lessons from America

Election Reflections 2004 – a view from my past

In the course of reflecting upon my post-08 election experiences, I came across an old article of mine.  I had written it back in November 2004, after my short trip (holiday rather than campaigning) to the US over the election period.  The article in full is below.  Some of the memories may be painful, but that defeat was for so many people – including me – a catalyst and a continued motivator for the political activism that has brought us to where we are now.  I’ll leave others to judge whether my words were at all prescient and prophetic, or just naive.  Irrespective, this piece shows some of the roots of my journey and thinking (and passion for covering the presidential election) that has come to fruition this year.  

‘Cause we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender
Blood brothers on a stormy night
With a vow to defend
No retreat, baby, no surrender        
(lyrics: Bruce Springsteen)


Listening again to a webcast of ‘The Boss’ singing the anthem to John Kerry’s campaign and then introducing the candidate to the 80,000 strong crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, takes me back to that place: five days to the election; “hope is on the way”; and I am standing somewhere towards the back of the rally fervently waving my Kerry-Edwards placard and trying desperately to believe. To believe in the candidate; to believe in the American people; to believe in a Kerry victory. After what happened last time, there could surely be “no retreat, no surrender”…. .

Until the first polls closed, the majority of people inside the packed bars on Capitol Hill were nervously optimistic. But, after a couple of hours of disappointing results, I began to see the flip-side to my decision to spend election night in a city that voted 90% Democrat. The only big cheer came when Barak Obama’s victory for the Illinois Senate seat was announced. There was genuine passion and support for Obama; possibly more so than for Kerry himself. When Bush was declared the winner in Florida, people started drifting out of the bar and those that remained became increasingly sombre. At a party organised by the Center for Voting and Democracy, the mood by this stage was decidedly flat – to such an extent that it was almost soporific. It was as though there had been a collective draining of energy at the realisation of the result. I wasn’t ready for defeat yet and went to a diner to continue watching the coverage. People were still looking at big TV screens, but much less intently now. For this numbness – an overwhelming sense of shock and disbelief as much as anything – had set in. One exception was a distraught college student, sobbing uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to comfort her. She had been a Kerry activist, campaigning (to no avail) in Virginia for much of the past year. The rawness of the emotion was a reminder not just about the hard-fought nature and closeness of the campaign, but also about what seemed to be at stake.

My own personal quest to make sense of it all revolved around a pilgrimage through downtown Washington DC that I undertook over the following three days. First up was the Lincoln Memorial, bustling with visitors and school groups; all keen to have their photo taken next to the imposing figure of Lincoln, or on those famous steps. The Gettysburg Address is carved into the wall and the language and symbolism of both words and building is unmistakable: patriotism; strength; freedom through war; and invocations of God. This sacred place is seen by many Americans as the spiritual centre of their nation.

Next stop was the Jefferson Memorial. It may have only been a short and picturesque stroll around the Washington Basin, but it seemed much further away in terms of its current place in the identity and hearts of the population. There was virtually no one there, bar a few small groups of Japanese tourists. The location – overlooking the water and surrounded by trees – engendered a sense of tranquillity and suggested the prioritisation of thought and reflection over action. It was a conscious manifestation of Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy. Inside the Memorial, inscriptions and displays emphasised Jefferson’s belief in the quest for knowledge and “light” (reason); science and its advancement; and freedom through education and peace – all couched in more inclusive religious language. This Memorial, together with the Roosevelt one just along the bank, seemed to speak to a very different America than that which had voted Republican the previous day.

So there they were: the competing visions and legacies of Jefferson and Lincoln – the struggle for a nation’s identity. As a glance at a map of the electoral college results shows, there is a clear geographic dividing line between these two Americas. This split has much to do with the direction that people want their country to go in. One direction points towards the coasts and a more secular, socially liberal society and (post-)modern lifestyle. The other direction points towards the Bible Belt and a more faith-based, socially conservative society. Many Americans straddle the two. But this does not negate the central premise: McWorld or ‘the Word’ – where is the US heading? With Bush’s re-election the latter, at least in the domestic sphere, seems to be in the ascendancy.

However, my visit to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum – to view the original flag that inspired the composition of the national anthem – indicates that the country’s schism may not yet be critical. For patriotism (or what may be better described as nationalism, with all the negative traits that that term evokes) is still very strong in the US. It almost always has been, but now post-September 11th it is even more of a dominant and unifying force. The museum’s most prominently displayed exhibit was the huge flag that was erected on top of the still-smouldering Pentagon the day after it was attacked.

