Contrasting attitudes to America’s real problems came fully into view in the Republican and Democratic conventions just held. They make any forecast of the result of the 2012 presidential election even more difficult, especially as the candidates are currently neck and neck.
GOP v Obama
As a non-American who has never even visited the US, I know there are limits to what I can say about the presidential election this year. Hey, it’s your election, so what do I know? I can’t help feeling, though, that the Republicans are the likelier to lose. I think it’s a matter of substance.
British media coverage of the conventions has been quite extensive. It’s added detail and depth to what we see on Fox News and the Daily Show. So we have material on which to base our comments.
The immediate impression is that there is a real gap in substance and tone between the parties. Democrats appear generally confident and enthusiastic, and with specific policies to offer; the Republicans do not. They seem angry, and sometimes desperate, with a distinct aversion to Barack Obama. Why is this?
Cultural differences kick in here. The rhetoric is not what we Europeans are used to, and we rather like Mr Obama. Calling this right-of-centre statesman a ‘communist’ is mystifying. Alleging that he is out to make Americans ‘less free’ is strange. Claiming that re-electing him will lead to a “thousand years of darkness”, as Chuck Norris’s recent video claims, is just incomprehensible.
What did he do?
In my view, most of those who mount these ad hominem attacks must be focusing on Barack Obama for three main reasons.
First, it may be a communication problem. It’s probable that the average Tea Party member, for example, doesn’t ‘get’ Obama and what he has been trying to achieve; this might be caused partly by the president’s academic style and slightly cold personality. Perhaps Americans feel that their president should be someone more down to earth and perhaps not too ‘clever.’
Second, as academics have shown, there is a part of the American psyche that yearns for the president to conform, as much as possible, to the atavistic archetype of a strong man untroubled by doubt and impatient with intellectualism: an alpha male with the potential for using, let alone threatening, ‘male violence.’ Even if he is not, he must seem to be.
How powerful is he?
The present incumbent doesn’t look presidential in the traditional way, as Barack Obama himself has acknowledged. Combine this with what is likely to be US citizens’ overestimate of just how powerful the office of Chief Magistrate is, and you have a recipe for the mistaking of the message for the man. Personality politics, fuelled by 24-hours news, are here to stay. It’s not what he says, it’s how he sounds.
Party propaganda does not always help. There is a curious treatment of defence realities in the Republican Party Platform document where it alleges that “The president plans to reduce our naval forces by retiring seven cruisers and slowing work on amphibious ships and attack submarines…”
What really happens, I suspect, is that the decision whether or not to continue using warships that are no longer cost-effective to keep in fighting trim is taken by some Pentagon committee recognising realities when they send their recommendations up the chain of command. It is not as if the president sits around, as implied, and plots to damage the US Navy by personally demanding that these ships be stood down. Insinuation wins again.
What else is there?
Which brings us to the third reason. The 95% or so of the population of any democratic country who do not follow politics every day as we anoraks do sometimes miss the context. I have met this fact of life on many occasions and in different countries. It is a factor in elections everywhere.
It imposes a heavy responsibility on the media to inform, explain and be truthful. It’s fair to say that some media do not meet this standard.
Many of the people attacking Mr Obama must be doing so because it is easier – and more satisfying – to do that rather than take on board any wider context, especially difficult or contentious issues like global warming.
It is true that the US suffers from high unemployment, for instance, but is that all his fault? What about China’s effect on the US economy, to name just one such factor in context? Do they believe that getting him out of the White House will solve the massive problems that truly challenge the republic, as they know but which they never seem to mention?
Someone once described Americans as a “great but bewildered people.” I sympathise. The world’s last remaining superpower knows that environmental degradation, industrial shakeout, agricultural problems, infrastructure decay, healthcare difficulties and threats from cyber warfare and nuclear proliferation and the Middle East, and so on and so forth, amount to a whole circuit board of challenge and change, all flashing red. Why is this not reflected more in the national election debate (insofar as a foreigner can judge)?
To be fair, these issues are covered in the Republican Party platform document. Indeed, it is comprehensive, with much to say to the electorate despite being somewhat difficult to read. But, as I understand it, the ticket does not have to comply with its policies and prescriptions.
If that is the case, then Gov Romney and Rep Ryan are apparently free to take the party wherever they want it to go. On one issue, however, they are right behind the manifesto, and fully committed, and that is the matter of government itself.
Republicans seem to be more or less against it. To be sure, the platform document calls for strong and assertive government to lay hold on America’s role in the world (“American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history…”) whilst at the same time claiming that it is too big at home and therefore a ‘threat to freedom.’
I suspect that when used in this way, the word ‘freedom’ means some kind of ‘principled selfishness’, but let that pass. Is it true that government exists only to oppress us?
It has been said that the American experience of government has always been different from, say, that of Western European countries. This must be relevant.
Our own experience of government has been both very good and very bad. In its time, our governments have fooled us, oppressed us and betrayed us, but we have developed a history of bringing it to account. Government is not inherently bad, in the sense of an imposition on the people. Even the Founding Fathers recognised that.
In its time, government has both liberated and protected us. We may be routinely contemptuous of it, but we do not fear it. We also take it as read that taxation is the price we pay for living in a civilised society; not one that tolerates the official abandonment of the weakest among us. Hubert Humphrey should be alive today to repeat this favourite mantra of his.
I suspect that the Romney/Ryan insistence on talking about cuts in both taxes and in government represents particularly thin ice on which to skate arabesques of supplication to the Tea Party and the zillionaires who support it. That ice will start to crack in the presidential debates, when Gov Romney comes up against the steely demeanour and strong command of facts so often exhibited by Mr Obama.
The propensity for gaffes demonstrated by both of the men on the Republican ticket will surely damage how they appear to the as yet undecided voter. So will their narrow-focused harping on tax cuts to the exclusion of so many other difficult issues.
Barack Obama is not the problem. The “great but bewildered people” need to focus on a whole range of issues, many of which affect us benighted foreigners too. We’d be happier if the US presidential election campaign recognised this but we also know that you need to have your own debate on your own problems. Please tell us when that is going to begin.