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A Brave New World

Obama’s re-election is a lesson in how to fight an election. But does it herald an ideological change?

At the time of writing Romney is yet to concede, but the re-elected president has already thanked his supporters. As a former professor at the Columbia University, I cannot help experiencing a sense of satisfaction and wish Obama the very best in the next four years.

In the end it turned out to be a comfortable victory despite the predictions that this was going to be the most closely contested presidential race in recent times, almost reminiscent of the Gore-Bush contest. I have been an amateur observer of the US presidential elections for more than four decades. And I have noticed a phenomenon in the media that never ceases to intrigue me. Unless the contest is a one-sided knock-out like Johnson-Goldwater, Reagan-Mondale, Nixon-McGovern and Bush-Dukakis, every election I have known has been projected as a close race – “too close to call” is the euphemism that the journalists generally go in for.

I recall how the Carter-Reagan election in 1980 was being projected by many newspapers as a close race although even as an amateur I could feel that Reagan had won. It was left only to Charles Wheeler of the BBC to declare that no matter what the pundits were predicting, Reagan was going to make it to the White House. In the end, it was a comfortable Reagan victory. Reagan’s re-election was merely a formality.

Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 when he defeated George Bush Sr. was widely predicted by the media as close. In the end, he won comfortably. Even Barack Obama’s contest against McCain was being seen as close. Obama won easily.

But there have been nail-biting presidential contests in living memory, the Gore-Bush election being the most recent.

The other feature about the news coverage of not just this presidential election but all the ones that I can recall – and a feature that our media here could well emulate – was the concentration on issues and the willingness of the candidates to be grilled by the press on their respective positions. Surely we could adopt this in India if only the media was not just a willing participant in the charade of allowing the politicians to evade media scrutiny in public.

Romney and Obama were not spared on all their stated positions. And in the debates it came out very clearly that they accepted these tough interrogations as part of an ordeal which had to be endured. There were no slanging duels or questioning the opponent’s good faith, coupled with complete observance of decorum.

And the Fourth Estate by and large performed its duty admirably in bringing across any perceived inconsistencies between their stated positions and their track records. Romney was questioned extensively on his conservative positions on various issues, as was Obama on his economic direction. The willingness of the media to ferret out the track records for public scrutiny was commendable and restrained.

I just could not help wondering how presidential candidates like Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee would have withstood the examination of their track records.

Apart from the odd occasion when Clinton contested the Democratic primaries, there is no election I can recall when the candidate’s personal life was presented as a legitimate issue. And more importantly, race and religion were never brought up – even by the most diehard and bigoted of the commentators. Obama’s Afro-Americanism was a real factor in his first election, but not anymore. And let us not forget that Romney also made history by becoming the first Mormon whose name appeared on the ballot.

The fact that a Mormon’s name appeared on the presidential ballot for the first time is perhaps just as remarkable as an Afro-American’s name making it to the list. The minority status of both the candidates was never made an issue. I remember Mitt Romney’s father, George, had put himself forward as a Republican candidate in 1968 but never made it beyond the primaries.

The other feature that was very obvious and could not have escaped notice was the commonality of positions between the two. There were certain issues on which differences were pronounced but at least on 90 per cent of the points raised at least someone like myself was left struggling to work out the differences between their respective positions despite their claims to the contrary. The economics both of them espoused were almost identical. On the social agenda, Obama did come across as significantly more to the left but to his credit Romney candidly dissociated himself from some of the social positions he had supported and freely admitted that he had erred.

Republicans have long regarded right to abortion as an article of faith and attempted to undo the Roe vs Wade judgment which legalises it both through legislature and judicial appointments. Romney in an interview appeared to shift his position from that of total opposition to that akin to Barry Goldwater -that abortion was a matter of personal morality and governments should stay clear of it.

For obvious reasons Obama had an edge when it came to a grasp over international matters, but the fact remains that I have never known an American presidential election being decided on foreign policy alone in the last 50 years. Which I think is a pity.

Both the candidates after the media scrutiny came across as likable, avuncular and trustworthy and that was not just a triumph of the Fourth Estate in that country but democracy in general.

From an Indian perspective it was very tempting to work out which of these candidates would be better for this country. And once again I found myself struggling to work out any substantial difference between the two. The best that I could come up with was that had Romney been elected, he would have been far tougher on the Indian position on Iran and would have perhaps prompted India to take a more pro-Israel position. But those were the only differences I could dissect.

Obama has been a guest here and built up a very close working relationship with the Indian government. He is the first American president to refer to “Gandhi” as “Gandhi” and not “Gandee” and his avuncular informality has endeared him and his wife to Indians. He has bitten the bullet and started pressurising Pakistan to act tough on terrorists. So while I do get the feeling that Romney would probably have acted similarly, I am glad that Obama has won.

I think it would be important also to dispel a common myth that has been perpetuated by many a learned journalist on the political leanings of the two parties in the US. Democrats are generally perceived as to be leaning to the left and Republicans to the right. That is too simplistic an explanation and one has to delve into history to understand fully the contexts.

The most “liberal” president in US history – arguably the greatest – viz Abe Lincoln was a Republican. Because he campaigned for abolition of slavery, which mainly affected the South, he alienated the Southerners and this alienation was very much in evidence until about 20 years ago where the Southerners could never vote for the Republican Party as it was “the party of Lincoln”! Consequently, there was no Republican representation from the South and practically everyone voted Democrat. In other words, all segregational racists and conservatives were Democrats and not Republicans, George Wallace being a prime example. Strom Thurmond spoke for almost a day non-stop to filibuster the civil rights legislation – and he was a Democrat. Even Ronald Reagan started his career as a Democrat before becoming a Republican. This Democrat identity was in direct contrast to the Democrat identity in the North where they were active civil rights campaigners. It was only in the last 30 years that the Republicans have shed the image of being the party of Lincoln and been able to build a strong base in the South.

In other words, what I am saying is that there is no real ideological distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats. There is no real left-wing party in the US, both being committed to right-wing ideology. It is tantamount to saying that US is again as Gore Vidal used to say a “one-party state with two different wings”.

On that note, I cannot help being reminded of Svetlana Stalin who had once said – There are no two countries more alike politically than the US and Soviet Union, both being one party states. A wry remark. And not one that I completely agree with. But yes, we should not expect any ideological shift emerging from a US presidential election – that is for sure!

 

Image Source [http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/7374923744/]

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  • Roark

    Beautiful insight into the american politics….Its always a delight to read your article…and the answer to your question is “No, none of the president ,barring the few in India, has the gumption to go among the public and discuss, I repeat, discuss the policies which can help in progress of the nation.”…Also, having said that, I am not jingoistic, but patriotic enough to be optimistic about our country’s future…:)

  • http://www.facebook.com/aditya.batra.779 Aditya Batra

    getting a bit sick of the saturation ooverage of US elections, mate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anshu.ism Anshuman Tiwari

    Quite an insightful piece but I must say two or three points seemed not completely true. One, Romney did not come out as trustworthy to most people; that is one of the main reasons he might have lost. Two, there might not be a difference between the parties in accepting Capitalism but there are clear and important differences in the way that they see its implementation, including the government’s role in the economic sphere, apart from the social sphere. I guess what American commentators see as a leftward-tilt in the democrats might not make sense to an economic theorist studying different systems of economic organization but it does make a difference. Three, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have various meanings when applied to any one specific issue. But a very useful read for any newbie to American politics.