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The Great American Emptiness

Guy Rundle follows Barack Obama down to the river.

They came down Washington St, they came down Broadway. They came across Steel Bridge, anarchaic industrial-era elevator bridge, black from the decades. The came down both banks of the river, landscaped to park-grounds after the docks were retired. At the Waterfront Park, on a bend of the Columbia River, 75,000 people, black, white, Hispanic, young and old, came to hear him speak. Through the blanket of cloud, shafts of sunlight poked through. Cecil B. De Mille himself could not have arranged a more portentous spectacle. What could they possibly hope to hear thatwould justify this going down to the water? What could he possibly have to say?

It was May, and Barack Obama had come to Portland to speak ahead of the Oregon primary. The campaign, unprecedented in American political history, had been effectively over for weeks, Hillary Clinton’s last chance destroyed by a disappointing result in Indiana. Her insistence on staying in the campaign had given the contest a near unbearable intensity, a sense of expectation, above and beyond the intrinsic fascination of Barack Obama himself. Though Hillary Clinton’s and Obama’s policies 2were essentially identical — a minimal social market welfare program combined with a liberal national security state — the contest had split the Democratic voters of the country, less between black and white or male and female than between old liberals and new ‘progressives’, between those who saw the task at hand as selecting a dependable candidate to go toe to toe with the Republican candidate against those who believed that loftier ideas and a fresh approach were worth fighting for. Southern whites and industrial states tended to prefer Hillary; Democrats from the new industries, from the inner cities and the exurbs tended to prefer Obama.

Portland, a one-time logging and fishing town that had become, according to one commentator, ‘the capital of alternative America’ was, despite its small black population, Obama central. Come November, they would have turned out for a brown-billed duck had the Democrats selected one, and they would even have turned out for Hillary, despite the dispiriting prospect of a Democratic dynasty replacing a Republican one. But Obama’s candidacy meant for the first time in a generation there wassomeone that left-liberals could get unambiguously, unrestrainedly excited about. Even George McGovern, the 1972 anti-war candidate, had been, after all, a standard issue white guy Senator from South Dakota. Bill Clinton, the first baby-boomer candidate, transformed the electoral campaigningby playing sax on a late night TV show and was a mesmerising speaker to small groups, but he was tarnished long before the third party candidacy of Ross Perot lifted him to the White House.

In Obama people had something else — a man whose candidacy seemed historic not merely by virtue of his identity but by his unique oratorical and personal style, a mix of civil rights agitation, Southern Baptist oratory and community organising motivational speaking that floated free of any concrete political narrative, whether of nation or class. Short on actual policy, it irritated the professional political class as much as it inspired those who heard it, the poor or well-off, the well-connected and the marginalised. Speaking of bringing America together, of transcending narrow political games, his stump speech always led up to the same climax: ‘We are the people we have beenwaiting for, and our time is now’. Hearing it live it was impossible not to be moved, to be stirred within.

Though the primary campaign would stagger on for weeks more, until Hillary’s campaign expired in a whimper after Puerto Rico (a primary for an island whose people cannot vote), that speech in Portland was essentially its culmination. By July, with the nomination secured, Obama was widely criticised for moving towards the centre. The criticism was inexact — politically he had always been of the centre. What he had done was move from heaven to earth, supporting a federal wiretapping bill, advocating the death penalty for child rapists, supporting a Supreme Court pro-gun decision, and in general doing anything to prevent himself from being outflanked on the Right and characterised as a weak liberal. The move didn’t affect his positive poll ratings, where he outpolled Republican candidate John McCain by5–6 per cent. But for many of Obama’s supporters, the switch was like the air being let out of a balloon. Fundraising dropped, and many openly expressed their disappointment in blogs, even on the candidate’s website. The Obama campaign, always slick, appeared to many now to be little but that. When the Obama family appeared for an interview that included Barack and Michelle Obama’s two girls under ten, viewers were simultaneously captivated and disarmed, even though Obama’s excuse, ‘it was a spur of the moment thing’, manifestly failed to fit the circumstances — the interview crew were flown out to Montana to film it — or the medium, the cable channel Access Hollywood.

