Three cheers for the 140million voters

The election shot down the stereotype of Americans as thick and apathetic.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

This year’s long-running campaign for the White House has certainly captured the imagination of many Americans. The presidential race has genuinely excited people as no election in recent memory has done. And so with great anticipation, record numbers of Americans turned out to vote yesterday. People arrived before dawn in some locations, and throughout the day waited in long lines for hours at schools, churches and fire stations serving as polling stations. Many were first-time voters.

For many – but not all – there was a sense that they were going to the polls not just to elect a new occupant of the White House, but to participate in kickstarting a new, if uncertain, era. And with the election of Barack Obama, that is what they did. Out went the Bush regime, and with it seemingly the entire period since Ronald Reagan. And in came a new type of American politician. Say what you want about how Obama might govern (and spiked is highly critical of his politics), but his election does represent a tremendous symbolic achievement in electing the first black president in the US (and the Western world). At the same time, with so many younger voters participating and voting overwhelmingly for Obama, the result also feels like major generational shift.

Election day was the culmination of a year or more of extraordinary interest and involvement on the part of Americans. Unprecedented millions voted in the primaries, attended mass rallies, donated to campaigns, watched on TV and voted on the day. If nothing else, this greater interest challenges the stereotype of Americans as inherently and uniquely apathetic.

Of course, it must be said that not all of the attention paid to this year’s contest is indicative of politicisation. Many were drawn into it by the ‘horse race’ aspect of close races, first between Hillary Clinton and Obama in the Democratic primary, and then McCain and Obama. This year has also seen a greater emphasis on the personalities of candidates, rather than policies, and a fair number of people have been caught up in what seemed to be the politics version of an American Idol competition. And all of the fascination with Sarah Palin, such as the endless jokes about her, certainly did not exemplify real political discussion and debate.

Moreover, some of the participants in the election used it as an opportunity to bash sections of the voting public. Obama himself condescendingly referred to working-class people who bitterly ‘cling’ to guns and religion. The liberal media labelled people attending the McCain-Palin rallies members of a crazed mob, and generally suspected secret racists everywhere (as if that could be the only reason someone would not vote for Obama). From the conservative side, we heard derogatory comments about young people who spoke up to support Obama, along the lines that they had drunk the ‘yes we can’ Kool-Aid. And Palin declared that large swathes of the population living outside of small towns were not ‘real Americans’.

But, nevertheless, the voters should be cheered. Their greater involvement – whichever candidate they voted for – should be considered a positive. For a start, higher voter turnout is an expression of the expansion of democracy. From 1960 onwards there was a downward trend in US turnout as a percentage of the voting age population, but this trend began to be reversed in 2004, and will climb further this year. Although the final tally is not yet known, officials expected between 130million and 140million people would vote this year, up from 121million four years ago.

Further, the increase in the number of younger people getting involved in politics is also encouraging. The participation in the Obama campaign, especially earlier in the year, displayed a hunger to escape the old political forms. In particular, many young people were open to Obama’s appeals on the basis of ideals. Yesterday’s vote for Obama likewise expresses a positive desire to reject the politics of the recent past. It represents a recognition that politics generally (and not just the Bush administration) has reached an impasse, and it is worth trying something else.

As mentioned, these are all positive aspects of popular involvement in this year’s election. However, at the same time, we should be clear what it is not: true political engagement. Obama voters are not agreeing to a policy platform and looking to fight for it actively after the election, because that was not what Obama was offering. The vote mainly expressed a desire to move on.

The problem is that, left to their own devices, these positive aspects expressed in the election will not go anywhere further. It is especially noticeable how the initial enthusiasm for Obama among young people waned during the course of the campaign. Early on, there was talk of Obama creating a ‘movement’. But as the primary contest versus Clinton went on, Obama toned down his rhetoric and it became clear that he was never going to fill the slogans of ‘change’ and ‘hope’ with any meaningful content. By the time he arrived at the Democratic Party convention in Denver, he positioned himself as the conservative candidate, the safe pair of hands, against the ‘extremists’ Bush and McCain. There was no need for ideals or popular involvement with such an approach, and supporters correspondingly adopted a more passive stance.

Real political engagement today means grappling with the big questions of our time. The greater interest and high turnout for the American election demonstrated the basic power of the people to express their democratic will and change political leaders. What direction this new era takes should also be up to all of us, not just the next president.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

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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