JOURNALIST AND CONTRIBUTING WRITER Kelly Candaele reports for LARB from the DNC. His dispatches from the convention floor include interviews with members of Congress, authors and experts, as well as his own impressions on developing events.
In this second of the two-part series, he offers a concluding commentary on the Democratic convention, the issues it raised or avoided, and the implications of the 2012 presidential campaign on everyday Americans. Also included are his interviews with Eric Foner, the DeWitt Professor of History at Columbia University and one of the country's most prominent historians., and Stewart Wood, advisor to Ed Milliband, Leader of the British Labour Party.
Donkey Painting © Lisa Jane Persky
By Kelly Candaele
I arrived at my hotel in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention after midnight last Sunday. The local weather forecast indicated that the humidity was 77%, which in Los Angeles, is called rain. Around the Blake hotel pool, delegates, elected officials from California, activists and and journalists talked politics, predictions and parties — as in which parties would be the best ones to attend while here. A young man sat in a lounge chair at the edge of the pool loudly reading a political speech, apparently to himself, while everyone within hearing distance moved discreetly away. He went on for twenty minutes.
Most of the delegates around the pool were African American and Latino. This was not Tampa. Three blocks away a large brightly lit sign sat atop a ten-story building. Red white and blue letters spelled out the word NASCAR. This was not the North.
The makeshift party dissipated around 2 a.m. The young orator near the pool finished his speech and got up to leave. As I’m inexplicably drawn towards eccentrics, I asked him what he was doing. He looked like any number of people I have seen hanging around political campaigns that I’ve worked on during my thirty years or so in politics. This guy looked disheveled and bewildered, which, come to think of it, is not unlike many veteran political operatives I’ve met over the years. But he was clearly not all there mentally. “I’m just trying to make a difference,” he said before starting on a long incoherent ramble about Richard Nixon, (why is it always Nixon?) local corruption and how generally messed up the world was. I said good night and walked towards the elevator, hearing his hectoring voice calling after me as my elevator doors closed. As I rode up to the 12th floor exhausted, I asked myself whether the guy might actually be right. Maybe everyone at the Charlotte convention was simply trying to make a difference, to leave some small mark on the map.
I attended the Denver Democratic Party Convention four years earlier. Then, the delegates were not thinking about small marks on our political map, but “transformative” change, the possibility that the dysfunctional and dispiriting methods of accepted political life could be altered. If you live long enough and keep your eyes open, you understand how rare meaningful transformation is, how the frustrating reality of politics intrudes on the most grandiose ambitions, how powerful economic forces never stand idly by while their interests are challenged.
Despite the change in tone from “Hope” and “Change” in 2008, the delegates in Charlotte were still interested in making that mark. As the four-day convention moved forward, I spoke to scholars, writers, an emerging leader of the British Labour Party and earnest Democratic activists committed to their communities, their issues and to their President.
On the morning after I arrived, civil rights hero and now Georgia Congressman John Lewis had encouraged the California delegation to “find a good way to get into some trouble — some necessary trouble” that would sustain their values and political lives. A California delegate at the breakfast argued that the campaign was “Romney’s to lose,” pointing out that even as the economy was tanking in late 2008 and we were mired in an unpopular war, 47% of voters chose John McCain. He was worried that Obama had yet to offer a compelling vision for the future and that the President’s surrogates were “awful” on television.
Later I met Pat Roelke, a Democratic Party activist from Charlotte as she registered potential voters on College Street where the opening day’s festivities took place. She was concerned about Obama’s ability to win North Carolina again this year; he won by just over 14,000 votes in 2008. She questioned whether internal polling by the campaign indicated that North Carolina was already lost to the Republicans and whether that meant that the anticipated resources and staff they were hoping for would not be forthcoming.
Down the street, veteran labor and community activists Heather and Paul Booth talked about the importance of the convention and how what happens with politics nationally could impact workers and communities at the state level. “Conventions are still important because they generate enthusiasm,” Heather said. “And this is a chance to create a bright line between Obama and Romney and Ryan. We are all in this together is the right message.” Paul, who is a top staffer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the country’s largest unions, wanted a new narrative drawn between the Republican and Democratic philosophies, a clear choice that regular people could understand about the differences between an unregulated economy and one more friendly to workers.
A number of conversations that first day concerned Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s fumbled response on a morning talk show to the question of whether the country was better off now than four years ago. The speeches at the convention were designed to convince voters that we were better off, not an easy proposition.
On Tuesday, delegates from AFL-CIO affiliated unions (about 30 percent of the delegates were union members) met at the Hilton hotel downtown. While AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka encouraged the delegates inside the meeting room, Brett Mirsky, a union plumber from Daytona Beach, Florida talked outside about jobs. “My members work at the Kennedy Space Center,” Mirsky said. “There’s no more important use than that, and Romney hasn’t said anything about the space program. Our politics are very local,” he explained.
