By Danielle Ryan, Trinity College
Like many college students, my interest in American politics really took hold in 2008. Until then, my interest had been more passive than active; in other words, I paid attention to the big things, but my knowledge on the details was sketchy.
In 2008, it felt like words had wings. As I recalled the excitement and electricity of the election that captured the attention of the world, I was reminded of the famous Emily Dickinson quote, “hope is the thing with feathers.” That is the old dictum which, in its own way, propelled Barack Obama to victory. To play on people’s hopes is perhaps almost as powerful as playing on their fears.
Three years on, I feel like I am looking forward to the 2012 presidential election with new eyes. In fact, I feel like I am looking at America with new eyes. This time around I am making good use of my objectivity goggles, but I have wondered if it is maturity that permits me to view America and its politics in a new light, or is it simply that this time I don’t have a horse in the race? In 2008, as anyone who knows me will testify, I had a preferred candidate. I’m not naming names, but suffice it to say that she didn’t win.
What struck me recently were the results of a new Pew survey which found that only 32 percent of Democrats and Dem-leaning independents would be happy to see Barack Obama challenged by a Democrat in 2012. Why the lack of interest in a Democratic challenge? A friend happens to believe that the results of the Pew poll highlight a mass defection; a sign that Democrats have been jumping ship and are considering lending support to a Republican come November 2012.
I have to disagree. No doubt some Democrats have defected, but it looks more likely to me that they have simply lost interest and, well, just given up. Couldn’t it be that they just see no reason to add another fight to the agenda? Given that primary challenges to an incumbent are practically impossible to mount, won’t Obama vs. the Republican nominee be enough to deal with?
As far as I’m concerned, Alex Schiff hit the nail on the head in his recent article when he wrote:
“America’s reputation has already been tarnished beyond repair. Our image as a mature democracy has quickly been eroding over the past several years. For centuries, our two-party system has been completely predicated on our ability to compromise and meet in the middle.”
From my own perspective here across the pond, it seems to be that America is stuck on fear. Fear of debt. Fear of China. Fear that the American Dream is lost. Fear that America is falling behind. In individuals and in nations, fear breeds paralysis and there’s no better example of this than the recent debt ceiling crisis. I believed—albeit for a brief moment—after the election of Barack Obama that he, as a person with a progressive world view, could educate the fear away. It didn’t happen.
The playing field has been cluttered. Superpowers don’t really exist in the way that they used to. America is competing with the Chinese Dream, the Indian Dream, the European Dream and the sooner that is accepted rather than feared, the better.
What made America great was fearless pursuit of the seemingly impossible. Now it appears that the impossible really does mean impossible, and just like that you’re tripping over pebbles as you run with your head turned, one eye fixed on the firmly on the guy behind.
I’m hearing a lot about a “broken system” and I agree. We’re no strangers to broken political systems here in Ireland, but this is about broken attitudes as much as it is about broken systems. Perhaps Thomas L. Friedman said it best, when in The World Is Flat he pleaded with America to see that you cannot coax the best out of the world by constantly snarling in their direction, and that America needs to find the line “between precaution and paranoia,” sooner rather than later.
In 2008, America’s successful candidate ran on the ticket of hope and the promise of change. The unity candidate, we were told. If we are to measure Obama’s success purely off the claim that he possessed an almost divine ability to unite, then I think we can write his presidency off as a failure. In 2012, the successful candidate will no doubt feed the American people a steady diet of “this time it’s different” laced with a sprinkling of fear for good measure.
Emily Dickinson was right: hope is the thing with feathers. But what she failed to mention is that hope weathers. It manifests itself as something shiny and new, it flickers like a candle, lighting even the darkest of days, and it ends its life as ash and embers, waiting to be reignited before it burns out completely.
I don’t know who can unite Republicans and Democrats in a meaningful and lasting way. I don’t know who can successfully locate that line between precaution and paranoia. I don’t know who can feed Americans a diet not of fear or of idealism, but instead a diet of reality. I don’t know who can—in the words of Hillary Clinton, “practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
Actually, I have a pretty good idea, but my new friend Objectivity is telling me that I should probably keep that one to myself.