Nothing that Obama did was out of the ordinary for an ambitious politician reaching out from his Democratic base to a broader America, yet the sense that this betrayal, this disappointment, was deeper than all the rest was palpable. Such disappointments adumbrated the gap in American political and social life that Obama’s candidacy, his person and his vision, had filled, however briefly, and explained, in its negation something about the predicament of contemporary American life.

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When the primary season began in January, around 70 percent of Americans felt the country was ‘going in the wrong direction’, and around 25 per cent approved of theleadership of George W. Bush. Through the spring and into the summer, as gas prices soared, food prices rose, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis begin to close down whole neighbourhoods, the ‘wrong direction’ figure rose to around 85 per cent. When gas hit $4 a gallon, and as the unmistakeable signs of a recession became visible, the changed conditions began to bite into American daily life. Jobs began to reverse month on month and key early indicators of tightened circumstances — a plummet in restaurant takings, for example, and a rise in fast food sales — manifested in sudden price wars between the major chains, which saw $2 hamburgers slashed to $1 or less, a measure of the slender margins by which many Americans were living. The bailout of Bear Stearns and other Wall Street banks, followed by the larger bailout of the general mortgage provider companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, coincided with a crisis point for many people — the inability to afford the gas necessary to commute to work or the shops in the vastly spread out, poorly serviced outer-suburbs and exurbs that had sprung up around American cities in the last twenty years. Though the candidates of both parties go out of their way to present policies that are ‘tax-neutral’ or tax-cutting for anyone earning less than a$250,000 a year, more than 50 per cent of American households earn less than $50,000 a year, and 20 per cent less than $25,000. For a full half of the population, life is a continuous vigilance against sudden costs — medical not covered by insurance, car repair — that might suddenly blow a hole in a tight budget, catapulting them into unresolvable debt. For that last quarter, life has simply been a round of trade-offs — food for gas, gas for heating, hearing for medicine, medicine for food, and round it goes again. The true impact of the recession was that it was squashing that second quartile into the first — real poverty was reaching right up into the middle class.

Yet Americans have been through recessions before. More than modern Western Europeans or Australians, theyare used to a reversal of economic circumstance impacting on everyday life. But this current episode is different —there is a wider sense of anxiety about, a dominant mood In Obama people had something else — a man whose candidacy seemed historic not merely by virtue of his identity but by his unique oratorical and personal style, a mix of civil rights agitation, Southern Baptist oratory and community organising motivational speaking that floated free of any concrete political narrative, whether of nation or class. of bewilderment. The recession feels to many both particular and general — oil prices, which may be the result of speculative gouging, are also the expression and reminder that cheap gas, and the world built upon it, is coming to an end. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite recent lower levels of violence in the former, seem pointless and purposeless, a symbol of a lack of American will and clear direction. The relentless tide of illegal immigrants across the porous Mexican–US border could betaken as a tribute to American primacy, but instead feels like the multitudinous third world pressing up against the borders. The immense control apparatus established by the Bush administration and centred on the Department of Homeland Security continues to extend its power, recently musing on the possibility of having all American airline passengers wear an electronic bracelet that cabin staffcould switch on to disable the wearer. And as the Olympics approach, everyone is talking about China and its phenomenal growth rate. The country may be the largesteconomy and most powerful military in the world, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way on the ground.

