Paranoid British fantasists for Obama!
Awaiting the US election results, liberal commentators in the UK have projected all their hopes and fears across the Atlantic.
Little wonder that so many British eyes are focused across the Atlantic as America goes to the polls today. The excitement surrounding the likely election of Barack Obama presents a striking contrast to the dullness of British politics. Yet as they wait, clock-watching, for what seems an increasingly inevitable outcome, many commentators over here still appear haunted by ‘what if?’ scenarios.
In the hours between the final opinion polls and the first real results, members of the British political and media class have been feverishly projecting all of their hopes and fears, anxieties and fantasies on to the US election. For New Labour/liberal observers, desperate for an Obama win, there seem to be two prevailing and competing moods. Both of these projections reveal rather more about them than about the American electorate.
On one hand there remains a perceptible sense of paranoia that it might all be a dream, and that Obama cannot really win enough support from bigoted US voters to become the first black president. There has been extensive discussion of whether a ‘secret’ race card, sometimes called the ‘Bradley effect’, will kick in at the last minute, making white Americans less likely to vote for Obama than they have suggested to opinion pollsters. Less potent fears have also been expressed that many of the young people who have committed their support to Obama will revert to type and not turn out to vote when the time comes.
These paranoid liberal pundits are really confronting their own prejudices. They have spent years pillorying American voters as brainless/brainwashed hicks, rednecks and racists who elected President George W Bush because they were too stoopid to know better. Creating that caricature of Americans was far easier than asking serious questions about why the Democrats could not defeat Bush’s Republicans. Now, however, some have been finding it hard to accept that they could have been wrong, and that there will be a black US president, albeit one of the whitest black men in America.
No doubt there is still a hardcore of Americans who would not vote for a black candidate. But it seems obvious that we have come a long way from the 1988 presidential election, when President Bush’s father used the spectre of a black rapist called Willie Horton to help defeat the Democrats. There is no longer a powerful race card to play in the same way. Polls suggest that Obama now has the support of around 44 per cent of white voters, which would be more than Bill Clinton managed. Yet such is the depth of ill-feeling towards ordinary Americans that many British liberals, like their US counterparts, are still finding it hard to trust the voters.
The different prejudice about young people is less toxic, but there nonetheless. The alleged political apathy and me-me-me indifference of younger generations has long been blamed for low election turnouts and participation on both sides of the Atlantic. This easy dismissal has been another good excuse for avoiding the difficult question of what vision the politicians have offered young people to make voting seem worthwhile. The Obama campaign, with its emphasis on the rhetoric of Hope and Change, has succeeded in energising thousands of young Americans. Yet the patronising pundits are finding it hard to accept that the apathetic ‘Generation Whatever’ will really get off its collective behind and go vote (especially if it should happen to rain).
Any notion that there might be good reasons why some Americans are unimpressed by Obama’s programme, or why some young people are less excited about his speeches than they were six months ago, is ignored by the liberal cynics. Instead they fear only that the ignorance and indolence of American voters will undo all his good work. And even as the evidence of an imminent Obama victory stacks up, they have found it hard to swallow their own prejudices. Thus one left-liberal British columnist, while tentatively suggesting on Monday ‘Whisper it: yes we can’ see a President Obama, nevertheless concludes with everything crossed: ‘And yet, and yet… I won’t be sure until I watch Obama’s acceptance speech through salty tears – and I hear the Statue of Liberty let out a slow sigh of relief.’
The other side of today’s clock-watching projection of British hopes and fears on to America is the liberal fantasising about how President Obama is going to save the world and solve all of our problems.
The envious longing with which many have gazed towards Obama-fied US politics of late is hardly surprising. For a full explanation of this phenomenon, one need only take a look at the dreary contest between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists to see which can bore more voters into submission in the Glenrothes by-election. But instead of asking serious questions about how they might bring British politics back to life (beyond the facile calls to ‘discover a British Obama’, presumably in some X-Factor-type talent contest), many appear to be dreaming that the new US president will do it all for them. Liberal pundits appear to be investing an Obama presidency with the sort of unrealistic expectations that the British left used to reserve for radical Third World regimes.
The fantasy element in this process of transference is quite remarkable. One of our leading liberal commentators, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, appeared to have lost sight of the difference between reality and television drama when he argued that the entire story of the US election campaign had been foretold by ‘the oracle’, aka ‘the astonishingly prophetic sixth and seventh series of The West Wing’. That award-winning TV drama was, of course, the liberals’ dream of what an ethical Democratic presidency could be like – sort of Bill Clinton without Monica Lewinsky. Now Freedland assures us that, by having the Democrats win again at the end of the final series, the West Wing writers ‘did finally give their viewers a happy ending. There are many millions around the world who hope that… the US electorate will do the same.’
This sort of stuff says rather less about Obama’s politics than about British liberals’ lack of faith in themselves, and their lazy scapegoating of Bush for all our problems. An Obama presidency will certainly be different, but how much better it might be remains to be seen. Beyond the talk of hope and change, there has been little to suggest that this personality politician has the principles or will to try to change the world in the face of recession. And even if he has the will, some of the policies Obama has floated – such as intervening more heavily in Afghanistan and even Pakistan – are hardly ideas to cheer.
In truth, against the backdrop of economic crisis and of Bush being the most unpopular president in memory, it would be quite remarkable if the Democratic Party candidate had failed to win this election. But what exactly Obama might have won a mandate for remains far less clear. By projecting their fantasies about all that he is about to achieve, commentators risk setting the scene for intense disappointment and yet more political disillusionment on both sides of the Atlantic.
Those British and European liberals now counting the minutes until the polls close might also find that they miss Bush rather more than they expect. After all, who are they going to blame for everything now? Bush the bad president has been the perfect scapegoat for the past eight years. Even this week, comedians from Russell Brand to Graham Norton are still living off Bush-bashing. The British left never really got over the loss of Margaret Thatcher, their all-purpose target – indeed some are still trying to blame her for the recession today (see The myth of Thatcherism, by Brendan O’Neill). Bush the caricature American idiot may prove even harder to replace. Unless they are going to start accusing Obama of wrecking the world – a seemingly unlikely prospect – they might have to start looking closer to home for some answers.
There is no doubt that it matters who wins today. But the obsessive focus on the American elections has starkly illustrated the ‘bystander’ character of British politics. Much to their frustration, Europe’s paranoid fantasist Obamaphiles complain that they have been denied the vote, while millions of idiotic Americans get to choose their own president! I vote we stop trying to blame or pray to Washington for salvation, and start debating how we might make radical political change a reality.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.
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