America On the Tally

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(Text written in collaboration with Adam Murphy)

It has been argued that this year’s presidential campaign is, like never before, a confrontation between continuity and change. Now, it’s fairly obvious which candidate represents which state of mind. However, I would go even further than that by saying that this presidential campaign is really a highly symbolic confrontation between the old, embodied by McCain, and the new, personified, rather than embodied, by Obama. I have chosen to distinguish the embodiment of the old that the Republican senator stands for from the personification of the new that the Democrat senator stands for because Obama may not surely fully embody the new in all its scope and consequences. He obviously anticipates it, if not by facts, at least by his physical appearance, which is completely new in the contexts he has lately become to be associated with. In light of all this, how would you appreciate the highly symbolic political dichotomy at work in this presidential campaign and how would you comment on my probably hairsplitting distinction between Obama, the anticipator of the new (in itself), and Obama, the (alleged) personification of the self-same new?

The current US presidential campaign can certainly be viewed in terms of the old versus the new. Senator McCain is the fairly typical picture of a traditional presidential candidate. He is white and past middle-aged. He has a laudable record both as a military pilot and as an experienced Senator whose time in public service is recognized and admired by Americans from all across the political spectrum. Senator Obama has centered his campaign on the rather nebulous ideas of “hope” and “change.” He is trying to declare to the voting public that he is different from all previous candidates for this office.

His racial background sets him apart from any previous presidential candidate to receive the nomination of one of the two major American political parties. In this superficial, physical aspect, Senator Obama would certainly be something very “new” to the White House. The question to be considered is this: what meaningful “change”, what “hope” would an Obama presidency bring to the White House if elected?

An examination of Senator Obama’s proposed policies shows that he is not radically different in his politics than any other member of the Democratic Party. Had the Democrats chosen Senator Clinton or Senator Joe Biden (now Senator Obama’s Vice Presidential running mate) as the nominee, their policy platforms would most likely be quite similar to Senator Obama’s. In purely political terms, true “change”, the “newness” in a Barack Obama presidency, would be negligible in comparison with that of any other Democratic candidate. The change brought to the presidency given a victory in the election for Senator Obama would be that of changing the Republican Party policies of President George W. Bush for the policies of the Democratic Party agenda.

It should not be forgotten that Senator McCain has campaigned on a message of “change.”  President George W. Bush is incredibly unpopular with the American people. Many Americans disapprove of the continuing American military presence in Iraq and his administration is taking a great deal of blame (how much of it is deserved can be debated) for the current financial crisis and the slumping American economy. In campaign speeches Senator McCain has criticized what he calls “the failed policies” of George W. Bush. He promises that changes would be made in a McCain administration. One could reasonably ask whether or not Senator McCain’s “changes” would be little more than Republican Party orthodoxy without the attitudes, and some would say arrogance, of the current administration.

To return to Senator Obama, it is undeniable that a great deal of his popularity comes from the fact that he is young, he his a charismatic public speaker, and his rhetoric of “hope” and “change” is enormously appealing to voters who might otherwise be indifferent and disinterested in the democratic process. Thousands of young Americans, who are notoriously indifferent or oblivious to politics, have become energized by the idea of an Obama presidency. It is not bombastic to say that many Americans are “hungry for change” and that a goodly number of those have chosen to support Senator Obama.

It needs to be considered, however, just how much “change”, how much of the “new,” would an Obama presidency bring and how the American people would react to appreciable change or the lack of change. Trying to view this election as an objective observer, I fear that an Obama presidency could very well become a victim of its own successes. By campaigning on “hope” and “change” Senator Obama has inspired thousands of Americans. As a consequence, one cannot help but wonder if his campaign has given its supporters impossibly high expectations. Even the most well-meaning President must work with the Congress and the Federal Judiciary in the process of creating, modifying, implementing, and reviewing the laws of the land. If the three branches of the Federal Government cannot compromise on the changes any president wishes to make, then the change cannot come. If a President Obama cannot or will not bring about the “change” or “hope” he has said he wishes to bring to American politics, how will his current supporters react? Public approval is a very fickle thing and if the “change” that Senator Obama has used to define his campaign does not come then one can expect his star to fall as sharply as it has risen.

