Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A dumbed-down election for the hyper nation; Obama and Decision Time 08

So, it's finally over.

You really can't beat a good old fashioned bit of hype, can you? Whether America made the right choice or not is currently beside the point (in essence because 'the right choice' is a ridiculous thing to try and calculate). But what does matter is that 'America' has chosen Obama - that's right a single man, not a deity or uber-being as we may have occasionally lapsed into thinking He was - to lead the world (so, America) out of the boggy marsh of economic recession and social delapidation that it has been wading through ever since 'America chose' the last time around. Is it just me, or does anyone else see a worrying consistency here?

George Bush Jnr was to be the antithesis to the Clinton years - clean and wholesome, with values that every American could be proud of. Eight years on and Obama is to be the antithesis to the Bush years - clean and wholesome, with values that every American can be proud of. Yes,...YES, that's what this country needs (yell all the fanatics swept up by the loathingly labelled Obamania), real CHANGE. And lest we forget... YES WE CAN!

While it would be foolish to make detailed comparisons between Obama and Bush (particularly at this stage), they did run their campaigns on a remarkably similar platform; that of 'change'. Neither really promised much (and, in most American's eyes, Bush delivered only on that front) but they didn't half promise to not do an awful lot. 'I will not sleep with my political aides' says Bush. Good, well done you. Faithful and wholesome and loeveable George, that's what's needed. 'I will not go to war unnecessarily' pledges Obama. Great, lovely. That sounds like a tip-top idea. Someone who's not a war-monger, brillo, get him in. ('I will not lead this country into recession' chips in McCain, before his aides quietly wheel him back inside and apologise for the old fella who has been under a lot of strain since around January and 'hasn't quite been there' for the last few months before promising that you wont have to see him again for some time.)

My point being that it is sheer genius to base an entire campaign on 'changing' things - and when asked what this change will look like, to deliver a bunch of promises to not do things. I don't plan on going to war or screwing up the economy but that doesn't really qualify me to be the next President, does it? I also don't plan on spouting patriotic nonsense until my eyeballs bleed and spending billions of dollars that could have gone elsewhere on what is little more than a long-running political soap opera; maybe that means i should become King.

I would love to take the 20 central concepts of Obama's acceptance speech and ask what 10 American's that have been cryogenically frozen for the past 18months thought they meant; i'd be surprised if you didn't get 10 much varied responses. He has managed to make himself appeal to all-comers - something that admittedly all politicians attempt to do - but his genius is that he has managed to do it without genuinely specifying anything. McCain was guilty of much the same - moving closer to the centre even when it was obviously too late and when saving face by returning to the right would have perhaps been the best option - but i believe that the fact that Obama actually won rightfully singles him out.

This election has been one sweeping statement after another. It has been reactive, not proactive (despite what Oba may try to tell you). Of course Obama looked at polls before and during his run. Of course he saw Palin and surged forth on her ground. Of course he saw the word 'crisis' in the headlines and returned to messages of hard-work and self-reliance. And, above all, of course he saw Bush's poll-ratings and thought 'change'. Even his Republican competitor (who, as we have all been made tremendously aware, voted with the administration quite a lot) tried the very same thing.

Has it really got to the stage now where politics has become so dumbed-down that we can only speak in sweeping concepts and allow the voter themselves to fill in the gaps? This election has been an ideal-type example in populism for the idiot. If anyone was confused as to the problems with democracy watch the tapes of the last 18 months. 'Decision Time USA 08' represents a continued slide towards formalised idiocracy. Obama may be a good President - i think he can be and i hope he is - but we have to face the fact that the first item on his Presidential CV will be 'won an election in 2008 by saying little, and doing nothing'. Lets hope his eventual legacy proves to be so much more than that.


andrew said...

my thoughts entirely. i had to go on wikipedia (sic) to find out what barak's policies were; i had some vague ideas - 'healthcare reform', 'revised US attitude to iraq', 'greater emphasis on green energy' &c - but nothing more specific. in fact, going into 2000, i think i had a better idea of Bush's key enunciated political aim of 'no child left behind', which is, in a way, more specific than 'Change'. i wonder how many people (on both sides of the atlantic) actually know what barak stands for. all will be revealed, as they say.

Amy said...

I don't know, the way that Obama has run his campaign shows how smart he is, lets not forget that he was 10 points (or so?) behind Clinton when he started to run for the democratic nomination. And he may not have promised much, but his actions demonstrate to me a man who is able to remain calm and level-headed in a crisis, and this is certainly what Americans, and indeed the rest of the world needs right now. Also, while he may not have promised a lot of specifics what he has pledged to do for the country, 'change it', 'lead it in a new direction' is massive so it's not like he's shying away from making big promises! The way he has conducted himself in the overly long and expensive campaign, his quick rise through the ranks and his amazing rhetoric to me show an extremely intelligent man and I am very excited about seeing what he does, I only wish we didn't have to wait until January- Bush can't do that much damage in that time, can he?!

Jilna said...

