Sunday, 17 February 2008

Is Obama "Blair 2.0"?

Paul's comment on last week's Anarchists for Obama? post really got me thinking. I'd quoted a fairly lengthy chunk from one of Ran's posts about Obama, in which he imagines how the different presidential candidates might react to a major economic crisis. Paul responded:

For me it sums up the whole curious enigma of Obama: how everyone invests their hopes in him and sees what he wants to see. [Ran] actually has no idea what Obama would do in such a situation; neither do any of us. Neither, probably, does Obama. But he knows what he hopes for.

In this sense, Obamania reminds me of the attitude to Tony Blair circa 1996. Hard to credit it now but we invested extremely high hopes in him too. And look what happened.

Interesting that Clinton supporters keep complaining that Obama has 'no policies.' They don't understand that no-one cares; no-one wants 'policies'. They want hope after a period of darkness and Obama offers it because people have decided he is the right vessel for their expectations at this moment in time.

Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, there certainly seem to be parallels between the Obama phenomenon and what we saw in 1997. A charismatic, youthful leader captures the mood of a significant part of the public, promising a fresh start after an unpopular and discredited regime, while offering very little in terms of specifics. Blair famously managed to leave just about everyone who met him in the run up to the election convinced that he stood for their particular cause, while committing himself to almost nothing.

So, is Obama simply Blair 2.0?

I want to hold that (admittedly scary) thought, and go back to Ran's posts, because the passage I quoted before was slightly unfair. From a British perspective, right now, it's hard to imagine getting that excited about a politician - and when Ran admits that American politics is pretty 'cult-like', I'm guessing he recognises how that applies to him. But the following passage catches both the cult-like element and something more nuanced:

Barack Obama's candidacy is the kind of opportunity that only comes along once or twice a century. He has honesty, courage, intelligence, charisma, and great political instincts, but most important, he shows a willingness and ability to channel bottom-up energy, to challenge the people to act, and to serve as a focus for public passion, where the Clintons would go in the back room and flush it down the toilet. It doesn't matter where he is on the issues! That's gearhead thinking. When you look on the level of human spirit, Obama represents our only chance to renew America without passing through really horrific violence.

Admittedly, it's not much of a chance. Even if he manages to overcome the ruthlessness of the Clintons, and then not get assassinated, we can't just sit back and expect him to take care of us. That's the kind of thinking that ruined America in the first place, and Clinton supporters are trying to keep it going, answering Obama's "Yes we can" with "Yes she can." We're going to have to organize boycotts and strikes and local currencies and secession movements and illegal mutual aid networks and mass physical actions that are tactical and not merely symbolic. We'll have one, or four, or maybe eight years with Obama in office, and we should think of him not as a leader but as a weapon, a lever big enough to move the country. And the elite are going to have to stand down, to allow painful moderate changes instead of violent big ones. In the last hours before the French Revolution, the lawmakers relented and passed a bunch of huge reforms, but by the time anyone found out, it was too late -- they were already burning the chateaus.

Leaving aside the hyperbole, where here's where I think Ran is on the right track: the most important question we can ask about our politicians today and tomorrow is how far they are prepared to hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives. There are various complications to this:

  • The whole 'bottom-up' idea may be at risk of becoming diluted to the point where that language loses its meaning - not least through the hype around Web 2.0.
  • In policy-think, 'bottom-up alternatives' can easily translate as 'doing things on the cheap'. Governments, by default as much as by design, are likely to pervert bottom-up initiatives by seeing them as a way to outsource the cost while retaining control (in the name of "setting standards", etc).
  • Judging politicians by their willingness to hold open the space for genuine bottom-up alternatives may or may not map coherently onto our existing frames of reference ("left" and "right", "liberal", "conservative", etc). In particular - and this is a topic I want to return to in a future post - 'liberalism', in all its varying senses, may turn out to be less of a friend to the bottom-up approach than some of us expect.
  • It may or may not be possible to make meaningful judgements about how candidates will actually behave in office. (Paul gives the pessimistic take on this when he says that none of us - up to and possibly including the man himself - have any idea how Obama would behave in the scenario Ran imagines.)

Two thoughts on all of this, for now, before I go to bed!

There is every chance of Obama turning out to be Blair 2.0 - but there seems to be a difference in the hopes being invested in him. Ran may not be the most representative voice, but the significance of the "yes we can" slogan which he points to is larger. Part of Obama's appeal does seem to be connected to a bottom-up message, however deep or shallow that turns out to be. By contrast, whatever hopes were invested in Blair in 1997, people already knew that he was a control freak - we had watched him establish an iron grip over the Labour party over the previous three years. Inside and outside the party, the hope was that the ends would justify the means. Blair's message was "trust me", not "trust yourselves".

Secondly, a thought on the question of whether it is possible to make meaningful judgements about how a candidate will behave in office - particularly, whether they will hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives or allow them to be crushed (or crush them directly). It seems to me that we make judgements like this about people we meet in our daily lives - friends, colleagues, dates... - and most of us trust our own judgement to be more right than wrong. My guess is we can make similar judgements about candidates for office, but that this gets less reliable the greater the distance from our lives. In other words, Obama notwithstanding, I hold out more hope for the chances of electing candidates at a local level who we can trust to hold open that space - and less hope for the more remote layers of government, where politics is more bound up with the operations of the media.


Nick said...

Two notes that people seem to keep missing: 1) Obama's policies are clearly articulated, not nebulous as some would suggest. All you would have to do is go to his website and check out the many pages of content there. Not to mention, he's written a whole book, "The Audacity of Hope," in which he articulates many of his views. 2) Obama was a professor of constitutional law for a decade, and as such, is a big believer in the constitution and the tri-partite structure of American government; unfortunately, the idea of supreme executive power has taken root and the original message of true checks and balances have clearly been lost, as evidenced by the abuse of powers of the Bush years. Even if Obama's policies were not articulatd, I would still go for him because I believe he understands and embodies the true function of a President--not to lead with ultimate power, but rather unite the maximal number of people towards the greatest good.

Steve Hayes said...

Some have pointed out tweo interesting things:

1) Obama says "we", Hillary Clinton says "you"

2) Obama is using the tactics the Republicans did last time -- stirrin g people's emotions. Demagogue? Perhaps. Mut maybe that's what it takes to be "eelctable" in the US system.

Dougald Hine said...

Fair points, Nick. I was overstretching the parallel between Blair and Obama on policy vagueness. The difference between our political systems is relevant here, too, since policy commitments for a presidential candidate in the States have different implications to for a British party leader, who is seeking to win legislative as well as executive control.

Another argument I hear a lot is that the actual policy differences between Obama and Clinton are wafer thin - and in no way account for the intense significance being attached by so many people to which of them wins. If their positions are so similar, why does it matter so much? (This is something Richard Sennett asked at that seminar I blogged about the other day.) Is the perceived distance a media confection - or is there something, other than policy, which really does divide them significantly? Something about character? Or (which may amount to the same thing) about their different relationships to a historical moment in which initiative is shifting towards bottom-up ways of doing things?

Is the energy around Obama because people sense he might be (in my friend Paul Miller's terms) a Pro-Am president? Or is the bottom-up buzz (think of Time magazine's 2006 'Person of the Year' awarded to "You") a convenient cover for more disconcerting developments? (I'm thinking of Tom Hodgkinson's Facebook article, which I blogged last month.)

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Steve,

(1) Yes - the basic question I'm wondering about is how significant this difference in language is.

(2) Robert Creamer had an article on the Huffington Post about this, the title of which basically sums up his argument: To Vilify Obama for his Ability to Inspire is to Ignore the Principal Lesson of the Last Three Decades of American Politics.

From a UK perspective, it feels bizarre to see people investing so much emotional energy in an election. How does it look from South Africa?

Anirudh said...

"Judging politicians by their willingness to hold open the space for genuine bottom-up alternatives may or may not map coherently onto our existing frames of reference ("left" and "right", "liberal", "conservative", etc). In particular - and this is a topic I want to return to in a future post - 'liberalism', in all its varying senses, may turn out to be less of a friend to the bottom-up approach than some of us expect."

Hi Dougald. I didn't understand what you meant by this.

Steve Hayes said...

Blair famously managed to leave just about everyone who met him in the run up to the election convinced that he stood for their particular cause, while committing himself to almost nothing.

And that's what scares me about Jacob Zuma, except that he's an old fart like me and almost as thick as George Bush.

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