: a claim to global citizenship from every direction under the sun.

To build a world of democratic citizens who belong both to a civic-national political community and a global political community is a project for the 21st century. To ask Americans to carry the burden of the latter is over forever. Everyone is in that boat now. We have to learn how to own our own stories on these different levels, to become "both-and" people, and to vote and think and contribute on different levels at different times.

Rona: You still haven't answered my Obama question. But it's getting late. Two years of disagreement won't be resolved in an hour. So let's finish there. Last words?

Ben: It's time, it's history, it's the future, it's hope, it's change, it's Obama. If not now, when?

Chris: It's a great moment of democracy. I wish the country and the people well.

Rona: Thank you, guys. Now I'm switching off - and tuning in. Here's to the next four years, and to all of us.

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