A few hundred metres away, one of the most recent additions to DC’s ‘museum-mile’ is located: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Perhaps it is no surprise that the US and Israel have become even closer allies recently. For 9/11 has become, in purely psychological terms, akin to America’s Holocaust – an emotional scar; a potent part of the nation’s identity; and a key dynamic in its present and future paths. Yet, just as in Israel, the political climate that this has created has left many questions unanswered, or even not able to be asked, and has stunted discourse on foreign policy and patriotism. A ‘never again’ mentality has been adopted which seems to legitimise a more insular and zero-sum approach to politics, where the aims are above all to protect the interests of the State and the American people, often to the detriment of anyone else. Despite the efforts of the anti-war movement, it was only really with the emergence of Howard Dean and then John Kerry belatedly, that an alternate policy – one promoting a more multilateral worldview and consensual approach – reached the mainstream.

The final section of my pilgrimage took me to the outside (the gates, fences and other security-paraphernalia) of the three most politically hallowed sites: the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building and the White House. I had been to the latter on the eve of the election, but the “bye, bye, Bush” chants that I had heard then took on an added poignancy in my mind when I returned several days later. The election result may have shown a country divided 51:49, but all three branches of the government seem likely they will be under the increased control – or at least influence – of a highly partisan and ideological group of people.

I am particularly interested in the challenge of how to move US politics and public opinion back to the centre-ground and to a more socially liberal position. One possible game plan – inspired by Jefferson – is that Democrats / secular members of US society need to articulate their messages and politics in faith-based language, in order to be listened to and influence the mainstream (more religious) citizens. You have to be pragmatic, and somehow embrace the other, if you are to have any lasting impact on the country’s course. That is the challenge ahead.

Equally, I believe that the discourse from the campaign trail – the vociferous opposition to the US administration’s pro-corporate stance; elements of its domestic agenda; its aggressive conduct of foreign policy and its disregard for human rights and the environment – needs to continue. A number of the Americans I met on my trip were vowing to do so; and more will hopefully once they recover from the pain of defeat. That is my desire too. I may not have been confident of a Kerry victory, but I still did not spend much time envisaging a second Bush term; something I must now reluctantly accept. We must wait until 2008, if not longer, for a change of course. In the meantime, it is in our interests to help nurture effective alternatives to Republican policies and politicians; and also to support grass-roots movements in their work educating and empowering Americans. By doing so, and by remembering the importance of voting, we shall not have surrendered – no matter what happens during the next four years.

November 17, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | 1 Comment

The early voting quandry

Minnesota doesn’t allo early voting.  Its citizens seem to take pride in having huge turnouts on election day.  The state usually tops the list in terms of turnout.  You can get an absentee ballot though, and you can vote early at the City Hall, though not many people do.  When phonebanking at the Obama office I did speak to some concerned elderly and frail people, or those with young children, who the thought of spending hours in line to vote was not a happy, or possible one. 

One solution, at least for a few people in one location in Minneapolis, is the advent of ‘kerbside voting’.  Its a variation on the US tradition of ‘kerbside check-in’ at airports, but here the ballot box – along with two election officials – come to your car outside the polling station if someone is physically not able to deal with getting into the polling station and waiting in line.  Neat idea.  Though it does require greater numbers of trained pollworkers to be on site to fulfill that service and keep the rest of the lines moving.

Early voting is better for the parties: it means activists can spend their time doing GOTV rather than standing in line on election day; it is votes in the bag which can’t be lost through an October / November surprise; and it means the parties can focus their efforts more effectively on the day itself.

However, early voting isn’t necessarily an easy option for voters.  It may still mean standing in long lines, for hours, especially when so many other people are doing the same.  In Denver a week ago early voting was running at 20% of eligible voters.  In figures quoted on, “in North Carolina, 42% of all Democrats, 35% of all Republicans, and 30% of all independents have already voted. In Florida the numbers are 22%, 15%, and 20%, respectively.”  The TV has been showing scenes of massive queues of people waiting to vote at some polling stations.  In many (urban) places in Florida, the wait is 5-6 hours on average.

