The search for a feelgood president

An Oz writer on the campaign trail watches Huckabee’s bass-playing, Obama’s mythmaking, and the retreat of all candidates into ‘fantasy politics’.

Guy Rundle

Topics USA

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‘Well this old Razorback’s got bulldog fever.’ Mike Huckabee is on stage at his Super Tuesday victory party in Little Rock, Arkansas as the results roll in. Having quite possibly taken five states in the 20-plus state extravaganza, he’s in a position to gloat. ‘They said this was going to be a two-horse race after tonight, and it’s looking like it might be’, he says with a grin, effectively reading the obituary for Mitt Romney’s campaign.

His ideas are crazy and sometime noxious, but it’s hard not to like the Huck – especially if you’ve seen him play the bass. I caught him in Florida, strapping on his battered old Fender, as the band tuned up. He’d just given his stump speech off a car park stage, full of stuff about abolishing income tax, putting the Ten Commandments into the Constitution (‘it seems easier to change man’s law to fit with God’s law than the other way round’), and now it’s dessert. The drummer counts them in, and the band thumps its way through the opening chords and into ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’. The song hangs on its bass line, and Huckabee keeps it going. He’s not the world’s greatest bass player, and he has that slight rustiness of someone who doesn’t do it for a living, but he’s no show pony. This isn’t Bill Clinton playing a one-off sax solo on a talk show – the bass is a workhorse instrument and Huckabee’s absorbed in it, totally with the music. It’s a glimpse of someone with the mask off, just being.

It’s therefore one of the most contrived things in the whole campaign. Who hasn’t played in a garage band, or wanted to? Playing a bit of rock’n’roll is to a postmodern political campaign what chowing down on ethnic food was 20 years ago, or driving in a railroad spike was to the nineteenth century: a testament that the candidate is at one with the dominant spirit of the age. By common consent of the floating press corps, the Huckabee caravan is the best one of all the, now depleted, candidates on the primaries trail – and it’s not just because the music relieves the boredom. Despite the crackpot nature of the solutions he offers – the abolition of income tax, and mass deportation of Mexicans, for example – Huckabee is the one who comes closest to talking straight sense about the structural problems America faces. He is certainly the only Republican whose rhetoric is not wreathed in clouds of cheer squad enthusiasm about the capacity of Americans to innovate, come through, not surrender, etc. His sense of humour is unforced, and he’s unfazed by tripwires of political correctness; he let Keith Richards slip a drugs charge in Arkansas not because of a legal technicality, he said, but because he’s a damn good guitarist.

‘I know who I am’

But therein lies the problem for the Huck, and a clue to the deeply schizoid nature of the whole primary process. For Huckabee is trying to play both sides of the street. He’s been trying to appeal to the evangelical voters, but he can’t resist strapping on the bass and getting down with the crowd. But, by the very nature of the politics involved, you can’t do both and you can’t be both. The preacher who goes into politics gets his earthly charisma from the same place as he gets his religious power – from giving off an impression of being the impersonal, and slightly distanced, vessel of God, set apart from man. You can’t imagine Ian Paisley or Pat Robertson strapping on a bass and cranking out some riffs, and if they did they’d be out of business pretty quickly. The preacher politician is meant to act as a rock upon which followers can build their wavering faith, their sense of a one true path in a cosmopolitanised and pluralist world.

When your preacher leader starts praising the man who cranked out ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, then consciously or otherwise, many would think that he’s been tempted and fallen. Huckabee was being flippant about the Keith Richards thing, but any real preacher would put a rock-solid barrier between himself and that Satanic music. Huckabee can’t bear to. He likes rock’n’roll too much. He is, after all, the same age as Johnny Rotten.

