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November 04, 2008

Conservatives for Obama: How many of us are there?

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison argues that true conservatives should support Obama in today's US election. The views expressed here are those of Lincoln Allison, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Back in February Brendan Simms wrote an article for the Social Affairs Unit which mapped out John McCain's route to the presidency. I was fairly convinced and, as a betting man, I thought it suggested a good ante-post bet. McCain would win the Republican nomination and he would face either Clinton or Obama. In either case there would be legions of Americans, including some previous Democrat voters, who would not be prepared to vote for the Democratic candidate. And, anyway, McCain's integrity would look good against their catch-me-if-you-can, slippery politics.

But any betting man knows that a nine-month ante-post is a dangerous proposition. Things change and not necessarily in your favour. In this case the huge gamble of choosing Sarah Palin (discussed by Simms in September) and a genuine crisis of capitalism have moved the terms of choice against McCain. Now it looks as if his task of appeasing the "right" in his own party while dissociating himself from one of the most unpopular governments in American history was never really solvable. As it happens, I didn't place the bet.

What has surprised me is how much I want Obama to win though this was not the case until I spent a month in the US. It is partly just that he seems the brighter, livelier guy and that the element of slipperiness about him is much less important in challenging times when most pre-stated policies are going to go down the pan or seem irrelevant. More importantly, there are two other kinds of reason which make Obama preferable to McCain.

First there is the question of representation. One person can "represent" another in lots of ways - by putting his views, by being like him, by having the same views, etc. The question of how one person can represent a multitude is hugely complex. But when I think of contemporary America and I think of the classes I teach for the University of California I think of Jews, Latins, Koreans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese who mix so easily that it makes more sense to talk about a "post-racial" society than a multi-racial one.

The same is true, for that matter, of a Chicago jazz club. Only when Americans of African extraction come into the picture does the concept of "race" become important. The bottom line is that Obama can represent contemporary America in ways that yet another elderly gentleman of "Scots-Irish" extraction can not.

And Obama, of partly African ancestry and largely European culture offers America a comparatively easy route to making its list of presidents look a deal more representative than it has so far. A "black" president will not be the final word in ending the legacy of slavery, but it will be the greatest single step towards that end which could ever be taken.

Even more important is the representation of the United States in the world at large. As it happens my passport is an exact contemporary of the George W. Bush presidency and - though I say it myself - it has an impressive array of stamps and visas from countries on five continents. In all of which the current president has managed to create a feeling of loathing for his country; he presents an image of the USA which almost nobody outside its borders finds attractive. An Obama presidency would refresh this instantly and anyone who wants to maintain America's position in the world should take that on board.

Presidential elections since 1945 have contained a profound anomaly at their core. Here is the choosing of the world's most powerful individual, but it is done by dozens of millions of Americans most of whom are astonishingly uninterested in the world. (Different figures are banded about for the number of Americans who have passports: 22% seems the most likely estimate, but it certainly isn't above 33%.)

So the president will be chosen by electors preoccupied with domestic economic and social issues and then spend his life on foreign policy. For my money the only US president to have a substantial impact on American life since 1945, given the rival claims of two houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the constitution, 50 states et al., was Lyndon Johnson.

All of that I can say fairly dispassionately. I become more virulent when I consider the extreme wing of the Republican Party. They now call themselves "conservatives"; this was not true of the party of Lincoln (after whom I am named) in the past. The party has traditionally regarded itself as being at least as progressive as its rival, though with a different view of progress and I think this new nomenclature must be challenged. In fact I begin to enter Crocodile Dundee mode when I come across American "conservatives":

"You ain't a conservative: I'm a conservative. If you are a patriotic American your identity is defined by a constitution which embraces precisely the kind of universal principles which conservatism opposes by definition and essence. So if you really want to be a conservative you should write to Her Majesty apologising and asking to be taken back. Or you could simply move to Canada, a country which muddles along very well indeed with a set of institutions and compromises which nobody could have devised on principle. They even have a proper Conservative Party, which is very rare."

The whole point about conservatives is that they believe in reality: what we have works because it has had some practice in working and you shouldn't try to change it too much or too quickly because you'll only mess it up.

American "conservatives" believe in one or both of two unrealities. Economically, there is the "free market"; of course, I'm in favour of this too, but in real free markets created by strong, if restrained, states. They believe in the Lockean nonsense that you will have a free market if you have a weak state and they find it difficult when what they get is shysterism and gangsterism.

And then there is "social" conservatism, which seeks to conserve a world in which there are no homosexuals, in which people stay with the same partner for life and voluntarily take responsibility for their actions. Etc. A place of complete fantasy, not reality. I don't know which society ever got closest to this unattractive vision, but it certainly wasn't the Good Ole flipping USA.

The good thing about America is that they believe in freedom. And the bad thing about America is that they don't believe in freedom: they have even more repressive laws than other states and a substantial minority of the population would be more at home in Iran if they could surmount their prejudice against Islam.

In short, American "conservatives" are dangerous idealists and progressives who give real conservatives a bad name. I don't think John McCain is one, but he is supported by them and has compromised with them and his running mate, in her daft way, is one. In any case, he's an old man and a fraud and he addresses total strangers as "my friends". So this English Conservative will be rooting for Barack Obama.

A casual glance at some of the bizarre items in the bookshops or at some of the people at Republican rallies will convince you that there are those for whom the election of Obama will be deeply sinister and disturbing because it involves recognising America's change of identity. There is real pain and anger and if you think identity is primarily ethnic then you would be upset.

But it's been a long time coming and has been earnestly discussed since at least the 1870s; I was rather amused by a discussion in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) in which a Jewish-American DA and an Irish-American cop conclude that neither of them has ever met a "WASP". But I have every faith that American identity in a more important sense will survive and flourish because it always has. Plus ša change.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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Three cheers for Lincoln Allison on the phoneyness of American "conservatism"

Posted by: double dutchman at November 6, 2008 07:02 PM

I'm afraid Socialism is not remotely Conservative. You didn't get this any more right than you did that blather about not understanding the Baptist Jesus.

Posted by: Kerry at November 20, 2008 09:13 PM

Nor is capitalism intrinsically conservative; it works well only within the framework of the sort of institutions conservatives approve of. And what (on earth) is meant by "socialism" here? Does Kerry imagine that the NYSE is going to close down under Obama and private wealth disappear? One should not confuse the necessary state management of capitalism, without which it would collapse, with socialism.

Posted by: Lincoln Allison at November 26, 2008 10:52 AM
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