Sucheta Dalal :US Elections: There's Been No Contest Like It
Sucheta Dalal

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US Elections: There's Been No Contest Like It  

February 6, 2008

There's Been No Contest Like It
 A piece by Michael Tomasky of The Guardian says, this election is one you will tell your grandchildren about -- it is an election about whether 'America is finally ready to give liberalism another chance'.

Tuesday 05 February 2008

This is not just the most joyously unpredictable election in US history, writes Michael Tomasky. It is fundamentally about whether America is finally ready to give liberalism another chance.

Ever since those days and weeks in late 2006 when this longest of presidential campaigns began to assume form, commentators have been reaching back into history to find the most apt and dramatic comparison to insert into that evergreen sentence of American punditry, the one that begins "Not since..."

Some landed on 1976, when contested nomination battles in both parties lasted well into the spring and summer. Some went back to 1952, which is the last time both parties' nominations were truly "open" - no incumbent president seeking re-election, and no vice-presidential heir apparent on either side.

Some, anticipating the possibility that the nomination of one party or the other might not be settled by the time of the party's summer conventions, invoked 1924, that tuneless cacophony of a year when the Democrats weren't able to unite around a candidate until the 101st ballot at their convention.

And finally, the more erudite among them showed off by mentioning, say, 1876 or 1828 (never mind, you don't need to know; they were messy).

Now, with the race in full swing, we can say that all of those analogies are wrong. My "not since" sentence consists of three words: Not since never.

I'm not usually given to hyperbole or (I hope) to purple prose, but I believe this to be absolutely true: There has never been a presidential race quite like this in the history of the United States.

It has genuinely impressive candidates. It has a grand theme. It's really, meaningfully, about something. It may result in a woman or, perhaps more incredibly still, a black person being the president of the United States. Or, if not one of them - this is footnote-ish by contrast, but still quite interesting - maybe, then, the oldest person ever elected president, a man who would, if he served two full terms, have 80 candles to blow out on his last White House birthday cake.

And not least, as spectator sport, it has been joyously, raucously unpredictable. Hillary Clinton's eleventh-hour comeback win over Barack Obama in New Hampshire is the single most stunning election result I've seen in 20 years of doing this stuff. And there have been numerous other surprising, even stupefying, plot twists besides.

But let's talk big picture.

The grand theme of this contest, to hear the candidates tell it, is "change." That's a shallow buzzword that doesn't say much, and to listen to the candidates strain to persuade the public that "I represent change too!" (Obama was first) is to be reminded of schoolchildren in pursuit of gold stars from teacher.

But amazingly enough, it's not entirely inapt. This election is fundamentally about whether a majority of Americans are prepared to give liberalism another chance. The story goes like this. The modern conservative movement in America was founded in the mid-1950s. We had conservatives before then, Lord knows. But this was something new. This was conservatism as a dedicated project.

Clarence "Pat" Manion, a dean at the University of Notre Dame and a founder of the movement, convened groups of conservatives to get together and start infiltrating (legally and above board - by winning elections) their local Republican parties. Rich conservatives in various walks of life started putting massive amounts of money into conservative-movement politics - financing candidates, starting ideological magazines, publishing rightwing books. If you drink Coors beer or have ever visited the California theme park called Knott's Berry Farm, you've pitched in yourself.

The Republican party of the day, I should note, was a mostly moderate amalgam. Dwight Eisenhower as president embraced the New Deal. There is a quote of Ike's, famous now in the era of George Bush and Dick Cheney, and piquant enough in light of current circumstances to warrant reproducing here in full:

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labour laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible, and they are stupid."

Ah well. By 1964, this faction had taken over the Republican party. It nominated Barry Goldwater. But he was massacred that November by Lyndon Johnson, and the wise observers of the day declared this strange conservative thing, this malformed aberration, mercifully deceased.

But it turned out that that was liberalism's high-water mark. The changes, political and cultural, set in train that year - the House of Representatives passed the historic civil rights bill the very day after we Americans first saw the Beatles, on Ed Sullivan's TV show - had, within four or five years' time, unleashed uncontrollable forces.

By that time, the American left - broadly construed to include everyone from Hubert Humphrey to Noam Chomsky - was at war with itself. I expect you know the litany: on race, women's rights, the war in Vietnam, the generation gap, Israel, the developing world and more, liberals were at loggerheads. In the 1970s, things got worse - crime, energy crises, a hostage crisis, malaise and turpitude. Meanwhile, conservatives - who believed some of their negative press in 1964 and retreated for a time - decided enough was enough and rededicated themselves to pouring still more millions of dollars into building an infrastructure of interest groups and media outlets to promote conservative ideas and denigrate liberal ones. They met with a willing public.

Then came Ronald Reagan - history's first movement conservative president. Obama was right, in his now-famous remark of three weeks ago, the one the Clinton campaign ran with (and distorted, eventually to its detriment in South Carolina), that Reagan changed the country in profound ways. It's true that a sizeable minority did not care for the man or his politics. But for most Americans, the Reagan years showed that conservatism worked and had answers.

