An Aussie in Obamaland
spiked contributor Guy Rundle spent 2008 reporting on the race to the White House, taking the political pulse in diners, town halls, motels, bars. The resulting book is a heartfelt, insightful document of an historic American year.
It’s 26 January 2008, another day in the latest, unforgettable race to the White House, and Guy Rundle – Australian leftie, regular spiked contributor and journalist vagabond – has just checked in to the Extended Stay Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina.
Surveying the city’s ‘postmodern landscape’, Rundle observes: ‘This is where America lives now, in these sub- and ex-urban tracts of housing disconnected from any centre, of megastores marooned in carparks, the whole thing tied together by cable, the web and the freeway. It’s happening everywhere, but elsewhere there was more resistance from some notion of community, of place and history. Here, in a country that takes a pride in ripping it up and starting again, it all happened so fast that people never realised it was going on – and still have not.’
Rundle spent the past year covering the US election, mainly for Australian online magazine Crikey, though spiked readers have also had the opportunity to trail his escapades. He was there from the get-go, following town hall meetings, party rallies, poll swings and mood swings as the Republicans and Democrats fought it out over the American public’s votes.
Rundle’s stories have now been collected in a rip-roaring book, Down to the Crossroads. From the primaries to the party conventions, from the presidential debates to Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago, Rundle takes his readers on a reportage road trip across the USA, made all the more delightful by his knack for witty and surprising observations and similes. Like this one, on the Miami bus terminal: ‘What I’d assumed would be a brightly lit terminal crowded with unhealthy fast-food outlets… turned out to be a few lean-tos under the overpass, just waiting for yellow crime scene tape.’ Or this description of Florida’s ‘snowbirds’: ‘retirees moved here for good to ripen like oranges until they fall off the twig.’
Equipped with a proverbial alternative political thermometer, Rundle reports from motels, malls, casinos, Starbucks coffee shops, dinky diners, Greyhound bus terminals and skid-row bars. Interspersed with his own observations and detailed accounts of rally meetings and politicians’ TV interviews are vox pops from a multitude of American inhabitants. Everyone from journos to Atlantic City hookers, cabbies, fashion models, ‘Obamabots’, young Republicans, anarchist protesters and US troops headed for Iraq get a say in Down to the Crossroads.
What emerges is not just a reportage documentary of a remarkable year in US history, but also a contemporary portrait of America. The ‘social self-deconstruction’ Rundle observed in Charleston has shaped a fragmented public, where old unifying categories like region, race, gender and class have splintered. According to Rundle, the implication of this for the 2008 presidential candidates was that they had to ‘talk to people as individuals, or as individual members of the nation as a whole… What must be appealed to in people is their inner goodness, their inner patriotism, their inner desire for “hope” and “change”.’
The demographic fragmentation was crystallised in pundits’ predictions and analyses of poll results, which were pored over incessantly throughout the election year. Before the polls closed in Rhode Island’s Democratic primary vote, some predicted this would be a difficult win for Obama because the state has the highest portion of Catholics in the country, at around 60 per cent of the population. ‘Why would they think this would be a factor?’ asks Rundle. ‘Because there is simply nothing else to say.’ Every other demographic variant had been analysed, examined, pitted against each other: ‘We’ve looked at half-white Hispanic blue-collar female registered Democrats as compared to half-white Asian pink-collar male independents yada yada, and every variant in between.’ (That was not literally true of course, but then Rundle is not one to be shackled by literal description, cold analysis or disinterested reporting.)
The candidates appealed to and fed in to the lifestyle politics that is part and parcel of this splintering of the American people. This election was of course remarkable in that it offered the potential for, as Hillary Clinton and Obama battled it out for the Democratic nomination, the first-ever female or black president, and, later, as Sarah Palin entered the scene, the first-ever female vice president. With John McCain, Americans would potentially have the oldest ever president. Inevitably, the question of who would win the female vote, the black vote, the ‘hockey mom’ vote or the retired vote became more prescient than ever.
As a consequence, candidates were more preoccupied with proving that they could identify with voters because they understood their feelings – on issues such as juggling several jobs, having poor health care provision, fearing terrorist attacks and so on – rather than convincing them that they represented their beliefs.
When the Republican and Democrat candidates had been whittled down to McCain (or ‘Walnuts’, as Rundle likes to call him) and Obama, the question of which of the presidential runners was more experienced had been asked to death. Rundle believes ‘experience’ came to the fore not simply because the youngest ever Democratic presidential candidate was running against the oldest ever Republican candidate, but because both were ‘trying to run on anti-political notions, both arguing that politics per se was a problem, rather than a process by which solutions were arrived at to other problems. For Obama, it was themes of consensus, of getting beyond “red” and “blue” America, of hope. For John McCain, once he’d defeated other Republicans on national security questions, it was “country first” and being a “maverick”. Any notion of a struggle between two world views, two moral frameworks, two ways of running things, fell to the wayside.’
But, as Rundle observes, when the financial crisis hit the fan, ‘experience’ came to signify something more than the length of the candidates’ CVs or who had spent more time in American communities or in prisoner-of-war camps. As markets fell, banks crashed and bailout plans failed to materialise, Americans caught a glimpse of their prospective presidents’ leadership potential, political shrewdness and confidence in tough decision-making. As Rundle observes, ‘it made visible how much of the campaign to date had been based on an essential unreality, a struggle for identity-defining and framework-setting moments’.
In Down to the Crossroads we get to relive some of those moments. We also get reacquainted with some of the primary candidates, like John Edwards (who?) and the Fender bass-strumming Mike Huckabee. We are reminded of some classic TV moments, like Hillary’s tears in New Hampshire, ‘Joe the Plumber’ questioning Obama about his small business tax policy, Katie Couric’s excruciating interview with Sarah Palin, Tina Fey’s Palin imitations on Saturday Night Live, McCain assuring Americans that ‘the fundamentals of our economy are still strong’ on the day that became known as ‘Black Monday’.
In the end, Obamamania may have got the better of Rundle, but at least Down to the Crossroads leaves you with the inspiring feeling that history has been made, that something significant has happened in the US, and that for many Americans Obama’s victory was something extraordinary, something to be celebrated.
For those who have been hoping for a non-cynical, comprehensive and straight-talking account of this historic US election year, Rundle’s is certainly a book you can believe in.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election, by Guy Rundle is published by Penguin Books Australia. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)