Will Obama change American politics?

After his big win in South Carolina, Barack Obama said the word ‘change’ a dozen times. Does he really have a transformative, convention-busting vision?

On Saturday night, Barack Obama reminded us that his campaign is about ‘change’. He used the word a dozen times in his speech following his overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary. Obama promises more than incremental change, more than just a change in the leader or the party in power. ‘We’re looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington’, he declared.

To highlight how ambitious his proposals for change are, Obama cloaks them in the highest American ideals. In South Carolina, he referred to a ‘higher purpose’, ‘the America we believe in’, ‘the spirit of a people’. Many people, especially younger ones, seem to agree that Obama represents change. He not only gets votes; he seems to infuse supporters with passion. Hundreds turn out at his raucous rallies, something no other candidate can pull off.

Obama is discussed by pundits and the public alike as if he was in a category above other politicians. ‘Inspiring’ is a common adjective. Conservatives recognise him as different, too. Peter Wehner of the National Review Online says Obama ‘is one of the most remarkable political talents in our lifetime’ whose speeches ‘seem to rise above conventional politics’ (1).

But what kind of change is Obama really offering?

Real change, historic change, has traditionally involved the implementation of ambitious, sweeping political ideas. A new organisation of the economy. A new conception of the role of government. A new morality. Obama is regularly compared with groundbreaking leaders of the past. Many pundits liken him to John F Kennedy. Obama himself recently drew an analogy between the scale of his own objectives and those of Ronald Reagan. In truth, Obama is not in their league, and his idea of change pales in comparison with earlier upheavals in American politics and society.

He may have received the backing of Kennedy’s brother (Senator Ted) and daughter (Caroline), but that doesn’t make him the reincarnation of JFK. Of course, President Kennedy can be criticised for many things, but he was at least ambitious, far more so than Obama. Where is Obama’s equivalent for a mission to put a man on the moon?

Obama’s ideas, rather than being pioneering and forward-looking, are modest and parasitical on the manner in which American politics is conducted. In South Carolina Obama criticised ‘tactics that divide and distract’, ‘bitter partisanship’, and those who will ‘say anything and do anything to win an election’. Many recognise - and are weary of - the petty bickering and cynical maneuvers of Washington politics (including those coming from Hillary Clinton’s campaign), so Obama strikes a chord.

But rather than heralding a new political approach, Obama’s anti-partisan language is reactive to the symptoms of political decay. He suggests changing the tone of discussion, the way politicians operate. He leaves untouched the underlying reason for the stagnation of American politics: the lack of engaging political ideas. Indeed, Obama makes it seem like ideas are bought off the rack. In his speeches, references to healthcare, education and other issues are kept vague; his advocates will say, ‘Go to his website, you’ll find worked-out policies there’, as if policies and ideas are the fine print on a rental-car agreement. Why doesn’t Obama seek to distinguish himself with his policy ideas?

Obama, despite his rhetoric, has not really thought through what should change in the future. In South Carolina, one of his most well-received lines was: ‘It’s about the past versus the future.’ Okay, we got the reference to the Clintons representing the past. But what about the future part? What great policy ideas do we have to look forward to? That all politicians will learn to play nicely together? Even if he could manage to control others’ behaviors, that would hardly qualify as a ‘higher purpose’ or as truly ‘transformative’.

In addition to ideas that transform material conditions, real change in the past has also required political engagement and struggle. Change isn’t something to which one simply assents; you need to act in order to effect it. Real change upsets entrenched interests, and to overcome opposition, it usually demands collective muscle.

Looking at the size of the displays of emotion at Obama’s rallies, many pundits conclude that he is more than a candidate. ‘A political campaign has become a movement with Barack Obama at its head’, says Roger Cohen (2). Some believe Obama’s drive echoes the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The attendance at Obama rallies is indeed remarkable. But sheer numbers do not make a mass movement, and Obama’s campaign isn’t one.

Obama and his coterie of advisers have total control; it is not a democratic organisation. They have one purpose in mind - getting him elected - not a goal of social advancement as such that will continue after the election. And most of the ‘mass’ of supporters are not actively engaged in politics. A student going to a rally has a more active relationship with politics than if he or she watched it on TV, but it is still an essentially passive, distanced stance.

Obama is often compared with Martin Luther King, especially with regard to his oratory style. And Obama considers the organisers of the civil rights movement his heroes. But when it comes to action, Obama doesn’t hold a candle to King and the other anti-racism leaders. Say what you want about whether the aims were ever fully achieved, but in its heyday the civil rights campaign was a real mass movement. Change wasn’t signed up for; it required large-scale protests, civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of struggle. It was sometimes violent. Seen that way, it is silly to consider Obama’s campaign as being in any way comparable to the civil rights protests.

Obama does stress that he wants more people involved in politics, and believes they will have a transforming effect. ‘Now it is up to us to help the entire nation embrace this vision’, he said in South Carolina, seeming to invite participation. But, again, this is relatively passive involvement, and, as noted already, it’s not entirely clear what the vision means in practice.

I don’t expect Obama to create a true mass movement. But why is he so reluctant to engage the public in debate on policy specifics that can take us forward? I agree that change in American politics is sorely needed. And even Obama’s rhetoric isn’t necessarily problematic. For instance, in today’s times of anti-consumerist miserabilism, I’m all in favour of upholding aspirations like the American Dream. But you’re not going to go far if you line up behind someone who can’t spell out what that Dream should mean today.

By all means, let us seek change, but real change through a battle for ambitious, future-oriented meaningful ideas.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins dissected Obama-mania. John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America?. Helen Searls looked at Obama’s main rival and analysed the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

(1) Obama tonight, National Review Online, 26 January 2008

(2) Obama’s youth-driven movement, International Herald Tribune, 27 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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