Huckabee’s early success in Iowa was largely due to this personal folkiness and, as John Browne has noted elsewhere on spiked, to the bewildered disarray of the more mainstream candidates (see Will America ♥ Huckabee in 2008?). Prior to Super Tuesday, Huckabee couldn’t get a second victory, due to his inability to unite the evangelical vote into a solid bloc. But he’s taken several states now, and the vote seems hybrid – a mix of deep evangelicals, hometown supporters, and people drawn to someone with such a genuinely different programme that he wants to rewrite the Constitution as a quasi-theocratic document, in a form that most of its authors would refuse to sign. Now that’s different – even if most of those who voted for him don’t think he’s serious.

Indeed, the truly weird thing about Huckabee’s campaign was that it resembled not so much an old-fashioned revivalist caravan as a latter-day version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, taking the electric kool-aid acid test bus across the country. The people willing to stump for Huckabee were a self-selecting crowd, with a measure of life to them – folks you could talk to, as long as you didn’t let the issue of abortion or speciation come up. They’re the type of evangelicals capable of cutting a bit loose because they ‘knew who they were’, a phrase that came up more than once. Their faith was solid, so they could relax about the occasional gag. Indeed, one of Huckabee’s campaign ads focused on his faith in instrumental terms: ‘ I don’t have to get up in the morning and think about who I am’, his voice intones over scenic landscapes. ‘I know who I am and that means I can get to work straight away.’ In a political context where people have had many of their beliefs sorely tested – in unending prosperity, in America’s unquestioned military might – a secure belief system can be offered not in terms of its content (‘this is the truth’), but in terms of its form, as an instrumental aid to efficient governance.

Huckabee has been a beneficiary of the primary system, but not in the way that its defenders suggest. The idea that the system is some relic of founding democracy is a myth – it only got going in the 1910s, and events like the New Hampshire primary only became prominent in the 1950s. In other words, it rose in parallel with television and a greater focus on the individual candidate rather than the party. When policy differences narrow, the primary system encourages an identification with the personality of the candidate. Energy is poured into intra-party competition, rather than a focus on battling the other party.

Personality politics and feelgood fantasies

Nowhere has this been clearer than at the ‘stand for change’ rallies that Barack Obama has been barnstorming all over the country. Big events, often in university auditorimums, indoor sports arenas and the like, they draw an overwhelmingly black crowd – at one I attended in South Carolina, there wouldn’t have been three white people in a crowd of 2,000. Obama puts on a hell of a show, with gospel choirs, actors and rappers such as Chris Tucker and Usher, local fire-breathing activists, before the man himself, surrounded by a phalanx of secret service agents, moves through the crowd. The events are expertly designed, but they don’t need to be – the energy is there already. When rapper Usher appeared, the predominantly young crowd in the upper tiers rushed forward to the edge of the balcony; when Obama finally appeared, they almost threatened to tip over it. There seemed almost a desire to touch his hem.

There’s no doubt that a lot of the appeal to Obama’s supporters comes from his physicality, his youthful popstar looks, his physical ease. His sheer comportment communicates generational change, especially in comparison to the civil rights veterans in their fifties, sixties and seventies, who tend to be powerful, heavy-set men. Obama dresses in a high style but – unlike Huckabee – preserves all the oracular and prophetic power of distance and call to duty. It’s in the context of this bearing and rhetoric – a relentless call to sacrifice and struggle – that Obama’s relentless insistence on ‘hope’ and ‘change’, and the occasional Ghandian message of ‘being the change you want to be in the world’, strikes such a chord.

To anyone with memories of the 1980s, this tone is redolent of the rhetoric of anti-nuclear social movements and the like, which sought to energise people by calling on their inner goodness and sense of duty rather than their external sense of a collective process. This taps into the deepest Protestant traditions of American self-conception, but it also has a therapeutic dimension. It’s a strategy designed to address in part the doubly beaten-down feel of much black politics: beaten down by the continued existence of widespread black poverty, but also by the somewhat deadened rhetoric of much of the previous generation of black leaders, who tend to focus on an old model of simple racist oppression, a problem that has long since yielded to more complex and less visible dilemmas.