But nor are such macro conditions, relayed through the media, the sole or even principal determinant of how apeople feels about itself. Though commentators such as Fareed Zakharia in his recent book The Post-American World focus at length on the effects of mass realisation that history is beginning to tilt in another direction and favour other players, he typically overestimates the effect that things of moment to a global affairs commentator will have on people whose lives are more bounded by local life and conditions. Here is where one finds a deeper, and in the US media, substantially unexamined transformation of daily life over the last two decades. Even as late as the 1980s, the United States was substantially an industrial and manufacturing economy, with life based around the suburbs recognisably attached to large cities, or to mid-size towns. Over the 1990s and into the current decade, a combination of global economic change, weakened labour unions and loosened zoning laws would see changes in all these features that would add to a definite yet under-reflected upon change in the way of life. As high-paid full-time industrial jobs gave way to casualised, short-timed and split-shifted labour; as core productive jobs were increasingly replaced by service jobs; as malls began to wholly replace high streets, and mega chain-stores began to replace independent concerns; as both cities and towns began to sprawl out of any recognisable central form, social life, built around a way of life grounded and bounded in space and time, began to attenuate. A host of works such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, or James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowherehave explored this, but the very idea of it barely breaks through into the spheres of media which have become, in part due to that very transformation, principle arenas of interchange.

Other societies have gone through this, of course, but few have been committed so thoroughly to the process of uprooting the previous conditions of life. The protection of trade unions, social security or urban planning extended elsewhere have been absent from the American transformation, and the absence of each has exacerbated the other. As workplaces have diminished in importance, so have local trade unions and sources of an alternative view of the idea that workplace flexibility brings free choice. As downtowns, high streets and town centres have ceased to be centres of social life, the memory of their meaning starts to be lost. As jobs disappeared in the 1990s, a massive effort to portray welfare as enslaving was launched, as was the revival of a notion of puritan persistence and faith in providence replaced the by idea of a state with obligations to its citizens.

The result of this social vacuum was that new sources, not merely of information but of meaning and value formation, moved into the centre of life. By their very nature, the mass unidirectional media — the cable news channels, the major networks, talk radio — succeed by purveying a concrete vision of life that is at odds with the decontextualised form by which they reach out to an entire nation. For FOX news channel or Rush Limbaugh’s radio show this was ‘American values’ standing up against the political correctness of liberalism and multiculturalism. What did it matter that the town centre had been destroyed, when the spirit of the small town subsisted on the thousands of stations of the Clear Channel network? What did the absence of a local context matter when the values of neighbourliness and plain common sense persisted on ‘The O’Reilly Factor’?

This basic switch dominated much of the politics of the 1990s, helped to a degree by the particular political form of American left-liberalism which, lacking a strong Marxist base, was ill-equipped to deal with issues affecting people on a class, as opposed to gender or race basis. Though Bill Clinton had begun with some left-liberal instincts, he was keenly aware that his victory had been based on the votes that Ross Perot, running on a right populist platform, had taken from George H. W. Bush. After the 1994 recapture of Congress by an assertively right-wing Republican Party, Clinton swiftly moved to the Right. Essentially the period from 1994 to now has been dominated by this process of simultaneous dismantling of American community and its ideal reconstitution in the more abstract spheres of the media.

The media was not the only place where a distilled and distinct form of community could be found. The other wasin religion, and fundamentalist Christianity in particular, which underwent a substantial expansion in the 1990s.Though it had been a growing political force since the 1973Supreme Court Roe vs Wade decision established abortion as a right, its boundaries had hitherto been fairly solid —confined to the communities, southern and western, in which it had originally developed as a form of Baptism. By the 1990s, and especially into the 2000s, both church attendance and the belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible had skyrocketed. Politically, the effect was felt as are lentless series of direct voter propositions added to ballots in an attempt to skirt the letter of Roe vs Wade, takeovers of school boards in an attempt to put creationist/intelligent design ideas on the syllabus, and the simultaneous construction of a nationwide home schooling network. Though some have suggested the numbers are exaggerated, by 2004 it appeared that a clear majority of Americans had major doubts about evolution and scientific proof, and a significant minority are ‘young earth creationists’, believing the planet to be no more than 10,000 years old. Though the degree to which evolution had ever been accepted by many Americans from the South is not clear, the figures represented a clear decline from the 1960s.Yet the new wave of religious literalism was occurring not despite an increasingly scientific society but because of it. A willingness to believe in the most directly contrary and literal story became a mark of faith and commitment, a source of identity and meaning. The United States was undergoing one of the greatest passages into irrationalism of any modern society in history.

