Seduced by catchy formulae, American punditry is often a prisoner of clichés. One such is: “It’s the economy, stupid!”, initially circulated by Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. For decades the meaningless phrase has cast a shadow on American politics. Uttering it clinches an argument, presenting the utterer as a man of wisdom.
Thus, the current presidential election is presented as a clash of rival economic programs.
A closer look reveals a more complex picture.
More than ever, this presidential race might be about rival visions of America.
Until Barack Obama appeared on the scene, all those who aspired after the presidency agreed on a number of beliefs, or foundation myths if you prefer, regarding the United States.
Obama has questioned those beliefs with a mixture of annoyance and humor.
The first belief is that of American special-ness. From George Washington to George W Bush all US presidents were convinced, or pretended to be, that the United States is a special nation, an unprecedented and so far unique phenomenon in history.
Obama has tried to de-bunk that by suggesting that other nations, for example the Greeks, could also claim “special-ness”. If “special-ness” is a sentiment all nations share, claiming it for the US is meaningless. If everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody.
The second belief questioned by Obama is that the United States’ manifest destiny is to provide leadership. By its very creation the US led humanity away from arbitrary rule. The War of Independence, dubbed “the Revolution” by Americans, inspired the French Revolution and, thence, the revolutionary experiences of all other nations. US leadership in two world wars and the Cold War saved humanity from domination by totalitarian powers.
Obama has challenged that belief with his “leading from behind” strategy. He has apologized for America’s “past behavior” and indicated that the US does not even aspire to be primus inter pares. All US presidents since James Monroe developed a “doctrine” to define American leadership. Obama has not done so.
The third belief challenged by Obama is that of American individualism based on the myths of pioneers, frontiersmen and, yes, the Lone Ranger. According to that belief it is the individual that makes scientific and technological discoveries, creates art and culture, and produces wealth. American states are full of commemorative icons celebrating individuals of exceptional achievement in all walks of life.
Obama has questioned that belief by asserting that without social support, including the government, individuals could achieve very little. For example, Michael Phelps who won six gold and silver medals in the London Olympics would have achieved nothing without the help of coaches and sponsors. Beyond the role of parents, one needs “a whole village to raise a child”.
In this regard, Obama’s views are close to those of Western European Social Democrats who claim that without state support, guidance and regulation the individual would not only achieve less than he could but might even harm himself and society. Obama’s healthcare initiative is the most dramatic example of the belief that individuals need state chaperonage even to cater for their health needs.
The fourth belief challenged by Obama is that of the necessity of a “big stick” to ensure American security. With the exception of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 the US had never experienced an invasion since 1812 Yet, fear of foreign aggression and a quest for military supremacy have been major themes of American politics. The American collective mental landscape is filled with images of conflict, from the War of Independence to Civil War, Indian wars, wars with Mexico and Spain, two world wars, and the wars in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina, not to mention more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama has tried to shift the emphasis to “soft power”, including his own powers of persuasion, to ensure American security. He has presided over massive cuts in the defense budget with promises of more to come, if re-elected. Obama hopes that, under his leadership, America would be loved rather than feared. After all he attracted 200,000 people in Berlin before becoming president and won the Nobel Peace Prize even before he had done anything.
Perhaps without knowing it, Obama subscribes to Wittgenstein’s dictum: “The possibility of a thought ensure its truth!”
Obama is also uneasy with a fifth traditional American belief, that of the primacy of English language and literature as vehicles for national self-expression. Along with European post-modernists, Obama believes in the equal value of all languages and literatures as expressions of cultural diversity. Also like European post-modernists he rejects any hierachization of cultures in the name of respect even when the object of respect is not respectable.
There is a sixth belief that Obama implicitly rejects, that of a national history seamlessly traced back to the Founding Fathers. For him, the United States is a constantly changing reality, or, in Hegelian jargon, a “becoming” not a “being”. The original WASP founders have been in constant retreat since the massive arrival of black slaves from Africa. In the 19th century the US absorbed millions of immigrants from Europe, and since the 1970s it has been the destination of some three million immigrants each year, not to mention wetbacks. In the past three decades, the overwhelming majority of new immigrants have come from “developing nations” in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In the three most populous states of California, New York and Texas WASPs are either already in a minority or will be within a decade. The “melting pot” has evolved into a “salad bar” of parallel communities with individuals claiming double-barrel identities. By underlining his African, as opposed to African-American, identity mixed with his Islamic background and Asian childhood experience, and a possible conversion to Christianity, Obama casts himself as the new homo Americanus.
Not surprisingly, strongest support for Obama comes from minorities notably African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and native Americans along with social minorities such as gays and lesbians and feminists.
Aristotle taught that, in a democracy, leaders should resemble the people they represent. Thus the real question in this American election is whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, not physically but culturally and philosophically, more resembles a majority of the new America that has emerged in recent decades.
The question is what America believes itself to be and what it hopes to become. It is not the economy, stupid!