America is gripped by the politics of fear. Bad news for the prophet of hope
Saturday, 20 September 2008

Rationally, the economic and financial hurricane should help Obama. But people do not always vote with their heads

Timothy Garton Ash

Even before Meltdown Monday, I was going to write about the politics of fear. Now I must add the politics of panic. Observing this American election close up, what strikes me with the force of Hurricane Ike is just how defensive, nervous and angst-ridden the tone of the campaign has become.
While Barack Obama still proclaims "the audacity of hope", this is almost as true of his recent stump speeches as it is of John McCain's. Sarah Palin aside, this election is now all about the fears of the "middle class" (a capacious category, in which more than 50% of Americans place themselves). It's about "ordinary folks" worrying that they will lose their homes, their jobs, their healthcare and their savings.
And that was before Monday's collapse of Lehman Brothers and sale of Merrill Lynch seemed to confirm that we face what Obama called, that same day, "the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression". Yes, says the fabled former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, this crisis is the worst in his lifetime, the kind of event that happens "once in a half-century, probably once in a century".
Americans already had plenty to be frightened about. Unemployment rose to 6.1% last month. House prices have plummeted, petrol prices rocketed. Home repossessions have hit record highs, as people cannot make the payments on mortgages they should never have been offered. Millions have fallen out of or reduced their healthcare insurance, unable to afford the premiums.
This is a country that has been living beyond its means, on a bouncy castle of debt. Last year the US commerce department reported that the after-tax personal savings rate had been negative in 2005 and 2006, for the first time since - wait for it - 1932 and 1933. This year it revised those figures slightly, so the adjusted rate comes out at just above zero. Why save, when China will do it for you?
That picture is not entirely fair, because most working Americans squirrel away some of their earnings before tax, in a pension wrapper known to everyone as "a 401(k)", after the relevant paragraph of the tax code. But as the markets fall, the value of those savings falls too - even if you didn't have some of your 401(k) in Lehman Brothers. In the course of a brief cafeteria lunchbreak while writing this column, I heard the words 401(k) trembling through two conversations. More losses. More angst.
All this comes in the larger context that I described last week, as people sense that nations like China are rising relative to the US. Not to mention a terrorist attack on the American embassy in Yemen. And, if you live on the gulf coast, tropical storms Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Josephine. Watching 24-hour cable news, you have the sense that even nature is conspiring against the US.
Today's Americans have a lot more to fear than fear itself - to recall the famous words of Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address. But fear doesn't help either. In markets, confidence is everything. Even before this week's sinking of the Lehman Titanic, more than two-thirds of those asked by pollsters said they thought their country was in a recession or a depression - and that things will not get better in 2009. God knows what they'll say now.
I am not qualified to judge whether the underlying "fundamentals" of the US economy are strong enough to pull the whole show back up - homes, jobs, healthcare, 401(k)s and all - in a couple of years. Let's revisit that in 2010. Meanwhile, there are fewer than 1,200 hours till general election day.
So put to one side, for a moment, the economics of fear; the immediate question is how the politics of fear play into the election contest.
If people vote with their heads, "the economy, stupid" should help Obama to victory. For all the external causes in the world beyond America's shores, this financial and economic hurricane has blown up on George W Bush's watch, and at least partly because of things his administration has done (for instance, overspent) or failed to do (under- or misregulated the financial sector).
McCain's economic policies are not so different, nor is he very convincing in presenting them. He wobbled in his first response to Meltdown Monday, before flip-flopping on Tuesday. As for Palin: in a world increasingly shaped by Wikinomics, the last thing the US needs is Wasillanomics.
Moreover, there may be a larger pattern involved here. The American columnist Michael Kinsley has a characteristically ingenious article at which compares a number of economic indicators, including GDP per capita, inflation, unemployment, federal taxes, spending and budget deficit, over Republican and Democrat presidencies since 1959.
The Democrats score better on everything except lower taxes. Above all, the historical evidence suggests that Republican administrations spend more and increase the budget deficit. It's not just Kinsley's figures that point this way. In the past, I have heard one of the US's most celebrated libertarian economists quietly observe that if you really believe in small government, you should vote Democrat.
Now economists could no doubt argue about every one of these figures till the pigs come home (with or without lipstick), but the political conclusion seems to me to be clear. If you think the economy is the most important issue in this election - which nearly two-thirds of those asked say they do, while less than a quarter name Iraq - and if you are a rational punter, then your rational choice would be to give the Democrats a chance of doing better than the Bush administration has done.
If people vote with their heads, that is. But people often vote with other parts of their anatomy (heart, gut - choose your organ). And there's a deeper politics of fear that runs against Obama. This is not about facts and policies, but about perceptions, characters, stories, dreams - about feelings that men and women only half-recognise and rarely confess. Yes, that includes race. In a CBS-New York Times poll in July, only 5% of white voters acknowledged that they would not vote for a black candidate, but 24% said America wasn't ready to elect a black president. But it also involves the whole otherness, newness, complexity of him.
Obama, a child of the world as it is, offers a dream of the world as it might be. (That's why so much of the world thrills to him, and will be devastated if he loses.) McCain, Vietnam hero, and Palin, hockey mom, offer a dream of the US as it once was. Rational this may not be, but voters who are fearful, defensive, and unhappy with the way the world is going, may just prefer to hunker down with the reassuring familiarity of that vision of America. "Got hope?" challenges the Obama bumper sticker. At the moment, America has got fear. And the temerity of fear may yet defeat the audacity of hope.
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist

Comments Add New
Write comment
  We don't publish your mail. See privacy policy.
Please input the anti-spam code that you can read in the image.