For 25 long years, it remained so. It remained so even during the term of Bill Clinton, who felt he had no choice but to govern as a moderate progressive in a fundamentally conservative era. It remained so after September 11.

But many Americans' faith in conservatism was injured on the streets of Baghdad and finally died in the flood-soaked streets of New Orleans.

Furthermore, Americans look around themselves and see a middle class that is prosperous but deeply anxious; a healthcare system that works reasonably well, except when you really need it; a world that hasn't reacted very positively to our attempts at bullying it; a planet that might indeed be suffering for our, pardon the pun, sins of emission.

Americans have given up on Bush. That much we know. What we don't know is whether they've given up on his ideology. It may be they look at Bush's failures and see an ideological failure, a failure of conservatism. But it may also be that they see only an execution failure, a failure of competence.

So these are the questions - and they're very important and profound questions - this election will answer: will American voters say that they want a "change," to go back to the key word, only from incompetence to competence, keeping basic conservatism intact (John McCain, arguably)? Will they say they want a shift away from conservatism, but the cautious and incremental shift that Clinton represents? Or will they want the broader change that Obama signifies - a change not dramatically to the left of Clinton in ideological terms, because he is not, but potentially a vast change in the political culture, toward something that does not accept our red v blue divide and culture wars as a given and would redeem America's most solemn original sin of racism?

Liberals around Washington, indeed around the country, are upbeat because it feels like it might be one of those moments. It feels like enough Americans are tired of conservatism, not just of incompetence. It feels like enough of them see that conservatism doesn't have good solutions to some of the new problems America confronts. Not that many Americans, still, are willing to call themselves liberal; just about one adult in five. And no one is hankering for a return to the 1970s or seized with a burning desire to pay higher taxes. But the current mood in the country seems to indicate that Americans are willing to give liberalism that second chance.

And if liberalism gets that chance and succeeds, the modern conservative movement will enter into a period of introspection and recrimination unlike any it's ever experienced. What in this context does "succeed" mean? As little as two things. If a Democratic president and Congress - and everyone expects that Congress will stay in Democratic control - can 1) pass healthcare and 2) articulate and implement a strategic foreign policy vision that defends America and charts a new course in the world, then Americans will embrace this new liberalism. Movement conservatism will be forced to transform itself so utterly as to be unrecognisable as its erstwhile self; which is another way of saying that, short of its 60th birthday, it will in essence perish.

That's all that's at stake.

But of course most voters don't think about these big ideas. Elections are always about a thousand things, little things, some silly things, some not-so-silly things, emotional things. Ah, emotion; now that's a very political word.

In the past year or so, there has arisen a certain vogue in brain research and political behaviour. Why, of all things, brain research? Because some scientists have been studying how citizens arrive at political decisions. They have concluded that voters use emotion rather than reason.

We should always remind ourselves that this election will be about these things, too. It already has been. Clinton did not reason her way to victory in New Hampshire - voters felt sorry for her after she showed a human response to attacks many saw as unchivalrous. Most people couldn't tell you three specific policies Obama advocates, but they sure can tell you how he makes them feel.

Those researchers have also found that among the various emotions, the negative ones - anger and especially fear - are usually better motivators. They have even found quite specifically that scenes or thoughts of death make most people adopt more conservative political views (see The Political Brain by Drew Westen, from which this paper ran extracts in August last year).

Republicans know this, and they understand what they're doing when they allege that Democrats won't protect the country from more terrorist attacks. Democrats except for Bill Clinton haven't understood the role of emotion very well. Al Gore and John Kerry seemed to think voters did things like read the details of healthcare plans. And they responded very weakly to attacks, allowing conservatives to define them in many voters' eyes (remember how the swift boat veterans tarnished Kerry).

So another interesting question: will the Democrats finally understand that a campaign isn't a college debate but is an obstacle course that must be negotiated with a velvet glove on one hand and a switchblade in the other?

We head now to super-duper Tuesday. We will probably have a candidate on the Republican side, McCain. On the Democratic side, if Clinton wins all the large states, especially California, she will probably be able, to use a metaphor from American football, to run out the clock on Obama, eventually winning - one officially "wins" by amassing 2,025 delegates, which one does by winning state primaries and caucuses - in March or April.

But if Obama does well tonight, and especially if he wins California, look out. The inevitable candidate, Clinton, will start looking awfully ... uninevitable. It would be fitting to the extent that that's the kind of election it's been. Remember Rudy Giuliani? He led his Republican opponents almost the entirety of 2007, only to experience in 2008 one of the most astounding flameouts in presidential history. Giuliani was on top back when McCain was finished, dead, kaput.

If you've been watching, you know what I mean. And if you haven't - well, start tuning in. This will be one to tell the grandkids about.


Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America

-- Sucheta Dalal