How many people can afford to take that time – to be at the polls and thus not be at work or looking after their children? Or what happens if they are too frail to wait in line for that long?  There is plenty of scope for these arrangements to disenfranchise people – a “new poll tax” as Rachel Maddow called it on her MSNBC show tonight.  And it really is an issue here in Ohio.  Reports from Columbus talk about the problems experienced around that area  And in Ohio as a whole, it is estimated that 10,000 more people have given up queuing for casting an early vote than was the Bush victory margin over Kerry in this state in 2004.

I believe in the value of early voting.  But just as Rachel Maddow and others point out, the elections infrastructure needs to be fixed and modernised – and overseen in a non-partisan way – in order for the full democratic benefits of early voting to be felt.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, lessons from America | 1 Comment

Gunning for the same side

Here in Cincinnati, the first political ad that came on the TV was an anti-Obama one about gun ownership / control.  It was paid for by the National Rifle Association – the organisation headed until recently by Charlton “you can wrench this gun from me over my cold, dead body” Heston.  It shows the fascinating prioritisation of issues in Ohio rather than the more liberal big cities of Denver and Minneapolis I’ve been to. 

However, there is a danger – as Obama found out to his cost with a remark in the primaries of “guns and bibles” that was spun and taken out of context – that you can unfairly stereotype based on views of gun ownership.

The first house I went to after arriving in Denver was of Stephen, a friend of Tyler’s, who comes from Maine and recently moved out west.  Stephen is a proud gun owner.  So proud he showed the guns off to me over dinner.   He has a rifle and a small gun (don’t ask me what type).

I felt quite uncomfortable with the closeness of these weapons and the way they were being so nonchalently handled.  I thankfully avoided having to do my own pose with them.  It just isn’t part of my culture.  But I do have to admit there at the same time I was a tiny bit fascinated by the guns. 

For Stephen, it is all very different.  He grew up in Maine hunting and using guns. And he sees having a gun in his home as a necessary element of personal protection, without having to rely on the cops who might not get there in time (his rationale). 

However, both of us are Obama supporters and on the progressive side of politics.  We share other values and political beliefs too.  Just not the gun thing.  An instructive lesson for me, and one that will no doubt be useful in my interactions with people in Ohio.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | 1 Comment

The Beyonce effect

Ugh. Looks like I might have to confront the vestiges of elitism and cultural snobbery I have and admit that our culture of celebrity worship can be harnessed for the greater good of democracy.  Research by academics at Washington State University has found that:

“Celebrities have the power to motivate civic engagement regardless of their own grasp of the issues at hand.  … Celebrity endorsed campaigns successfully lowered complacency and helped young people believe in their own impact on the political system. Young people got involved at higher levels and became increasingly aware of societal issues. … The cause of this dramatic increase in voter participation of young people in 2004 can largely be attributed to celebrity get-out-the-vote promotions.”

Turnout among young voters in the US dropped to 40 percent in 1996 and 2000, but it rebounded to 49 percent in 2004.  My unscientific of why youth turnout increased at the 2004 election always had new technology and new ways of engaging people (kicked off by the Dean primary campaign); along with increased partisanship and the realisation of the high stakes involved, whichever side you supported.  Doctoral student Nick Anstead has done real research on this, and his analysis is worth checking out; especially on what can be applied to British politics.

But if the Washington State research is correct, and the cultural pull of celebrity is the same here, which famous people would you see having an effect on driving up youth and first-time-voter turnout in the UK?  We had our own version of Rock the Vote in 1997 and apparently the Sun tried to do something similar in 2005.  But who would work this time round; if it would work at all?

October 22, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | Leave a comment

The distorted lens

And I’m not talking the media for once.  It’s always gratifying seeing other people blog about the the pitfalls of the ‘winner-takes-all’ system, or at least pick up and supporting what political anoraks like me and my much more learned brethren on 538 are saying.  Exhibit A is this from the Guardian’s technology blog: has lots of maps – including the remarkable result from 1984, when Reagan got 525/538 of the “electoral college” votes while getting 60% of the votes, and the amazing one from 1972, when Nixon got 62% of the votes cast but 520 “electoral college” votes. And then there’s 2000, when.. oh no, let’s not. Which goes to show how the first-past-the-post system, as used in the US states – and here, since you mention it – can distort things.”

It’s also highly unusual but very welcome to find specific mention of the electoral reform campaign on the back page rather than the inside / comment pages of newspapers. But here Martin Samuels, the Times’ chief football correspondent, makes an insightful connection between politics and sport.  I’m going come back to this article – exhibit B as it were – in another post shortly.

