On progress


There’s a couple of things that every Brit knows about Americans. The first is that they make terrible TV. Not the shows that turn up as box sets at Christmas, but that stuff they pipe into hotel rooms: 1000s of virtually identical channels packed with ads for erectile dysfunction cures and multi-purpose household implements.

The second is that Americans don’t ‘get’ sarcasm.

The French invented Braille, parachutes and eating horses; the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper money; and the English invented sarcasm. No I’m not being sarcastic. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit but it is the highest form of English snobbery, especially when directed at our American cousins.

And because Americans don’t get it, you see, they are dumb.

Or so we normally have it.

I’ve spent the last week in New York, and have been absolutely enthralled by the election and the response to it.

So first off. Anyone who can turn the five hundredth reading of a stump speech into an interesting two-hour television segment deserves recognition and should be immediately conscripted to the beeb. (The people from the totally unbelievable ‘Paris BFF’ should be allowed to stay where they are.)

But what about the sarcasm? A skill which has been removed from me like the exorcism of an evil spirit.

Here in New York – As the t-shirts say –  Obama is ‘the new black’, (irony and wordplay alert). His relatively narrow win in the national poll (in contrast to the electoral-college landslide) is not borne out in this, most progressive of states where the Chicago Senator won over 70% of the vote, and is feted as a transitional figure by many in the media elite.

But in every sense, it’s a much closer race. John McCain may have picked the gaffe-prone and polarizing Palin as a way of staying onside with the right-most wing of his own party, but when rising above the rough and tumble of combative partisan politics, he was essentially a sound- and independently- minded thinker. And a competent leader at that. If evidence of this is needed, witness his concession speech or the multiple occurrences on the campaign trail where he was visibly uncomfortable with the excessive reactions and and heckles of his own supporters.


Obama, on the other hand, has consistently talked in only the very broadest terms about his plan for the presidency, vexing some with his lack of detailed strategies, although maintaining a very measured temperament and considered response, even in the finals days where a last minute strike could have robbed him of the vote.

But despite all of the billions spent analyzing and portraying the race  and its themes, this is personality politics of the most simple sort.

The whole point of McCain as a republican candidate was that he could unite the country. And it has been hard not to be impressed with him when he has talked freely in town-hall meetings allowing journalists and voters to ask unrestricted questions, showing honesty, openness and courage.

For his part Obama has been inspirational, consistent, even and positive throughout this longest of election campaigns.

Whilst race may be the most startling headline of Obama’s victory, it is not the most interesting difference in the two candidates, and neither, really was politics. Does your average Jo (plumber or not), have a view on a distributive vs trickle-down policies? Were significant numbers voting for or against race and ethnicity  (not according to exit polls, age was more important). Were they voting along party lines? (not the swing voters  that have sent Obama to the Whitehouse).

Instead, voters chose the candidate, I believe, who best fitted into a national narrative about unity and progress (interesting thoughts from Ciaran on this here). And the narrative is that things get better if you are sincere and work hard. We Brits savor our sarcasm and irony as hallmarks of sophistication and intelligence. For us, the best way to achieve success is by a kind of complex act of good fortune combined with guile. America is simpler, it is about taking the chances you are given and making something of them by hard work.

John McCain’s issue was not that he couldn’t fit this narrative, it’s that he temporarily ignored it to try and take out his opponent, at times getting dangerously close to stirring up bigotry in his own party. Whether this was actually his fault (or the actions of the GOP without his consent) seems of little importance. At every turn, it weakened his position.

The war hero who returns to the United States to make a difference is a great start to his story. The ‘maverick’ who  battles against lobbyists  and wasteful spending is a great start to his story. The primary candidate who comes back from the brink is a great start to his story. But all of these were drowned out when McCain started defining his campaign by what it wasn’t and what was wrong with his opponent.

On the other side, of course, the first African American president is a great story. Although Barack Obama had to leave this option alone for much of the campaign. Instead he communicated a vision of a whole country getting behind the next phase of the nation’s growth, did so very consistently and positioned integrity as the key ingredient in that progress.

Is it symbolically significant that Obama has been elected? Without doubt. Will he do a good job? Who knows, there seem to be a lot of good signs. Would McCain have done a good job? Probably, and especially if he could have stayed far away from the extreme flanks of his own party.

But the reason that Obama’s victory is met with such jubilation is that America can go on believing that they are capable, always, of defining their own future. Obama is both proof and promise of that dream.