Now we know what US voters don’t want
It is already clear that the elections mark a landslide win for the abstract demand for ‘change’ and a crushing defeat for the past.
Having seen all of their earlier predictions proved wrong, one by one, the embarrassed international army of observers now seems to agree that the hard-fought race to win the Democratic Party nomination and the subsequent US presidential election is ‘too close to call’. There is, however, one conclusion we might draw with some certainty after the results of this week’s Super Tuesday primary votes in key states: the election already marks a landslide victory for the abstract notion of ‘change’ and a crushing defeat for the politics of the past – and of the present US administration.
The drawback is that the voters who seem so excited by the idea of change, and so keen to distance America from its recent past, appear to have little clear idea of what that change might entail. And the candidates now repeating the ‘change’ mantra are not about to enlighten them with any political vision of the future.
Many American voters clearly want, as those placards at the Barack Obama rallies declare, ‘Change we can believe in’. But this does not seem to represent a demand for concrete change, for the transformation of US society in some definite way. It is more of an abstract wish – change for change’s sake, a desire to disown the past, a feeling that anything would surely be better than the discredited politics that has gone before.
In short, Americans (not unlike voters in many other recent Western elections) seem fairly certain only of what they don’t want today. The question of what they might want to replace it with in the future remains up for grabs. Mixed up with the wave of slightly naive excitement surrounding the race for the Democratic Party nomination, the demand for change reflects a heavy dose of cynicism about the existing state of US politics. The danger must be that this political cynicism will come to the fore if the leading candidates prove unable to offer anything more than a change of style, gender (Clinton), race (Obama) or age group (McCain) in the White House.
Belatedly attempting to pick up on the popular vibe, all of these leading contenders have self-consciously sought to put themselves forward as the candidate of change. Obama is the most obvious ‘changeling’, of course, setting himself up as the new kid on the block against Clinton’s image as part of the political establishment. As Obama told his supporters, after Super Tuesday left him narrowly behind Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, the choice now is between ‘change or more of the same’.
For her part, while drawing on the residual popularity of her ex-president husband, Clinton, too, has had to endorse the ubiquitous slogan of change. Finding herself balancing rather precariously between using the authority of the past while simultaneously distancing herself from it, Clinton has ended up insisting that real change comes through those who do the hard grinding work in Washington (that’s her), not those who make flashy speeches on the outside (that’s Obama).
The argument between them has thus become one of how to bring change about, what style to pursue it with, rather than anything substantive about what exactly that change might entail. For all the weeks of debate, not one clear political division between the rival Democrat candidates of ‘change’ has emerged, beyond the posturing about what they did or didn’t say about the Iraq war five years ago. Apparently the plan is just to ‘change’ first, then decide what to do later.
The Republican Party’s reluctant adaptation to the mantra of abstract change has been less noticed but is, if anything, more remarkable. After all, the sitting president is a Republican, the nominal leader of their party, and so one might reasonably think that change must go against them. Yet Republicans, too, have had to accept that ‘change’ will be the winner this time around.
President George W Bush has already been almost erased from public life, almost a year before he will actually leave the Oval Office. And in the race to replace him as Republican Party candidate, the 71-year-old John McCain now enjoys an apparently commanding lead. It would be absurd to suggest that McCain is a liberal. But he is certainly seen as the anti-conservative Republican candidate, the one whose stance has infuriated the leading ‘neo-cons’, who have largely dominated the party over the past three decades since the rise of Ronald Reagan. McCain has effectively run as the I-Am-Not-George-Bush candidate, distancing himself from the party’s past as well as from his conservative rival Republican candidates. To the dismay of many in his own party, his version of the Republican call for change has made McCain the frontrunner for the nomination. But what sort of change he stands for, rather than against, remains anybody’s guess.
It is instructive here to note the fate of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the glamorous media darling who was initially widely tipped to take the Republican nomination in an unimpressive field of candidates. The trouble was that the only thing that Giuliani seemed able to talk about was 9/11 – the moment when he emerged as a leader of national standing in the ‘war on terror’. But banging on about the past, even about such an historic event as the terror attack on the Twin Towers, is out of step with mood of change-at-all-costs. Giuliani’s campaign was over almost before it had begun.
The exciting thing about these US elections for many people is that the current contest appears open and dynamic compared to the stale state of other recent elections. This has led to a rise in voter turnout during the primaries, especially for the Democrats and particularly among younger people. Yet behind the ‘change’ banners, and the apparently fast-changing poll standings, there is a sense of stasis in terms of any real political movement.
This is an election contested by different brands of identity politics. The major players are largely defined by who they are rather than what they stand for. It is a contest of identities summed up by the question many in the media are asking: ‘Will we see the election of America’s first woman president, first black president, or oldest-ever president?’ Any of those would certainly qualify as a cultural change, but what might it mean in political terms?
Identity politics is an inherently narrow outlook, which divides people into clear inescapable categories and leaves little scope for creating a dynamic political movement for change across identity lines. Skirmishes in the ‘identity wars’ have already broken out during the campaign, as when Oprah Winfrey was condemned as a traitor to the sisterhood for backing Obama against Clinton, or when Bill Clinton – once hailed as America’s ‘first black president’ – turned himself into the first ex-Hispanic president in a bid to bring those California voters out against Obama.
These are not the candidates, parties or politics to turn that abstract desire for change and a distancing from the past into something more positive and future-oriented. The danger is that the excitement and engagement could soon turn to full-blown cynicism. And the support for ‘outsider’ candidates like Romney and Huckabee should remind America’s political class that there is already a widespread sense of alienation and disaffection with politics.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the political class can only look on in envy at the energy and excitement generated to date around these US elections. Both Obama and Clinton are powerful performers who make our politicians look like bumbling amateurs. Long gone are the days when ‘Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’ could be talked about in the same breath as statesmen of almost equivalent standing. As we predicted on spiked when Obama made his first breakthrough, all of the major parties have now embarked on the desperate search for ‘the British Obama’ to sprinkle some stardust on politics over here (see What Hope for real Change in America?, by Mick Hume). Good luck to them with that.
They are right, however, to see the wider importance of what happens in American politics. Ever since the American revolution of the late eighteenth century established the United States as the first great democratic republic, it has exerted a powerful influence over the politics, economics and culture of Europe and the West. Now Americans are marking the end of another political era, rejecting the past in favour of change. Yet the way they are doing so also reflects the widespread uncertainty about what sort of political change might be needed to shape the future, as the revolutionaries of the past once did.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America? Sean Collins asked if Obama will change American politics, while John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.
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