There’s nothing wrong with inspiring people, but as numerous commentators have noted, Obama’s rhetoric never goes beyond that. ‘We are in a historic moment of transformation’, he tells the South Carolina crowd, hanging on to his every word, ‘and the time has come when we will stand up and make a difference’. And? Yes? What? The actual difference we would or should make never arrives. Obama studiously avoids anything more than vague references to the health system, to housing, to education. What’s lacking is not so much a shopping list of reforms, as a material account of how the world works. This used to be the stock in trade of the political leader – to connect the ethical to the actual in a way that allowed people to make sense of the world such that they can act in it. Without that, the encounter necessarily remains passive, a spectacle, part of a tour.

Though Obama’s crew – many of them young white professional activists from his home state of Illinois – were assiduous in signing up volunteers for phone-banking during the campaign, those who I spoke to had no real idea of what they might do once Obama left town. Join the Democrats, a remote machine party? No chance. ‘I just support Obama – he’s the hope’, said one, on-message. ‘I think he’s the one who can make the change’, said another. What was overwhelming was the degree to which people’s account of their support was impressionistic, partial, grasping for something, and finding an expression of subjective feeling.

Selling myths to forget about Bush

Obama is not alone in dealing in abstractions or feelgood politics. With the exception of John Edwards, almost everyone has been dealing in the politics of fantasy, of playing to a desired self-image. For the Republicans, this is simply a strategic necessity – they are faced with the invidious choice of either entirely disowning the past eight years, or retreating into a series of nostalgic images of can-do America.

John McCain has staked his reputation on being the national security president, damning the prosecution of the Iraq war while presenting himself as the Cassandra who warned that the mininimal occupation model wouldn’t work. Speaking to a crowd in West Palm Beach last week, ahead of the Florida primary, he was willing to be honest on a whole lot of issues – from illegal immigration to the deindustrialisation of the American rust-belt. He leaned very much on the notion of peace through strength – a slogan that the distinctly creepy Mitt Romney has appropriated – and he flagged up American exceptionalism: ‘We’re Americans and we never surrender. They surrender!’

This fiction is surreal, but particularly so being delivered in this glass and steel auditorium in the glittering, sprawling exurbia of Florida. The hall is in a mall/hotel/everything complex called, with breathless imagination, Cityplace (one word, two lies, as the man said). Like much of the development around here thrown up in the past 10 years, it has a faux heritage look to it, the long single building of shops constructed to look like an old Spanish-era street, complete with artifical ageing.

It was difficult not to feel that McCain ‘s bellicose rhetoric was a mere extension of the faux heritage of the mall itself, speaking of a time when the US had hegemonic, unquestioned power. That time has never existed and McCain’s body, damaged by six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp, is proof of that. Such hegemony will certainly never exist again, but the primary system obliges candidates to play to the base – and the Republican base, by its very nature, is particularly detached from reality at the moment. Romney is essentially selling the same sort of myth in a different version, telling the unemployed and underemployed workers of the rust-belt North-East – in the week that India launched a $2,500 car – that their industries can be revived ‘if only Washington gets off the industry’s back’.

The one expression that candidates of all sides are using is ‘broken’. ‘Washington is broken’, Romney says. ‘Healthcare is broken’, Hillary and Obama say. ‘Foreign policy is broken’ – McCain gets into the act. It’s a signal choice of metaphor, suggesting a passive, agentless process, but also one conformed to a world based around consumption rather than production. We may say ‘the DVD/Playstation/hometheatre unit’s broken’, but we don’t use the expression about trucks, forges or steel mills.

It is even further away from the real truth. Washington isn’t broken at all; it’s working exceptionally well for the people who pay for it, the service provider corporations. Credit card companies pushed through a bill which made it practically impossible to wipe out credit card debt with a personal bankruptcy; health insurance companies have had elbow room to deny payments to paid-up insurance clients; and financial institutions have been able to loosen the laws which made the sub-prime mortgage market possible (and come back round using the bankruptcy laws to foreclose). It is a system in which an evacuated public sphere – a lack of public housing, lack of public healthcare, rental assistance and the like – has created a specific type of unfreedom, in which large amounts of people’s income goes towards paying off future contingencies, especially in healthcare: not merely large health insurance premiums, but the amassing of a lump sum in case a chronic family illness (something all-too-common like a stroke, Alzheimer’s or serious diabetes) exhausts the healthcare coverage.