October 22, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America, systems | , | Leave a comment

The jokers in the political pack

The economy must be worse in the States than I thought.  Even those involved in politics are having to get second jobs.  Of course we already knew that political comedian Al Franken was having to supplement his income with a run for the Senate in Minnesota.  But I didn’t realise that even the presidential candidates were having to moonlight as comedians.  But that’s exactly what they did yesterday in New York, at a special dinner.  The Al Smith dinner.  The links to the videos are below.  McCain was up first and was on good form: likeable, funny, at ease and very different from his debate performances.  Obama’s delivery was slightly more stilted and nervous and while he had some good lines, comedy is not going to become a profitable sideline for him.

(clip 1) McCain’s speech
(clip 2) end of McCain’s speech, first part of Obama’s
(clip 3) Obama’s speech

Would we ever get our prime ministerial candidates ‘bringing the funny’ and sending themselves and their campaigns up in the same way?  And knowing that it would be broadcast, as opposed to a completely private event?  I don’t see it happening.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that situation.  The Al Smith dinner is a one-off event on the campaign trial and a venerable but very specific tradition.  And then there is also the US tradition of candidates going on the evening talk shows and sending themselves up a little – this election cycle taken to new heights / extremes on Saturday Night Live.  A chat on the daytime sofa with Richard & Judy or Des O’Connor, or a spot with Jonathan Ross, just is not quite the same. 

The Victorian, or more accurately Bagehot, view of the “dignified” aspects of our constitution still prevails.  Just maybe though we need a little less dignity from our politicians and a bit more humility and humour.  Not often, but enough to show that they are human; and that while politics is a serious business it can also be accessible and fun and put in perspective, even at election time.  We all hear that Gordon Brown has a great sense of humour and energy in private.  And John Major’s friends always used to say the same about him.  So maybe an opportunity to show this side of their characters might be politically beneficial …. as well as a chance for people to laugh with, rather than at, them.  After all, Maggie Thatcher’s one-off ‘Yes Minister’ sketch is fondly remembered and part of political folklore.  And it also works – just as the SNL sketches and the Al Smith dinner speeches do – because it is rooted in the political context of that person/moment.  Just having Gordon and Dave do a Comic Relief-style silly scene wouldn’t have the same effect … and would be hideous to watch on many levels.

October 18, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida answers magnificently

Holy moly.  This is awesome. Remember the Big Schlep.  I thought my 91 year old relative (she’s a year younger than I remembered) would not be open to persuasion on her vote, such were assumptions about her.  I was so pessimistic I didn’t even bother to contact her.  But my mother stepped up to the plate, fired up by Sarah Silverman’s video, and sent an email to our elderly relative instead.  The email used the talking points which exposed the myths about Obama (like ‘he’s a Muslim terrorist’ etc) and gave the positive reasons to vote for Obama.  And look what she got back today:

“Thank you for your long letter praising our next president, we hope Obama. We and most of our friends are supporters of Obama and we all hope that he will get elected.”

Wow.  That is brilliant. And momentous.  The friends she is talking about are likely to be residents of similar gated retirements communities, the sort not obviously ever in ‘Obama’s column’.  But they are.  And if this picture is repeated across the state, then we may well be looking at Florida turning blue this election, a very handsome electoral college win for soon-to-be President Obama.  Indeed, that is looking the case. Today 538 predict Obama to win Florida by 4.6%.  And‘s aggregate of polling also gives Obama the state by a similar margin.

October 16, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida calling

“If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, you’d do it”

So opens Sarah Silverman’s brilliant video promoting ‘The Great Schelp” – a massive co-ordinated effort this past weekend for young Jews to visit their grandparents or other elderly Jewish relatives in Florida and try and persuade them to vote Obama.  And for those who can’t afford the airfare, a phone call instead. For the targets are supposively non-internet savvy.  Not all of them though, as my 92 year old relative in Florida checks her emails daily, in-between sessions on the tennis court, the golf course and the pool. 

As figures quoted on the BBC suggest, the Great Schlep has been huge:

“1.5 million people have downloaded the file. And more than 2.5 million people have viewed comedian Sarah Silverman’s welcome video. The group has more than 18,000 friends on the social networking site Facebook.”

