What Hope for real Change in America?

With slogans promising Hope, Belief and Change, there is a surge of excitement around the US presidential primaries. But can anybody tell us what the Obama-Clinton contest is about?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics USA

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How entertaining to see the isolated, inward-looking transatlantic political establishment and punditocracy get public opinion so wrong not once but twice within a week – taken by surprise first by Barack Obama’s big victory in the Democratic Party primary in Iowa, and then again by Hillary Clinton’s comeback win in New Hampshire.

How good to see Americans – and especially young Americans – putting the wind up their complacent and cut-off leaders, turning out to vote in unprecedented numbers and unpredictable directions in the primary polls to choose a Democrat candidate for this year’s presidential election.

And yet… I cannot quite join in with all the hype about this being the most exciting US election in decades. Because the nagging question remains, what are they voting for? ‘Change’ is the slogan of all candidates – reflecting the widespread recognition of the state of decay of politics in America.

But what sort of change do they mean, and what choices are on offer to the electorate? That, after all, is supposed to be the point of a democratic election.

Search high and low for the candidates’ clear political positions and principles, and if you find any do let the rest of the world know – because the candidates themselves seem unwilling to do so. There is less serious debate about substantive issues, less of a clear clash of competing visions of the future than ever before. Every line between them seems blurred, apart from their contrasting images in the photo wars – Clinton with her ex-president husband and his ageing advisers, Obama with his young family.

In fact, behind all of the whipped-up excitement about the close race and the titanic clash, it is possible to see that, in real political terms, this is shaping up to be the dullest US electoral contest in living memory.

The old labels left and right, which we know are pretty much redundant now when applied to mainstream politics in the UK or Europe, look frankly ridiculous when commentators try to pin them on Obama or a Republican candidate like John McCain. Of course, there has rarely been a clear-cut ideological contest in America’s presidential polls. The electoral system was set up to try to ensure that politics remains on the safe terrain of the moderate middle ground.

That, by the way, has been one important historical purpose of America’s unique primary system, via which voters choose the main party candidates before voting for a president. It is intended as a safeguard against the rise of class-based parties or those that serve specific political interests, by forcing politicians to appeal to the widest possible audience and build broad alliances from the start if they hope to become a serious candidate. This has helped to make American politics the preserve of a relatively narrow middle-class electorate; most working-class Americans did not bother to vote in a system that seemed far removed from their concerns, even before the general fall-off in voting rates across the Western world.

Yet even by the past standards of US presidential elections, this is a non-political contest, reflecting the exhaustion of both the traditional Republican and Democratic blocs. Obama, whose candidacy has so energised the race, embodies the current state of affairs. Screaming supporters wave placards at his rallies with slogans such as ‘Hope’ and ‘We believe’. Eh? Did somebody miss the last few words off at the print-shop? What exactly do they believe in, apart from his personal charm, as captured in the new slogan spreading across sections of the political blogosphere: ‘I believe in Barack Obama’?

The one thing that Obama is really known for is his opposition to the Iraq war. But even Iraq has yet to become an issue of serious debate in this election – and in any case, those who delude themselves that he is the alternative anti-war candidate might like to check out his team’s proposals for pursuing al-Qaeda through even more military intervention in Afghanistan and, er, an invasion of parts of Pakistan…

Not, of course, that Hillary Clinton is offering anything more. Despite her status as a pillar of the Democratic Party establishment, she, too, is attempting to stand as the candidate of change – about as convincing as Gordon Brown’s efforts to pretend that he had nothing to do with the past 10 years of New Labour government. Her victory speech in New Hampshire – ‘I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice. I felt like we all spoke from our hearts and I am so gratified that you responded’ – sounded more like a vacuous Oscar acceptance speech than the rallying cry of a leader.

The unpredictable character of the contest so far is a consequence of this lack of political substance, which makes everything seem fragile and unstable. As Sean Collins reported on spiked yesterday, the sudden surge of support for Obama as the new guy says less about him than about the wider trends in American politics. It is a reaction against the cynicism and decay of political life, which has become a moribund stand-off between two stagnating Republican and Democrat blocs. The low esteem in which the political establishment is held is demonstrated in dramatic style by the virtual disappearance of President George W Bush from the public stage, a full year before he is due to leave the White House.

There is a genuine feeling that restive Americans, especially younger generations who might not normally vote, want something to change. But in the absence of political alternatives, it is unclear what that might mean. Instead Obama’s campaign is tapping into the sort of anti-political sentiments that see politics as the problem rather than the solution.

A reaction against political cynicism is long overdue. But blind optimism and credulousness about the personal qualities of candidates who stand for nothing offers no real alternative to cynicism. There are already discussions about how hard some reporters are finding it to remain objective and keep their personal love for Obama out of their journalism. Such naivety only seems to be setting America up for the sort of disillusionment that will reinforce the reaction against politics.

Never before has so heated an electoral contest appeared to turn on so little – the competing images of Barack smiling with his young daughters or Hillary weeping on camera. Once again, America is setting new standards in the politics of personality and identity. But it will be coming soon to an election near you.

The decline of ideologies and the emptying out of political life across the West has often been called the ‘Americanisation’ of politics. Now we may be witnessing the next stage in the rise of the anti-political personality politician. But there is no cause for the usual conceited British sneering about the showbiz ‘razzmatazz’ of the US contest. At least Americans get to elect their head of state. And the sense of excitement and energy being given off by supposedly ‘apathetic’ American voters has no equivalent over here.

That point will not have been lost on the equally isolated political class in the UK, casting envious glances at those American rallies and turn-outs. The search will no doubt be on for ‘the British Obama’. The Conservatives have high hopes that young David Cameron might play that role, but he still seems too much of a posh boy to many. Meanwhile New Labour strategists and contenders are already starting to look beyond tired old Hillary, sorry, Gordon Brown to find the next fresh young thing.

Whoever finally wins the US party nominations, the early chapters of the contests have already confirmed the yawning gap that separates the purposeless political establishment from large sections of the US public. Everything in politics has become more arbitrary, shaky and uncertain as a result. That will be a source of serious concern for the normally complacent and contemptuous Washington oligarchy. Ultimately, however, it is unlikely to be enough to challenge their hold on power.

To use the argot of the moment, I Hope that I am as wrong as the pundits have been to date. But I Believe that we are not yet witnessing the start of the new democratic revolution that is needed to Change American politics.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

The 2008 race for the White House

spiked editor Brendan O’Neill writes: spiked will be covering the American elections extensively over the next year. Our aim is to cut through the hype and the tripe, to offer cutting analysis by a team of American and British writers, complemented by on-the-ground reportage on the primaries, debates and polls. We want to hear your views, too. Get stuck into the debate on spiked‘s letters page, or {encode=”” title=”email me your thoughts”}.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume showed how America’s mid-terms revealed a political class in crisis. Sean Collins got to grips with Obama-mania. John Browne looked at why an outsider like Mike Huckabee could win the Republican race in Iowa. Daniel Ben-Ami believed cynicism has replaced genuine political debate. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


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