By Dr Mark Featherstone
Early this morning British people learned that Americans had elected Barack Obama president. In many respects it is possible to liken Obama’s victory to that of Tony Blair in the 1997 General Election. Akin to Blair, who was elected off the back of the view that ‘things could only get better’ and a deep sense that Britain could not take any more Conservatism, Obama’s surge to the White House has been sustained by his understanding that what Americans wanted after eight years of Dubya was ‘change’.
However, beyond this basic similarity, which it is possible to say defines more or less all elections in two party states, comparisons end. Despite his carefully managed ‘mondeo man’ image, which ensured that Blair was simultaneously popular with ‘every man’ and also able to escape criticism which would have destroyed lesser politicians (i.e., those who cannot disappear back into the mass when the going gets tough, on the basis of their status as Boorstinian pseudo-individuals), Blair was always an establishment figure.
The same cannot really be said for Obama. Even though he has passed through some of America’s elite institutions – Columbia, Harvard, Chicago – it is impossible to say that Obama is a member of the American establishment for one key reason: he is black. Given the views of contemporary sociologists, such as Loic Wacquant and Douglas Massey, who have written about the completely segregated nature of American society and, in Massey’s case reflected upon ‘American apartheid’, we cannot underestimate the significance of Obama’s rise to the position of President. In my view, the events of yesterday, 4th November, were reflective of the kind of utopian moments Jay Winter talks about in his study of particular episodes which have changed the course of history.
Centrally, Winter conditions his study of these utopian moments, which include the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 and the student revolt in 1968, with a discussion of the dystopias of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to show that in many respects hope and change emerges from the darkest periods of history. There is no doubt that Obama’s victory, and all the utopian talk surrounding hope and change, has similarly been conditioned by a dark period of American politics, presided over by Dubya, who has recently been discussed as the worst American president in history.
Whether Obama can deliver on his promise to change America, and sort through the wreckage left behind by Bush, will very much depend on whether he is able to convert the utopian rhetoric, which has carried him to the White House, into real political practice.