With half of all personal bankruptcies due to chronic healthcare costs, a signficant part of America’s domestic economy is simply based on the fear of future disasters. This appears to have reshaped American political culture, and differentiated it from other Western societies, where a certain level of care can be assumed. The United States is, in other words, at the point the UK was at in 1945, facing the widespread belief – expressed in meeting after meeting, in conference centres and baseball courts, from State House steps and in televised debates – that things cannot go on as they are. But no one is willing to talk about the need for reconstruction, a change of course in public-private economics, in foreign policy, except in the language of American triumphalism and exceptionalism.

A brutally honest candidate – or more realistically, president-elect – would tell the American people that by the end of her or his two terms, she/he hoped that the public health system would be significantly less worse than it was, that people would not have to lie awake in fear that disease might destroy their family, that the education system would be around the OECD average in perfomance, not ranked nineteenth, and that the slow boring through hard boards could begin.

Instead, the candidates offer fantasies – and this is Huckabee’s fantastic turn, in particular. He offers a vision of autarchy, of being fuel-independent in eight years, so that, as he truly remarks, ‘we aren’t funding both sides of the “war on terror”‘. In reality, the economy will need all the oil it can throw in, and more besides, to fund any recovery.

In the absence of ideas, identity is all

With no one willing to offer an analysis, or a programme of current conditions, the energy inevitably flows towards identity questions, canalised by the primary system and its focus on the individual rather than the party. Candidates become bearers of certain hopes, aspirations that people want to see performed, with little hope, never mind consciousness, about how these aspirations will be enacted, or what part the people themselves might play in the process.

This process is doubled when the Democratic party presents two candidates – the wife of a former president and the Kenyan-American child of a globetrotting upper-class family – whose election would amount to an historical event, albeit it a minor one. The fact of gender and race then becomes saturated with hopes projected on to it – that a woman or a black man inevitably embody radical change by what they are, rather than what they propose to do: identity politics at its very essence.

Bizarrely, as the two Democratic candidates, in the wake of Edwards’ departure, have developed a more convivial modus operandi, their supporters have become more frenetic. At Hillary’s seemingly endless, vaguely North Korean-style rally in Los Angeles on Saturday, every mention of Obama met with frenzied booing, not signficantly less enthusiastic than when the Iraq war or John McCain were mentioned. Days before, outside the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles for the final CNN debate, supporters of both candidates, wielding huge portrait signs of each, almost came to blows over two candidates with virtually identical programmes. The scene resembled less a political rally than a Big Brother eviction.

The leaderships of both parties have been fervently hoping that a clear frontrunner on their own side emerges from Super Tuesday. And each side hopes the other’s contest will be too close to call. With the count progressing, it looks like Clinton and Obama will continue to be neck and neck, while Mitt Romney’s unctuous, opportunistic campaign seems to have fallen apart – leaving John McCain as the frontrunner. Yet the Republican party is so fractured that many Republicans might just sit on their hands if/when he is selected.

And the only contender with a genuinely different politics, with a programme, seems to be Huckabee – preacher, champion dieter, rock star. As the Huck puts away his bass, the roadies strike the stage and what can only be described as Christian groupies gather around. ‘He’s great’, says the young photographer beside me, snapping for a Baptist university student newspaper. Will you vote for him, I ask? ‘Well I was thinking of it, but I’m leaning towards Obama. He’s really inspiring.’

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey. He will also be writing on-the-ground coverage for spiked. Read all of his Crikey election reports here.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins asked if Obama will change American politics? while John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America? Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. And Neil Davenport argued that in the 2004 election ” class=”previous_text”>Democrats treated voters as instruments. 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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