PGB: A Tale of Two Conventions - And Two Americas
A Word From Afar: A Tale of Two Conventions - And Two Americas
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
US party conventions often provide good theater, heavy as they are on the use of crude symbolism and florid rhetoric to push partisan agendas. This year they were also a study in American political demographics. The contrast between the Democratic and Republican conventions was so stark, the themes so opposite, that one might think that they were speaking of two Americas. Perhaps they are.
The Democratic convention was a kaleidoscope of faces representing the broad swathe of people who make up modern day America: Asians, Africans, Arabs, Hispanics, Indians (both native American and sub continental), old world European and former Eastern bloc. They were mostly young to middle aged, significantly female in composition, often organized by unions or self-identified communities and represented by state. They included dozens of disabled folk, as well as energetic activists from the geriatric set.
The Republican convention was a congregation of middle aged to elderly white males, supported by women of similar age, with a smattering of colour amid the sea of parlorous faces. They wore they Veterans of Foreign Wars hats and their Ronald Reagan campaign buttons while shouting themselves hoarse chanting “USA” USA” or dancing the funky chicken to the tune of vintage Motown hits (an irony apparently lost on the organizers). Corporate boxes kept the big donors away from the riff-raff on the floor, where variations of a stars and stripes theme appeared to be the fashion choice d’jour.
The Democratic convention took on the trappings of a papal coronation. Speaker after speaker spoke of the unifying promise of the anointed one, each genuflecting at the altar of hope and change embodied in this “new” type of politician—he of the odd name and mixed heritage. The Democratic lineage was paraded out—Kennedy, Gore, the Clintons—to repeat the mantra of change. Michelle Obama waxed proud about his humble roots and selfless achievements while reminding the audience that by electing him they get her as well (the ultimate Dream Team). By the time her husband arrived on stage (on a set and with camera angles that would have made Leni Riefenstahl proud), only his children remembered that daddy was human after all. But no matter, because by that time the Clintons had followed Elvis out of the stadium and the messiah spoke of the need for hope and change, of himself as the embodiment of those virtues, and of the need for the US to regain its former glory after the ruinous behaviour of the East Coast blue blood-turned-Texan and his coterie of unindicted scoundrels and thieves.
The Republican convention had a very different theme. The palpable sentiment that simmered throughout its shortened schedule was one of fear: fear of terrorists, fear of liberals, fear of losing in Iraq, fear of losing in Afghanistan, hatred of the “liberal” media and fear and hatred of anything that challenged white heterosexual traditional “values.” The language of the convention spoke of “faith,” “service,” “valor” “patriotism,” “honour” as well as “change,” but it was mostly fear and loathing that was being sold. Moreover, unlike the Democrats who placed the blame for the American malaise squarely at the feet of the Bush 43 administration and its Congressional cronies, the Republican speakers blamed everyone else—Arabs (for oil prices), Muslims (for terrorism), Liberals (for abortion and abetting terrorism), illegal (Hispanic) immigrants (for crime and social degradation), Chinese and Indians (for stealing jobs) Russians (for being Russian)—the list of scapegoats was long. After an eight minutes sound bite on the first full day of the convention, the albatross around the (GOP) elephant’s neck that is George W. Bush was deleted from the scene. Instead, the more the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney railed about Obama’s softness, lack of executive credentials and the myriad dangers that still threaten the American way of life, the more the crowd whipped itself into a feverish lather of hate and denial. Then came Sarah Palin.
Whatever may transpire in the next two months, as the presidential campaign enters its final phase, her selection was an inspired choice. Even if conservative evangelicals who threatened to otherwise withhold their support forced the choice upon McCain, the entrance of the “hockey mom” completely altered the tenor of the campaign, at least for the moment. In the course of her maiden speech to the country, Sarah Palin brought a vitality, earthiness and sense of connection that none of the other candidates—all Washington insiders—could possibly entertain. The “straight talk express” instantly morphed into the Sarah tsunami, in which the unknown first term Alaska governor—she of the moose hunts and on-the-job breast-feeding—became the leading figure of the Republican team. McCain now is the introductory act for his running mate, and the crowds that throng to his rallies come less to see him and more to see her. Mrs. McCain, in all of her Stepford Wife finery, has become a stage prop behind the Republican first couple.
