lessons from America

My DC political pilgrimage

It was has become something of a post-election tradition of mine, I spend a day walking along the Washington Mall: visiting monuments to past presidents and the current seats of political power; reflecting on the election results and what it means. 


This year was no exception.  Like last time, glorious sunshine accompanied my stroll through DC’s famous sites.  But unlike 2004, the political climate was substantially changed for the better.  Then I was coming to terms with the depressing reality of not just 4 more years of Bush, but extended Republican control of both Houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court that was likely to become more more conservative.  I was looking for glimmers of hope where ever I could.   This time, hope seemed to be radiating brightly: from the steps of the Lincoln Monument, all the way along the Mall, and even to the railings of the White House. 

And not just hope, but progressive activism too.

Overlooking the Reflecting Pool, on those famous steps, Avaaz had set up their boards for people to write their “yes we can” messages of goodwill to Obama and reminders of the global change that hopefully his victory will herald. 

Less than 3 days before, and apparently spontaneously (and without precedent), a crowd of over a thousand DC residents had gathered by the famous White House railings to celebrate Obama’s victory.  Now outside the White House, students were marching up and down the street calling for American foreign policy to be more proactive in halting genocide in Darfur.   And at the far end of the grassy Mall, by Capitol Hill, a ‘tent city’ had sprung up.  Again the issue was Darfur – which has far greater prominence than here in the UK; where the Aegis Trust and its student groups are some of the few who are very active on it.  These tents had been bought and decorated by groups across the US and were to be sent on to provide shelter for families in the Darfur refugee camps that have sprung up for those forced out of their homes and villages.


My pilgrimage was a restorative one.  It was also a chance to marvel at the historic achievement of Barack Obama and everyone who had supported him.  Everywhere I went, to slightly misquote Tony Blair, “the hand of history was on my shoulder”.  Here were the memorials to the great Presidents and one day Obama might join these figures. There were two really emotional moments for me.  The first was sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps, close to the spot where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.  The second was at the railings of the White House, thinking that shortly an intelligent guy, an inspirational speaker, a pluralist – and yes – a black man whose father was African, was about to become President and occupy this building, a seat of global power.  “Yes we can”. “Yes we did”. Indeed.

However, there was one thing that did trouble me on my trek through DC.  And it was the same in 04 too.  The Lincoln Memorial.  The secular, pluralist nature of my political pilgrimage clashes against the religious and authoritarian symbolism of the building.  The Memorial is treated as a  ‘holy of holies’, a venerated shrine, a temple.   You ascend these vast steps to pay homage to a towering figure seated on a throne.  Lincoln as god’s presence here on earth, it almost seemed to be saying.  The ultimate in (non)separation of church and state.  Try unpicking that one!  But the aspect that made me feel most uncomfortable is the hallowed, reverential atmosphere inside; the closed, dark interior; the relative lack of space (physical and metaphorical) or light for questioning, for different views. 

If the Lincoln Memorial seems to represent one major strand of America, then the Jefferson Memorial represents another.  A more democratic building in every sense: rounded; open on many sides; light streaming in; different paths, entrances and perspectives for people to take.  The building, and the words of Jefferson inside, convey and inspire the tolerance and pluralism of the nation. 


Fittingly, as the sunset over the unmistakeable DC skyline, my journey came to an end.

NB. A slideshow of all these photos and more can be viewed here


November 18, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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