Challenging the politics of passivity

Whether lecturing parents or exaggerating security threats, both Obama and McCain see Americans as helpless victims.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

The American presidential race is now supposed to be the ‘change’ election. On one side, Democrat Barack Obama has used the ‘change’ slogan since he first emerged as a viable candidate, and he now argues that his policies represent a break from President George W Bush’s. And on the other side, Republican John McCain has recently sought to make ‘change’ the central theme of his campaign too, claiming that his maverick, corruption-fighting posture means that he is the candidate who can shake up Washington.

In fact, neither represents real, substantive change. Both Obama and McCain offer only shallow versions of change: all they have in mind is distancing themselves from the Bush regime, mostly in superficial ways. And both of their ‘change’ agendas are small-minded: both lack any Big Idea about how to change politics, the economy or society fundamentally.

But there’s another important indication that this election is not really about sweeping change: the candidates do not view their fellow Americans as agents of change. Instead, both Obama and McCain conceive of people as essentially passive. Both exaggerate the dangers of the world, and both view people as weak and vulnerable in the face of these dangers. In this mindset, people are not working confidently to attain the American Dream; they are victims in need of support.

This point is by no means an obvious one. But if you take a closer look at the candidates’ policies, you will see that both Obama and McCain share negative assumptions about the capacity for people to effect change. Here are some of the debilitating themes that underlie their positions:

The politics of fear. Many associate the ‘politics of fear’ with the Bush administration’s war on terror, but it’s more pervasive than just that campaign (1). Both McCain and Obama, like Bush, hype the threat from terrorists, but more significantly both candidates attempt to utilise fear as a means of generating support for their positions.

McCain’s world is one of seemingly endless threats: contaminated water supplies and vulnerable chemical plants; internet predators and sex offenders; even ‘major accidents and nature itself’ is a homeland security concern. Obama also plays by fear: he holds out the threat of environmental catastrophe to argue for climate change initiatives, and justifies his healthcare plans in terms of the threat of rocketing health insurance costs.

But rather than being a clever motivating tool, fear-mongering tends to paralyse people, turning them into frightened individuals. A fearful public is more likely to hunker down than seek ambitious change.

Vulnerable Individuals. Both McCain and Obama refer to people as essentially isolated and weak, and offer themselves as support. This can be clearly seen when the campaigns discuss the economy: both candidates’ convention speeches, for example, contained call-outs to individuals, citing the hardship those folks had endured. Some lost their jobs, others their homes, but the overriding impression that McCain and Obama give is of sad victims who can’t cope with a complex and harsh world, and not, say, people who are mad as hell and won’t take it any more. This low-expectations outlook reinforces passivity.

Trust no one. As noted, McCain has made fighting corruption a main plank in his campaign. It’s hard to think of a presidential candidate in modern times who thought that cleaning up Washington was the most important issue. Obama, too, has made a name for himself in this territory: he proposed federal ethics reform measures in Congress (that were eventually incorporated in the final bill) and claims that he is ‘in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.’

But an obsession with sleaze and corruption only encourages pre-existing cynicism about politicians and other authority figures – and ultimately supports the prevailing prejudice today that no one (even fellow citizens) can be trusted. Cynicism is not a motivation for change; it is a criticism from the sidelines that concludes that real resistance is futile.

Personal behaviour modification. Traditionally, Washington politicians would not see it as their place to discuss personal matters such as diet, health, sex and parenting strategies. But Obama has taken it upon himself to get up on the bully pulpit and lecture parents about how they raise their kids; earlier this year he told parents to ‘turn off the TV, help their kids with their homework and stop letting them grow fat eating Popeyes chicken for breakfast.’ (2)

McCain has a lower profile in this regard, but he’s also joined in; his education plans state that programs ‘will be focused on educating parents on the basics of preparing their children for a productive educational experience. These programs will place an emphasis on reading and numbers skills, as well as nutrition and general health’ (my italics). This focus on behaviour modification is condescending and treats adults like children. It also encourages people to focus on personal matters rather than public life.

Identity politics. This election may be remembered most of all for the recurring invocation of identity politics. The Obama campaign charges Republicans with racism (for trying to ‘scare’ voters, because Obama ‘doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills’), while the McCain campaign accuses Democrats of sexism (for criticisms of Sarah Palin).

But in the hands of these two campaigns, the discussion of identity politics has exploded into competing lifestyle tribes, dividing us even further (3). A focus on identity is problematic because it says what’s important is who you are, rather than what you think; and it emphasizes where you have come from, not where you might go. Identity is passive rather than transformative.

All in all, the pessimistic worldview shared by Obama and McCain assumes that people do not bring about change. Change is something that happens to them, and not in a good way.

In one sense, this is not really about Obama and McCain. Their gloomy visions of the human potential merely reflect the prevailing views in Western societies today. But their campaigns are influential and serve only to reinforce these negative outlooks.

The election discourse reveals the need to challenge today’s common-sense politics of passivity. In contrast to Obama and McCain, we should argue for the capacity for people to make a difference, both in their personal and public lives. We need a new type of politics that assumes individuals are robust, not victims in need of help; looks forward to social advancement, rather than be immersed in issues of personal behavior in the present; engages in rational assessment of risks rather than indulge in fears about the worst-case scenarios; and emphasizes universal values and our ability to transform situations, rather than be reduced to handed-down particularist identities.

The candidates can talk about ‘change’ all they want. But the change that’s worth its name requires a politics that assumes people are strong enough and smart enough to sort out their problems, and that includes the political and social problems facing us.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) See The Politics of Fear: beyond Left and Right, Frank Furedi, Continuum 2005

(2) ’Y’all have Popeyes out in Beaumont?’Obama on the bully pulpit, Chicago Sun-Times, 29 February 2008

(3) Sarah Palin and the rise of tribal politics, by Helen Searls 8 September 2008.

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Topics USA


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