The Democrats were caught off-guard and have yet to find a response to the Palin challenge. In a sense, they were “swift-boated” again (swift-boating being the practice of attacking a candidate’s strengths rather than weaknesses as seen in the attacks on John Kerry’s Viet Nam service record in 2004). They have no hockey mom of their own to offer. They have no Washington “outsider” to speak so-called truth to power. They cannot find a way to criticize Palin without looking sexist and mean. Inexperience with Washington ways and ignorance of foreign affairs seem to work in her favour rather than against her. Obama is reduced to saying that his campaign experience makes him better qualified than her executive experience as a mayor and governor. She cracks jokes about her opponents using homespun analogies and the pundits swoon; he does the same and he is branded a misogynist.
The Democrats find themselves losing support from those who were deemed a core constituency during the primaries—working women. But that held true only so long as Hillary Clinton was still in the picture, and with her not on the ticket, the Democrats find that support base trickling away to join the tsunami. Plus, the evangelical Right has mobilized behind her no matter what their doubts about McCain and his moderate record. Truth be told, the Christian Right are secretly hoping for what the Democrats dare not mention: a death in office that projects Palin’s conservative beliefs into the Oval Office.
Senator Obama attempted to counter the Palin phenomenon in his convention acceptance speech. Although he mentioned all of the “button” issues of key Democratic constituencies—gays, environmentalists, Latinos, African-Americans, blue collar workers—his speech was squarely focused, both in substance and tone, on women. He impressed upon them his particular sensitivity, having been raised fatherless and brotherless by his mother and grandmother. He spoke of the special bond he had with his wife, and of his concerns about raising daughters in this perilous age. He called for men (black men in particular) to assume more responsibility in the upbringing of children and welfare of their partners. But he could not wrest the gender conversation away from Palin because she, unlike he, embodies in the minds of many the successful working mom ethic (ignoring the fact that Michelle Obama embodies it as well).
For his part, John McCain repeated the trials of captivity as a prisoner of war 40 years ago. He reminded his audience of his “renegade” status within the Republican Party, and of how he would never put partisan interest before country. He spoke of the perils of terrorism, a resurgent Russia and an increasingly assertive China, as well as newer challengers such as Iran and Venezuela. He repeated his commitment to “finishing the job’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, vowing never to “cut and run” from a hard fight. He reaffirmed his commitment to smaller government, gun ownership, the sanctity of life at conception and his faith in God. He left the heavy issues of Creationism and repeal of abortion rights to his telegenic partner.
In spite of the new cover represented by Governor Palin, the Republicans are playing by a well-worn book. The blame the “establishment,” ignore the obvious failures of economic, social and foreign policy during the W. Bush administration, and focus on the defense of traditional values as their wedge issues. In mimicking Obama’s call for change they offer a not-so-subtle difference: their change is “safe” change borne of policy continuity under McCain joined by a fresh face, whereas the Democrats offer unsafe change in the form of a reversal of the policies of the last eight years undertaken by a strange, suspiciously “un American” candidate who is liked more by foreigners than by the common folk at home.
The tactic is as simple as it is effective, because it is fear and uncertainty about the future that make “safe” change (i.e. moderate or incidental change) more palatable to the broad American electorate than ‘unsafe” (read: “radical”) change. When a hockey mom and a war hero espouse safe change, it appears prudent. Radical change at the hands of a silver-tongued political operator with seemingly dubious past associations does not.
So long as the campaign narrative rests on that contraposition, the McCain/Palin ticket has a good chance of prevailing. For Obama and Biden to win, they must specify why moderate changes in political business as usual will not suffice, why more fundamental alterations are necessary, and then delineate the means by which they propose to achieve them—all without cost to the white middle classes from which hockey moms are drawn. That is no mean feat.
In November the choice will come down to two versions of America and their respective visions of change. The Democrats will offer the (at times naïve) vision of American rebirth, one that is rooted in the unfailing optimism and latent goodwill that characterized the waves of immigrants that sought a better life on its shores (to the chagrin of those already resident there). It will speak to a better future embodied in the young and will purport to regain the moral high ground in the discharge of government affairs. The Republicans will offer a reaffirmation and reassertion of American moral and physical supremacy in a hostile world. The Democrats will appeal to the polyglot America represented at its convention; the Republicans will appeal to middle and working class whites along with its traditional sources of corporate, religious and rural support.
It is in essence a contest between two Americas, one old, the other new, and their respective notions of “change.” The question remains, though, as to whether either America is fully prepared to realistically confront the challenges that await the winners of November’s contest. That entails self-reflection and acknowledgement of national character flaws as contributory factors in the process of American decline, above and beyond the debacles of the last eight years. From what the conventions showed, neither appears to be.
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