Tuesday 30 September 2008

CAF Blog - US Elections

US Elections: From crisis of confidence to audacity of hope?

The first Sunday in September saw the inaugural meeting of the latest Institute of Ideas forum, the Current Affairs Forum. The forum takes an informal and non-specialist approach, determining its discussion topic a week in advance. The forum launched with a topical discussion of the American elections.

The meeting, falling just after the Republican National Convention, looked broadly at the trends beneath this year’s campaigns, from the Barack Obama phenomenon to the Sarah Palin furore. Dolan Cummings, Culture Wars editor, introduced the discussion, suggesting the reason we in the UK find the US elections interesting is due to our own dearth of interesting and charismatic politics and politicians.

Given Obama’s attempt at a forward looking political agenda, it is easy to see why many people are excited. In comparison to the UK, where politicians talk about happiness agendas or carbon footprints, a progressive attempt to improve living standards and empower the ordinary man seems remarkable. However, Cummings contended that the Democrats talk of making a ‘change’ from George W Bush’s administration really represented an attempt to return to the post war consensus, and the Clinton years of the 1990s.

The Republicans, on the other hand, according to Cummings, are also bizarrely painting themselves as the party of ‘change’. John McCain won’t mention George W Bush by name, and runs scared of the GOP’s rich and well educated reality by appeals to anti-elitist populism. Palin’s candidacy for VP is in fact playing to the same ‘strengths’ as Obama’s – suspicion towards party machines, career politicians and old elites, that mean these inexperienced politicians are close to high office.

So what did the attendees make of a Republican party that doesn’t care for tradition and conservatism, and a Democratic party that harks back to a golden age?

Taking up on the last point, one contributor raised how McCain too was considered a ‘maverick’, who rose to the candidacy in opposition to the party machine. His and Obama’s candidacies showed the increasing weaknesses of the mainstream political organisations. Others spoke about how talk of an American ‘promise’ inadvertently revealed the threadbare nature of the ‘American Dream’; the promise seems a more passive offering than the rugged individualism of the dream.

One point of contention was the degree to which there really is a difference between Democrats and Republicans. Many considered their politics superficially different but essentially the same. One student questioned this however, suggesting the Republicans’ more hostile attitude to Roe vs Wade and stem cell research would damage reproductive and scientific freedom in America. Others responded: whilst the Republicans paid lip service to pro-life arguments, the record of the Bush White House didn’t suggest a concerted attack on abortion rights was on the table. Opposition to abortion was suggested to be more of a personal, identity-based opinion than the forceful political belief it may have been in the past.

This identity factor seemed to many to be central in understanding the US election. The seeming return of the culture war, particularly stoked by Palin’s candidacy, perhaps suggests that political divisions are greater than ever. Not so, claimed Cummings in his summing up; the culture war was always a superficial cleavage, and emerged from the defeat of any more radical alternative. If Obama, or more likely, the young people politicised by the Obama campaign, were to truly make a ‘change you can believe in’, they might have to move beyond the warm comfort zone of identity and advance some real ideas that might stir things up.


Download the introduction, and take a look at the readings on the Current Affairs Forum homepage, also with details of future events.


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