Churches, especially the burgeoning megachurches, became the concentrated social correlate of the cable media. As the globally focused CNN lost ground to the ranting, populist FOX News, a certain new formation within the culture fell into place. For an increasingly decentred society, it offered a concrete grounding that offered to withstand any transformation of the actual way of life. Furthermore, it offered to stand as a rock in the midst of further attenuation of stable frameworks, so that the process could continue. The megachurches themselves often found themselves in cheap real estate areas in the exurbs, close to the strips of fast food outlets. Their vast size makes them unsuitable for small congregations as it reverses the effect, overawing the living congregation with empty space; thus last year, before Christmas, a day when people don’t want to drive long distances, some churches quietly announced that they would not be holding a Christmas Day service, and that people should instead pray at home. It is difficult to imagine a more explicit clue about the form of one’s worship. In offering a form of belief, they privilege the ecstatic over the abiding, the experiential and visceral over the mundane. A literal and simplified creed is essential to such an operation.

But not everyone is culturally or personally suited to the literalist message of religion and or tradition. For many people, the hole in American life that had begun growing in the late 1980s became a gaping one in the 1990s. And it is to many in that predicament that Barack Obama speaks. His mix of oratory and liberal reasonableness confused commentators and blindsided his opponents because they had never seen a form of liberal spirituality before. Obama is spoken of as a new JFK; in fact he is more like a new FDR, speaking of having nothing to fear but fear itself. ForAmerican politics, the religious types did the prophetic oratory; liberals talked in a secular language of rationalism.

This brilliant stroke on Obama’s part would appear to be part of one of the most knowing and calculated political strategies of recent decades. It is part and parcel of who Barack Obama is and where he came from. Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and an American mother, both liberated from more limited roles by the 1960s, he grew up in Indonesia with a stepfather, and then returned to Hawaii before studying in California and New York. As he notes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, that globalised, hybrid Gen X existence was difficult to deal with during his adolescence, and a sense of being in the world was further problematised by a couple of years at Occidental College, California, where the various strands of the ’60s and ’70s — black liberation, new left Marxism, Fanon, post-structuralism — were part of the mix. At Columbia Obama by all accounts spent a year reading Nietzsche, the Bible and the existentialists, among other authors, and in Chicago he came into contact with the organization founded by Saul Alinsky, the grand old man of community organising. Unlike many black politicians, Obama’s organising work wasn’t exclusively focused on black communities — a lot of it was focused on mixed communities ravaged by the collapse of the Chicago steel industry. There he applied Alinsky’s theory that people will only begin to take some control of the process of changing their lives when the system has so failed to honour its obligations to them that an anomie or despair has set in. At that point, said Alinsky, you can reach them.

Alinsky’s approach appears to have filled out in Obama the questions of identity he had pursued throughout his life — pursued because his complicated background had given him no choice but to. For Obama, what had become of paramount importance was the question of the will, of the purposive self. Where did it come from? Could it be lost? Could it be regained? If meaning and purpose were not supplied by a given background, how could they be found? In other words, Obama speaks to the American people so successfully because he is effectively using the dilemmas of his own life as the framework with which to deal with the country — he is effectively treating the Presidential campaign as a nationwide community organising project. What he understood — that Hillary could not and John McCain does not appear to — is that talking in terms of either Clinton’s prosaic ‘solutions for America’ or McCain’s boilerplate triumphalism does not acknowledge the degree of despair, defeat and failure of will among many Americans. These are the people, long since given up on any sense that they belong to the system in any way, that Obama is hoping to draw back in, and deliver him a victory that will turn a half-dozenRepublican ‘Red’ states into Democrat ‘Blue’, thus reshaping American politics and setting the Democrats upto be the ‘American’ party for two decades.

Whether this would make any substantial difference remains to be seen. Obama’s gearshift into a moreconventional politics reminded people of what they should have already known — that he is innovating tactically within a standard political framework. What is of interest is what the success of his strategy tells us about America today, and why a young, mildly leftish black man leading acrowd down to the water in Oregon should be so freighted with significance.

Guy Rundle is an Arena Publications editor.