Monday, September 8, 2008

Obama's Mountain

The 2008 US Election

On August 28, Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, the first "black" American to run for the highest office with a real chance of making it. Something new and strange must be taking place in the American political landscape. We are accustomed to American presidents with anglo-celtic names: Bush, Clinton, Nixon, Carter, Johnson, Kennedy. Barack Obama resembles none of these. A different world radiates from his name no less than from the colour of his skin, the rhythmical lilt of his voice, and the hope he embodies for the America of our dreams.
What are those dreams? Well they are doubtless different in their detail, but in outline they are surely one: a kinder, less corrupt, more socially inclusive country at home; and a nobler, less venal and trigger-happy one abroad. Would Obama deliver? Probably not; but judging by his popularity beyond US borders, we foreigners will expect him to try.
First, though, he has to get there over the hard-bitten, racist prejudices of redneck middle America, the vicious smears characteristic of Republican campaign advertising, and the corrupt meddling in the electoral voting procedures of Republican politicians and their factotums.
All of these hurdles are difficult to negotiate, but by far the most difficult will be racial prejudice. None of us know how many Americans remain infected by this wretched mental aberration; but the chances are that it's more than we think, and more, far more, than any of the pollsters and media commentators would have us believe.
Common sense tells us that what voters are prepared to tell a pollster can differ radically from what they choose to do with their vote in the privacy of the polling booth. Even so, small town America - the deeply reactionary heartland of traditional Republicanism - tends to be less shy about expressing illiberal views than big-city America of the coasts and Great Lakes. So it's no surprise to hear a BBC interviewee at the Republican Convention tell the world that Barack Obama may be intelligent but 'You never know what someone of mixed race might do. You can't trust people like that.' And the insidious suspicion spreads like a contagion over the air waves and the prairie landscape that Barack Obama can't be a true American.
Because to be a true American, you need a white skin, a small vocabulary and a taste for guns. If you're a good American as well as a true one, you believe God created the universe about 5000 years ago, abortion is evil and it's okay to torture 'suspected' terrorists. Around thirty-five percent of the U.S. electorate belongs in this last category. Rock-hard right-wingers with a virulent hatred of anyone or any idea bearing a 'liberal' sticker, they are the torch-bearers of righteousness, the enlightened ones, the new children of Israel, inheritors of the promised land. They form the backbone of the Republican Party, and no Republican Candidate can afford to ignore them.
These sanctimonious, poorly educated 'true' Americans have the power of numbers: there are enough of them in the US hinterland to sway the election. America's fate and maybe that of the world is in the hands of dullards; people brought up on prejudice and betrayed by an educational system that neither cares nor caters for them.
Hence why John McCain, the Republican candidate, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. A maverick himself, and regarded with suspicion by the mainstream right, he needed one of their number on his side: an all-American, huntin', shootin' an' fishin', god-fearing, creationist. Palin fits the bill nicely. A former beauty queen with a modest intellect, she radiates all the timeless Republican values: admiration of the military, a fake contempt for the Washington elite, and vacuous patriotism proclaimed for no other purpose than to win applause for herself and cast doubt on the loyalty of the Democratic nominee whom, she noted in her speech to the faithful at the 2008 Republican Convention, had never pronounced the word 'victory' in his reflections on the US government's military folly in Iraq, and by inference was therefore a borderline traitor.
Like most of her kind, Palin makes a virtue of ignorance. She doesn't know what the US vice-president does or stands for - and obviously hasn't thought about it - but that's why she's the ideal candidate: an outsider, a Mrs Smith going to Washington with a mission to clean it up.
Commentators agree, by the way, that she understands nothing about foreign policy; but that particular weakness has never troubled the American electorate. And besides, nobody even tries to dispute the received orthodoxy, namely that McCain's spell in a Vietnamese prison camp some thirty-five years ago qualifies him as an expert in international affairs. Nobody in America anyway. The rest of us are baffled. If jail is the place to acquire expertise, then the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay can look forward to glittering foreign service careers - assuming they make it out of there one day.
Republicans believe - and act as if - US elections are won by toadying to prejudice and keeping it simple. Therein lies another problem for Obama. He is bright, passionate, and inspiring, and he wants to win by the superiority of his ideas, the quality of his vision and the clarity of his arguments. But a good 50% of the US population wouldn't recognize a well-expressed idea if it knocked them over in the street.
Should we care who wins? Before you answer, take a look at Jonathan Friedland's article in The Guardian.
If you'd like a redneck view, click here.

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