Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Sign Of Good Times

The alternative media is in a lather over the Obama campaign. His blue-sky campaign, with its daily examples of untruths and inaccuracies, is precisely the phenomenon that New Media thought it could kill in its cradle. A little sunlight was supposed to cure that sort of thing, but there goes Barry, tefloning along no matter what crawlies are uncovered. He does not transcend racial differences but rather, intensifies them; he is not candid, but congenitally evasive and dissembling; not inspiring, but demoralizing; not a breath of fresh air, but a grubby return to cynical machine politics. No matter. It is the idea of Obama that counts.

Much of this is the negatives of other candidates, as is the case in any election. There are plenty of Democrats who think I can’t stand Hillary, Obama’s going to have to do. He seems to have some good qualities. Or similarly, I want us out of Iraq. I’ll put up with whatever else I have to for that. Those aren’t the voices we hear from, New Media or Dinosaur Media, but they’re out there. I hope. I hope all BHO’s supporters aren’t all smoked-up moonflowers. Resigned, negative votes I understand. They're what made this country great. Or stable, anyway.

All descriptions of voter tendencies are wild generalizations, attempts to explain complicated matters in simple declaratives. But generalizations which accurately capture the thoughts of some voters have value nonetheless. We can tease out threads, so long as we don’t pretend they are the whole cloth.

Blue-sky candidacies are a sign of good times. Kennedy’s inspiring New Frontier pitch capped more than a decade of post-war boom. A nation ready to go to the moon, end racial divisions, and spread democracy to the world is not a nation that perceives itself to be in crisis, but a nation that perceives itself to be ready for new challenges. Bill Clinton was not elected during the height of the Cold War but immediately after the collapse of communism, when all the talk was about what we should do with our Peace Dividend (answer: Let’s do it all! We spent it four times). Significantly for our discussion here, both those elections were just after brief economic downturns, in 1958 and 1991. There is a pattern here. Economic expectations are high from years of growth, but a slight downturn sours the voters, who are now easy prey for promises of a brave new world.

Happiness and satisfaction research inform us that how well-off we feel is influenced by the timing of our good and bad events more than the actual dollar amounts. We feel more prosperous receiving $100,000 for 10 years than $1M in a single year followed by $0 the next. To receive $10M one year and lose $9M the next makes us depressed, though objectively, all three scenarios equal $1M. When things are going well, we regard that as the normal state of affairs, and any bad news which intrudes sends us looking for someone to blame. Hey, increasing prosperity must be easy, and just occur naturally if someone doesn’t screw it up, huh? Life should be better. We deserve a better life. If somebody somewhere weren’t being stupid or selfish, we would have that life. We become ripe for smooth talkers who tell us that a positive attitude will turn our life around. You can make money at home while you sleep, and save the environment too! Lot’s of people are making a fortune with our secret investment secrets, or flipping houses for a 50% profit after painting the spare bedroom!

Or similarly, if we just have the audacity of hope, America will become the great society it was meant to be, with no more wars and universal prosperity. We can do it! We just have to believe.

For all the wailing about how bad the economy is and how hated we are in the world, the persistence of the Obama campaign is evidence that things are going well; well enough that people are willing to roll the dice for a great leap forward. People who really think the economy is tanking – today, right now – can’t afford to think in terms of long-term structural changes and the remaking of society. Only the wealthy can afford to waste an election on pretty symbolism. The War in Iraq was going as well as wars ever go, and is now going better than wars ever do, but we’re tired, and we want it to go away. The economy perks along nicely – even our recessions are prosperous times now – but we feel cheated, somehow. People live longer and better, enough that we come to believe that illness means that something is seriously wrong with the whole universe, not just our bodies.

The rhetoric we hear from the Obama supporters is blue-sky stuff. I don’t know what percentage of his people actually think like that, but it must be a pretty good chunk for his poll numbers to stay up after all that has come out about him.* Cinnamon Stillwell provides some good San Francisco examples of this Barack-can-set-us-free talk, and Alice Walker had a gushing essay just this week.

I read a few weeks ago that Rush had offered the opinion that Barack’s candidacy is not an opportunity to move beyond the racial divide, but evidence that we already have. I will add a similar claim: Obama’s continued appeal is evidence that we feel so secure in our prosperity that we can roll the dice for a symbolic gesture of a candidacy.

*Or perhaps the opposite: his supporters are already jaded, negative voters unaffected by any revelations.

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