The scale. The audacity. The humour for a serious purpose.  The successful tapping into a cultural network.  The mobilisation for an electoral cause.  The cheap cost of setting it all up. And the use of web-organising for an offline activity, especially one that is about individual face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact.  I am so impressed … and jealous.  This is political activity at its best: making activism very accessible, and  also trying to persuade voters one-by-one based on the personal recommendation of someone close to them. 

Outside of the trade unions, we don’t here really have any non-party actors making the case for voting for a particular candidate/party, and mobilising people to do so.   Our political parties are tainted as brands, either distrusted or simply not seen as relevant or appealing to most people.  So how do you go about making a more credible pitch?  You don’t do it with party branding and official sanction.  Instead, as done here with The Great Schelp, supporters create their own groups and brands – made easier by the power of new technology – and away into their communities they go.  We do have “Scientists for Labour”, “Society of Labour Lawyers”, “The Jewish Labour Movement” and others that my Labour Party diary lists. But the difference is two-fold: (i) they all have the party name in their title and (ii) they are all officially affiliated to the Party, have voting / representation rights etc.   A supporter group like “Africans for Labour” at least is getting closer, but not being an affiliated organisation.

Incidentally, the Republicans had a counter-effort, led by that infamous Democrat, Independent, turncoat and wannabe McCain’s no:2 Joe Lieberman.   He represents the old school in every way: from the way he operates and thinks about politics, to his hawkishness on foreign policy.  The trends are very much going away from him: both in his own state of Conneticut, in Florida and amongst the Jewish population as a whole.  As quoted in that same BBC article:

“Nationwide, Jewish people are twice as likely to vote for Mr Obama than Mr McCain, according to a national survey carried out by J Street, a pro-Israel pro-Middle-East-peace organisation, in July.”

And that mirrors views in Israel itself. “Israelis for Obama” perhaps surprisingly seems to be more than norm than Israelis for McCain.  Though it should be noted, having spoken with my mum who has recently returned from 3 weeks in Jerusalem, that the US elections are not the highest political concern in that country.  They have their own scandals, elections and new leader to worry about.

October 13, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | 2 Comments

Brown’s Palin moment

BBC One’s 1 o’clock news nicked my phrase.   I had been using it a few hours earlier in a phone call to a friend to describe Gordon Brown’s decision to bring Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet.  Then suddenly it’s on TV.  To be fair, for us political junkies it was a fairly obvious observation: that this was Brown’s ‘Palin moment’, where he tries to pull off the same kind of stunt that McCain did when he surprised everyone and picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.  The idea is simple: to gain days of favourable press coverage which simply focuses on what a surprise the decision was, and which reinforces conventional wisdom about being a courageous, decisive, (and in McCain’s case maverick) leader.  Then you get several more days of positive coverage examining the actual pick itself and why it was such a good idea. 

And so far its working to some degree.  Witness first of all Nick Robinson’s “gobsmacked” reaction and Martha Keaney’s astonishment; the leads on Friday evening’s news programmes; then today’s editorial in The Guardian and the main comment piece in The Independent amongst other exhibits.   The Mirror and The Sun both use the words “shock return” in their headlines.  But the UK media works differently than their US counterparts, and are certainly less deferential and (some of the time) less easily fed a line. The Times today sounds a more sceptical note, and The Telegraph is hostile.

Whichever way the news cycle ends up playing it, the strategy from both McCain and Brown has its risks as well as its rewards.  There is one interesting difference though in the thinking behind the choices: Palin energises the Republican base and tends to turn off independents / undecideds; Mandelson could well do the reverse and strengthen Labour’s appeal to the centre whilst upsetting rank-and-file members.

October 4, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

An ode to burritos

My staple food whilst in Denver was burritos: chicken, beef, vegetable, any variety.  Had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner – not everyday, not every meal, but many times.  And I loved them. 


I wouldn’t have survived a night of drinking post Obama’s speech if it hadn’t been for their ubiquity as roadside snacks.  Much tastier than a kebab.  But my favourite was ‘the breakfast burrito’ – stuffed full of good things and an energy-packed way to start the day.  They were about the first thing I missed when from my trip when I returned home. Breakfast burritos are hard to come by east of the Mississippi! But as Hunter has just emailed me, “green chilli is the secret, but eggs, bacon, cheese, and some salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla might get you through!”  So I may just have to try that one morning.

September 3, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America, Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment