Friday, February 29, 2008
Obama has given hope to a generation ... but we could easily tune out again
Its a well-aired myth that young people are uninterested in politics. What they are, in fact, generally uninterested in is politicians. But that's largely because my generation isnt used to hearing a politician being actively inspiring. Barack Obama, fueled by record turnout and unusual enthusiasm amongst young voters, has achieved the aura of inevitability in the race for the Democratic nomination by getting a new generation fired up and ready to go.
Cue sniffy dismissiveness about poetry, bubbles and fairy tales. This all somewhat misses the point Obama is speaking to and for a whole other set of concerns, and is doing so in a way that feels entirely natural and authentic. Yes its broadbrush, but voters under 30 are responding in droves. He doesnt feel like a fraud and is not making embarrassing attempts to get down with the kids. He is riding the zeitgeist, and inspiring star-studded campaign videos along the way.
This connection inevitably breeds a backlash. But it shows the slightly warped state of political commentary when charisma, freshness, and vitality become potential minuses to guard against. And the relative constitutional weakness of the Presidency requires an effective President to be a galvaniser, who can bring people together and get things done. The Obama campaign is being sniped at as a cult of personality, but being able to spearhead a movement for change seems no bad thing in a country crying out for some healing.
What particularly insulates Obama from these attacks, however, is that he reaches far outside the youth ghetto. That is the big difference between Obama and Howard Dean's insurgent campaign of 2004 - check out The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by his campaign manager Joe Trippi for an evangelical account - which used the internet to ride a wave of idealistic young supporters, and go from zero to hero heading into Iowa. Dean could not broaden his appeal enough to avoid being brought down by his own personal flaws as a candidate and the television attack ads of opponents. But he blazed a trail and showed that young people would still engage with politics, given the right circumstances.
Obama, unlike Dean, is a viable mainstream candidate who can command support from Williamsburg to Wyoming. So this could actually happen. But with great power comes great responsibility. On Obama's shoulders rest the hopes of a generation seriously engaged in politics for the first time. And theres the rub. Political scepticism still runs deep and hope for change remains fragile. If the Clinton Machine, superdelegates, or, most worryingly, legal wrangling in Florida can precipitate an unlikely Hillary comeback, then it will strike a devastating blow for the chances of a new kind of politics. A new settlement lies in the balance; the message is 'we are listening, but it won't take much for us to tune out again'.
As Anthony Barnett recently put it on OpenDemocracy, for many she will be seen as the conveyer of the dead hand of prerogative and the instrument of disappointment, who crushed the hopes of the young now mobilising in droves for Obama. They, in all likelihood will nurse their wounds, withdraw from the campaign and some may even vote McCain.
Obama's fusion of charismatic new appeal and electability in the face of an unpopular status quo is not unprecedented, but you have to go back to 1968 and RFK to see anything quite like it. The link between Obama and the Kennedy clan has been a feature of this campaign, and was made explicit by Teddy Kennedy's Obama endorsement. Bobby Kennedy appealed to the same type of constituency, and did so against the backdrop of a similarly unpopular war. And, albeit in more tragic and dramatic circumstances than can be foreseen today (although this spectre has been raised), the fall of his campaign was a landmark disappointment for a new generation of the politically conscious.
As Hunter S. Thompson reflected, his assassination plunged a whole generation of hyper-political young Americans into a terminal stupor.
Of course there is no way for Obama to live up to the hype and expectation that currently surrounds him. At some point in the near or distant future, in the campaign or in government, we will be disappointed - such is the nature of politics and, indeed, life.
But if old-school politicking now conspires, be it in the guise of the Clintons, the Democratic establishment or the Republicans, and Obama falters, it will likely have a similarly numbing effect to that cataclysmic moment in California 1968 which opened the door to Richard Nixon.
As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.