Whether ‘America’ has made ‘the right choice’ is beside the point. Look at the turnout and the previously apathetic and disengaged voters who have voted in this election. Call it ‘hype’ if you like, but this election has been historic in this way. You just need to look at the low levels of political turnout in previous years to prove this point. I know as a Politics student its easy to be very elitist (I’m guilty of it too) but you have to take a step back. What may be ‘hype’ for some people is actually ‘democracy in action’ for others.

‘Obamamania’ should come as no surprise. Yeah it’s a shame that Politics nearly all over the world has been reduced to a contest of personalities, but this has long been the reality. Yes it would be great if people paid attention to policies and if running politicians focussed more on policies, but the (sad) fact is that this does not win elections, hence it’s all about ‘the cult of the personality’. Just look at Brown – did he single handedly cause the ‘credit crunch’? No, but people seem to think he did. It’s a big shame, but that’s contemporary Politics – many people can’t seem to separate the personality from the policy and political climate.

Of course Obama has been reactive, the entire presidential race is essential all about theatre and performance but on both sides. You can’t believe that the nomination of Palin was ‘proactive’ and not ‘reactive’? This ‘reactive’ stance is not confined to Obama, nor should it be seen as unique to this presidential race, or in fact political system. Politics and elections all over the world have been ‘presentation over policy’/ ‘style over substance’ for years.

Whatever your opinion on Obama and ‘Obamamania’, he has been ground-breaking. Although he is ‘middle class’, he has not come from a background of privilege. He received donations from ‘normal’ Americans. He got votes from constituents who had previously never voted. This should be viewed as significant per se, and not just devalued due to any doubts that we may have over his time in office to come.

But you are right, of course – those who have been euphoric about his victory last night ought to hold off breathing a sigh of relief. Obama has promised ‘real change’. His battle is an uphill struggle and yeah, it definitely remains to be seen what happens now. He is well aware that he has inherited ‘two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century’. It really does remain to be seen what happens. It is one thing to campaign, another to govern. But let’s not forget, despite his significant win Obama, like any US president does not have a free reign. We know that to get on in US Politics, presidents must appeal to the ‘middle ground’. Though there appears to be a sweeping call for a move to the left, we know that Obama is inherently constrained in his ability to deliver this change. Also, remember ‘the permanent campaign’. Obama can not put his feet up yet. He has the mid-term elections to be weary of where he can’t afford risking losses.

Whatever your opinion (and I agree, he has yet to ‘deliver’ on so much), you must separate your views surrounding the election victory last night from your opinions on what may happen henceforth. Last night was significant in its own right.

matjhope said...

All fair points - but let me pose this question; why shouldn't i be elitist? The consensus seems to be that i was right to criticise the personality politics that surrounded this election and have been dominating for years; so why put up with it? Now that would be 'real change'.

Just because it engaged more people than before doesn't make it better by right - they should have been engaged before, when politics was about policy.

Jilna said...

The should have been engaged, but they weren't. So whatever he did, he did something right.

I totally agree and personality politics frustrates me too. I dont see a way back though. Its a catch 22 - you either have a strong focus on policy and less people engaged, or more less policy and more engagement.

Hawthorne said...

I think you are merging too quite different strands. Politics and Government.

Your objection that "Has it really got to the stage now where politics has become so dumbed-down that we can only speak in sweeping concepts and allow the voter themselves to fill in the gaps? This election has been an ideal-type example in populism for the idiot."

Feels to me to miss the point. You want a Political Candidate to spend all his time in Speech's, interviews, etc talking through a detailed policy iniative on why his version of a mixed compulsory insurance combined with added tax breaks for low-income families on their health payments......etc. Really? You think that the average voter cares or even wants to understand the distinction of varying tariff levels depend on income level, dependants, other tax details, etc. No they don't. Besidies even if they did, apart from the Conventions a candidate has less than 30 seconds typically to get his point across in soundbites, ads, etc. It isn't feasable. They only people who do read policy plans are policy wonks such as think tanks and some media types. And they they interpret the highlights for Voters via press releases or articles.

Forget not that the President in Policy terms has two real tools, the Veto and "Bully Pulpit". Whilst having a Democratic Congress may help, they will be further "left" (in the American sense) then he probably will.

The American system was deliberatly designed to prevent an over-bearing and dominating Executive. The fact that Presidential candidates seem to acknowledge this, even if tacitly. I think is rather pragmatic.

Fundamentally in a President it is his personality and judgement that matter more. He will be able to affect 2 maybe 3 big changes in policy areas and he will have to do it in less than 12 monthes because after that its mid-terms, and after that its re-election.

The rest of his time will be spent trying to influence domestic and foreign politicians, without really changing policy too fundamentally. This is where his character and dare I say it "personality" must come to the fore.

"Just because it engaged more people than before doesn't make it better by right - they should have been engaged before, when politics was about policy."

I would love to know this golden age when American Politics, and Presidential elections espicially, were about policy. Because I don't recall one.