Barack Obama is both the symbol and the messenger of the change under way in American — and, indeed, global — politics and society. This change, put most simply, is the swing to the left in socioeconomic policy that has already begun, and that is likely to gather speed quickly, accelerated by the worldwide downturn.
There is nothing unusual about pendulum swings in ideology, nor is there anything new suggesting that straitened economic circumstances trigger political change. After all, Karl Marx spent long drunken evenings with other continental communist emigres in north London pubs waiting for the global economic crisis that would precipitate the end of capitalism. Marx understood that in a downturn, positions change, old orders are overthrown and new dispensations are conceived.
While we are not at a Marxian tipping point, it is very clear that a win for Obama will herald a re-emergence of the liberal left in the US. We are not just talking about a trendy, farmers’ market, free-Tibet type liberalism; we are talking about something more grainy, more muscular and altogether more interesting.
It was easy enough for Obama to appeal to the type of people who we saw at the Oscars the other night. After all, he was one of them — good-looking, tolerant, sufficiently ethnic to be exotic, well-travelled and super slim. What is more interesting has been his breakout from the bear-hug of the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Jack Nicholson, and his growing appeal to blue collar workers.
A New York Times poll yesterday indicated that Obama was picking up votes from the type of lads who prefer Nascar racing to baseball, Motorhead to Radiohead and Philly steaks to focaccia. In Irish terms, Obama has moved seamlessly from Rathmines to Rialto, taking Ranelagh with him.
This is a profound turning-point, because although Obama might be the symbol, his success is being driven by a broad-based public yearning for something different. Recent history suggests that where the US goes, the world will follow. Some 30 odd years ago, Reagan and Thatcher dragged the world to the right. Today, Barack Obama will nudge us to somewhere we have not been since The Jam were at Number one.
Thinking back to the era of Hillman Hunters, Ska, bondage trousers and the SFX, it is impossible not to attribute the rise of Reagan and Thatcher to the politicians who went before them. Thatcher could never have emerged without the antics of James Callaghan, the three-day week and Red Robbo. Similarly, Reagan could never have enveloped America with the comfort-blanket of optimism had Jimmy Carter not humiliated American prestige in Iran and presided over the late 1970’s recession. Confused, Americans needed a message of hope and got it in the guise of Reagan, who promised, redemptively, a “morning in America”.
Ronald Reagan, the Irish-American President who epitomised the American dream more than most, declared that “the difference between the American and any other person, is that the American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows what a great place it will be”. This is Obamaesque in its tone and aspiration. The attraction of both Reagan and Obama lies in the contrast with what went before them.
Obama’s best asset is George W Bush, with his smirking vacuous grin, his illegal war in Iraq, his redundant economic policies and the implosion of the economy he has presided over. His tax cuts for the rich and proximity to big business are now embarrassing many Americans. When Bush, Cheney and their tatty entourage are compared with the polished, noble eloquence of Obama, they look like a bunch of creeps on the make. The Hopemeister’s message of messianic deliverance is made all the more uplifting when seen against the smash and grab antics of the outgoing regime.
Americans are worried about bread and butter issues such as the price of petrol, their monthly outgoings, the fall in house prices and the rise in unemployment.
For the average man, the debt crisis in the US has exposed just how much the ideology of the right has been subverted by greed at the very top. The idea that the free-market ideology would lead to greater wealth for all, flies in the face of the facts. We know that the rich have got richer, the middle classes have become more indebted and the poor have fallen further behind.
In the late 1970s, the world was broken. The great phase of economic expansion, rising living standards and a better life for all, which lasted from 1945 to 1975, came to a thundering end with the stagflation of the late 1970s. Unemployment rose and the western world was plunged into a period of self-doubt. Reagan and Thatcher claimed they could fix the problem, the electorate believed them and we experienced another 30-year cycle of right-of-centre ideology which seeped into most parts of the globe. Some of their ideas worked, other didn’t.
Now, with the financial markets in a global tizz over enormous debts incurred at the tail end of this free market era, and the average man worried about the impact of China and India on his job and his wages, there is a sense that we need a new era of new thinking. Already, last week, we saw in Britain a move which would have been unthinkable last year. Gordon Brown, in a move that owed more to Tony Benn than Tony Blair, nationalised Northern Rock. Rather than let the delinquent bank go to the wall, New Labour moved sharply to the left and delved into the 1960’s bag of tricks which many thought had been discarded for good. The pendulum is swinging throughout the globe. Ironically, just as Fidel fades from the stage, another young, handsome, charismatic, intelligent outsider is waiting in the wings. While totally different characters, they both have global appeal, speak the language of the little guy and have a ruthlessness which is necessary for high office.
The age of Obama is upon us.