Can’t We All Just Get Along?

At universities today, the most popular potential US presidential candidate is smart, young, black, good-looking, likeable. His events draw frenzied crowds (a bad sign); pundits say he’s a rock-star (another bad sign).

Why is Senator Barack Obama so popular? His healthcare plan is pedestrian; his foreign policy outlook is interchangeable with Hillary Clinton’s, or Mitt Romney’s for that matter. It’s partly to do with his image as a young charmer and partly because he opposed the Iraq War “from the beginning”, as he likes to remind people. But his position on Iraq is not as hardline as Bill Richardson’s, for example. And laying claim to being the most charismatic Congressmen is really only like claiming to be the most open-minded Klansman. His popularity, I think, is related to his favourite applause-line, which goes roughly as follows: “We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans… Change in our politics can only come from you.” It was with those words that Senator Obama announced his presidential run.

There have been many overpraised perorations in the history of US politics, but Obama’s reputation-making “Audacity of Hope” address to the 2004 Democratic Convention really reeks of corniness. If you watch the video, you’ll see people who are actually crying and shaking as the Senator trots out such pearls as, “There is not a liberal America and conservative America, there is the United States of America!” Forgive me for not tearfully struggling for breath as I type these words, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

What could be less controversial than claiming to stand against “division” and for “unity”? I wouldn’t be surprised if every single modern American politician has pulled this same rhetorical move, at one time or another. Remember, GWB was originally elected as “a uniter, not a divider”. Even at the corresponding Republican Convention in 2004, it was a Democrat who gave the keynote address, claiming that some good old-fashioned bipartisanship was necessary. Perhaps the only political clichÈ more annoying than this is the trend of calling the campaign trail drudge a “conversation” with the people; every politician who wants to be seen as “in touch” with “fellow Americans” now loves nothing more than having an ongoing conversation or dialogue or chit-chat with you.

Strange, though, that Democrats still fall for the “bringing the country together” gambit. After all, haven’t a significant number spent the past few years complaining that Bush has used wartime unity rhetoric to silence dissent? I vividly recall watching interviews with Democrats who claimed they simply could not – could not – vote against the Patriot Act, or the Iraq War, or any number of bills that they assented to, for the solitary reason that it would have been divisive to depart from the regnant orthodoxy. Nor do Democrats care that Gerald Ford got away with pardoning Richard Nixon for the fatuous reason that the nation needed “healing”. But then, the Democrats have their own reasons for keeping the consensus card on hand: it got Bill Clinton out of opinion poll trouble in 1998, when he decided that nothing was more important than bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan – anything else, like impeachment, was a disruption. Politics has reached a stage where you look credible if you can claim to be a “moderate”, and you look savvy and wised-up if you can say that your opponent is “divisive”.

The open secret of American politics, of course, is that there is too much consensus and not enough conflict. The major parties are agreed on almost every major issue. Even over Iraq the Republicans are moving closer to the Democrats – or is it the other way round? As to what the issues are, there is no debate. Obama is right when he says that American domestic politics has an air of “smallness” to it. But that’s precisely because the parties have a diminishing number of issues over which they dare to disagree; more “togetherness” is hardly the answer. There hasn’t been a genuinely conservative Republican president for a long time; there hasn’t been a genuinely liberal Democratic president for even longer.

If Obama were serious about “a different kind of politics”, he would say that he is OK with division. Thomas Paine, the greatest of America’s founders, got it basically right: “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle, is a species of vice.” It is odd that the public should be so titillated by politicians who are lukewarm in all their convictions, except for the conviction that they are moderate. Who wants a “moderate” president on human rights or corruption or church-state separation?

At least in a small way, any politician purporting to be “above” politics must be taken at his word: the manoeuvre is essentially a cop-out. If you don’t like politics, which inherently involves dispute, being a politician is a bizarre career path. If you want soothing psychobabble about healing wounds, try therapy. This is doubly important for anyone who claims to be a progressive politician. All progress involves struggle: American independence, women’s suffrage, black civil rights – these were not gained through a joyous conversation, but through tense, bitter, open confrontations.

More than this, consensus politics, anti-politics politics, whatever you want to call it, is boring. That’s almost worse than being irresponsible. Al Gore may be sincere in his lamentation that the media is not sufficiently interested in “issues”, and too interested in Paris Hilton, but the media is only partly to blame. Mr Gore will find that the fault is largely that of public opinion and the public opinion industry, which reward floweriness dressed up as conviction. To stand on principle is to risk being branded “extreme” or “a fringe candidate”; to risk a fight with an opponent is to be accused of “partisanship”. Even against Hillary, the queen of bland centrism (which really means conservatism), Obama has a good chance of winning the race to the middle, and he’ll have simpering admirers shouting, “Hope!” following him all the way.

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