A few days ago, a plot to assassinate the would-be US President because of the radically new physical appearance of Senator Barack Obama was thwarted by the American authorities. The authors of the failed assassination are white supremacists who said they would have liked to die trying to see their plot through than to get fame by failing in their murderous scheme. I cannot help remembering a dubiously similar situation of by far more tragic consequences. When Robert Kennedy was in the heat of the presidential campaign of 1968, he got assassinated by a chosen representative of those who feared that radical change, which he advocated himself, might not be as good as generally thought of. By his death, Robert Kennedy changed radically change itself in a “what-if” kind of history, pretty much as Obama would if his assassins had succeeded in their plot. What I would like to know is whether certain “what-if” history parallels might be drawn between the two historic events (one accomplished, and the other one unaccomplished) and to what extent a presumable assassination of Obama, both in his capacity of presidential candidate and president elect, could change the change itself.

“What if” history is almost always considered by serious historians as little more than a bit of speculation though it can be an interesting intellectual exercise. When Senator Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated during his quest for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 1968 presidential election many Americans grew to feel that had Senator Kennedy survived he would have taken the nation on a course far different from that which the winner of the ‘68 election, President Richard Nixon, did. We can never know how true these speculations may have been had Senator Kennedy survived, and they are almost certainly colored by a sense of nostalgia. When people think of what “might have been” they almost always look at it in extremes; that the outcome might have been far better or far worse than the most logical possible outcome.

Had Senator Obama been assassinated it is logical to assume the same. The change he has promised could very well be derailed. Even if his Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Biden, would go on to win the election it could be logically assumed that although he is an experienced and tenacious politician he has not inspired supporters in the same way that Senator Obama has. Like with Robert Kennedy, Senator Obama’s supporters may have transferred all their dashed hopes and dreams onto the deceased and longing for what “might have been.” Even though Senator Biden may be as effective (perhaps even more effective) in bringing about the change Senator Obama has promised, the incredible charisma and the following that Senator Obama has would most likely overshadow a Biden presidency had Senator Obama been assassinated.

Unlike many other presidential campaigns, this one has been governed by novelty in almost all its departments, especially in the human one. The electoral competitors in this campaign, consciously or not, willingly or not, have from its early start been bearing the mark of novelty at all costs. The kind of novelty that was meant to shock, to amaze, to unrest, to make the participants in its tireless flow get accustomed to its inspirational consequences, even to unbalance its effects and those of its counterpart: tradition. It should seem that novelty has of late been ubiquitous in the hearts and minds of those doing their best to be essentially novel no matter what they leave behind in their effort at becoming purely novel. It should also seem that the slogan of this year’s political campaign was (still is for another week) “novelty at all costs” even if it hurts the politicians who address it or the voting public whom it is addressed to. A “novelty at all costs” example of a politician is, in my opinion, Governor Sarah Palin. She literally “novelized”, if not the whole American political scene, at least this much heated electoral campaign. In doing so, she both hurt herself with her deeply fabricated novelty and also hurt (or will in the near future) the expectations of those who have recently invested in her image the hope for a truly constructive type of novelty, despite some commentators’ novel opinion that she has earned her place in the 2012 electoral campaign should McCain lose this year’s elections. Is the American public so hungry for novelty in politics that they are even willing to accept novelty’s worst side effects, as those but briefly commented upon above?

The desire among the American people to have “novelty”, as you put it, in the White House is in my opinion a rather unsavory side-effect of the American people’s desire for “change” previously discussed. The current administration of President George W. Bush has fallen very far in the opinions of Americans since the 2000 and 2004 elections. The poll numbers reflect an undeniable desire for something different in the Oval Office.  I have already commented previously on just how much “change” can be expected with an Obama or McCain presidency and how in certain contexts the change may only be superficial.

We could see this “quest for novelty” starting as early as the party primaries where the two major political parties voted for their candidates, particularly in the Democratic Party. There would be “novelty” with the Democratic nominee regardless of the party’s decision with the choice of either Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Obama. It can be surmised that Senator McCain’s choice of Governor Palin for his vice presidential candidate was based more on adding this touch of “novelty” to rally far-right Republicans, who have always been lukewarm toward Senator McCain, and try to add a superficial touch of youth to help him challenge Senator Obama’s charisma and popularity.  Unfortunately, I do not think that most Americans have seriously considered the undesirable side effects of their desire for “novelty” or “change”.

As our conversation will be published on November, 4, Election Day, as a critical tribute to this apparently historic day, I would like you to tell me only this: what are the odds for November, 4 to enter history as a truly historic day, when history itself has been renewed, and not when history has yet again failed to come full circle its novelty cycle?

Barring any major disaster, such as an assassination attempt or terrorist attack, or sweeping electoral irregularities, I do not think that this election will feature greatly in the long-term history of the United States other than the election of the first non-White President if Senator Obama wins. As volatile as events in the world and the nation currently are, they cannot compare to the events preceding and following famous elections such as that of President Lincoln in 1860 and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. These are my speculations but the true outcome remains to be seen.


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