Tuesday 23 September 2008

The scene is set: the phony culture war election

US election blog - part one

You might have thought the current financial crisis would put the economy at the heart of the US election campaign. But not if you’ve been paying attention, either to the campaign or to developments in Western politics more generally for the past several years; the big macroeconomic questions ceased to be a dividing line long ago. The Economist notes that even on the narrower question of fiscal policy, McCain and Obama are pretty close, with disputes focused on competence rather than principle. Unsurprisingly then, the financial shakeout has failed to alter the ‘culture war’ focus of the election campaign.

With six weeks to go, the closest thing to a ‘narrative’ defining the campaign has less to do with politics than with lifestyle. Most observers agree that the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for vice-president reopened a deep and bitter culture war that still divides America. The Pentecostalist, gun-owning hockey mom declared war on the Godless, latte-sipping liberal elite, which quickly confirmed that the antipathy is mutual.

It should be remembered, though, that the culture war was always premised on the narrowing of substantial political differences, most notably on economic questions. As Alan Wolfe famously suggested at the end of the 1990s, the left won the culture war partly because the right won the economic war, and both sides have been living (if not happily) with the consequences for some time. For all the bluster, even abortion and gun control are not election issues. There is a grudging, de facto consensus in US politics, even on such nominally controversial issues. As Kevin Yuill argues in his review of Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, the two parties have become ‘badges to be worn, identifiers rather than real political choices’.

Sarah Palin demonstrates her bona fides

While the red-blue divide is still conventionally seen as a sublimated or distorted form of the left-right divide, it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘culture’, or more accurately lifestyle, is all that’s left. That’s what makes the undeniable ‘elitism’ of Democrat commentators, and their belief that working class Republicans are deluded or irrational, all the more galling. The flipside is the Republican leadership’s equally patronising view of their own supporters: the nomination of the singularly unqualified Sarah Palin on the basis of her demographic profile suggests a certain contempt for the electorate.

Most Americans are not stupid however, and are likely under few illusions about the character of the election. If the parties choose to nominate mascots rather than political leaders, you vote for your favourite mascot. Sadly the appeal of Barack Obama is not so different, as is suggested by the satirical website, Stuff White People Like (which is really about the preferences of a narrower cohort of the American population that is less tolerant than it likes to think).

Despite this depressing backdrop, all elections are opportunities for clarification at least, often revealing as much through what is not discussed as in the debates themselves. And the obvious appetite for change in this one is certainly healthy, with the concerns of real people sometimes threatening to intrude on the charade, albeit indirectly. In the coming weeks, I’ll be watching the campaign, and the discussion about it in the international media, for signs of hope as well as grimmer realities. Please email any comments.

Read on: US Election blog part 2, Taking a break from politics to fix capitalism

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