The next day, just before the highly anticipated speech by Bill Clinton, I met Babur Lateef, an eye surgeon from Virginia. He had seen Clinton earlier in the day at a special event, and he spoke passionately about how ex-President Clinton was going to “knock it out of the park” that night. “Clinton can appeal to white working class people,” Lateef said. “In America we love success more than we love racism. We root for success no matter what color the person is and Clinton is going to outline Obama’s successes.”
Delegate Virginia Hill, an American Indian tribal administrator from the Pauma Indian Reservation in San Diego County, was also waiting for Clinton. Her concern was making progress on upgrading roads for the reservation. “We received some ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds already,” she told me. “Obama has done a lot for us.”
Gil Cedillo, an Assemblyman from California and author of legislation that helps undocumented students receive financial aid and obtain drivers licenses, saw more going on than merely nominating a President. For Cedillo, the convention was a symbolic consolidation of Latino voters within the Democratic Party and within the country at large. “The number of Latino speakers, entertainers and political leaders who are playing a prominent role here is dramatic,” he explained at a party hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “There is clearly a recognition here that in many ways our diverse Latino community is the future of the party.”
Not only did Julian Castro deliver the keynote address, the first time for a Latino at a Democratic Convention, but an undocumented “dreamer” also spoke, talking about her desire to make a contribution to the only country she considers her own. It was clear that far from running away from the controversial issues of undocumented immigrants and gay marriage, the Democratic Party embraced them.
When Clinton spoke on Wednesday night, he was embraced again as well. As the entire audience in the convention hall started shouting “four more years, four more years,” I turned to a friend and television news producer standing next to me, and asked him if they were referring to Obama or Bill.
I have attended five Democratic Conventions, starting in 1980 in New York at President Jimmy Carter’s renomination convention. That year, Senator Edward Kennedy challenged Carter in the Democratic Primary, attacking him from the left for surrendering key Democratic principles in a rush towards the political center.
But at this convention, there was no talk of “lesser evil” political choices. No debates raged about how there might be an unbridgeable “chasm” that separates those who want to fundamentally transform the “system” from those who are presumably “content” to work within the established practices. With Barack on the ticket, the sentiment goes, we are all Democrats now.
But I thought a lot about two larger dynamics that interested me in Charlotte that went beyond the media obsession of whether the Castro brothers are the next wave of Latino leadership.
One was the crucial problem of how the Democratic Party will grapple with the disastrous economic inequality that has been created over the past 15 years. The other is the impact this will have on the role of government in modern life.
In my interviews with E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post, and Stewart Wood from the British Labour Party, they both brought up the point that Republican and Democratic debates about the future for our country are, in effect, arguments about what has constituted the central values of our past. What makes up “tradition” in the United States, and what history is worth telling, is highly politicized.
In the Republican interpretation of our history, the individual has become mythologized, with individualism praised as our highest value. But individualism in the United States has not been one thing but many. The concept of individualism has inspired brave acts of defiance against intrusive and harmful government authority while also fueling the most rapacious forms of economic exploitation.
In a similar way, our definition of liberalism is not one set of principles or policies either. Is it best exemplified through a concern about individual freedom, collective economic purpose, or equal “rights” under the law?
Underlying the rhetoric at both conventions was a debate about whether, as Columbia Professor Mark Lilla suggests, we constitute society, or society constitutes us; whether individual rights are primary, or the robust traditions and institutions established over time. What should we expect and demand from our government? When Barack Obama stated in his acceptance speech that, “Our destinies are bound together,” and that our country only works when “we accept certain obligations to one another,” he is making a rather gentle argument that the government has a role in encouraging the social and economic foundations for full citizenship.
If the chant of “We Built It” at the Republican Convention was a slightly different way of saying “I built it,” the Democratic “We are all in this together” is another way of saying that the society we inhabit existed before we did, a conservative idea going at least as far back as Edmund Burke. As E.J. Dionne pointed out in our conversation, it is unrestrained capitalism, not left-wing radicalism, that has fundamentally threatened people’s communities and lives.
Writing in 2008, just after Obama was elected President, Elizabeth Drew wrote in the New York Review of Books that Obama was someone who “thinks long,” planning his moves now in anticipation of what he knows is coming. Michele Obama reinforced that idea on Tuesday night in her convention speech, telling delegates and television viewers that Barack often reminds her, “we are playing a long game here,” and that change is slow and hard.
Thinking long is a chess player’s skill of course, but this campaign has two short months to go. The luxury of “thinking long” has disappeared, and some very dark and potentially destructive forces have been unleashed that threaten to do a great deal of damage to our country. “In the long run,” as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “we are all dead.”
For all of the simplifying political kitsch that is a part of campaign sloganeering, there are ideals contained within the word “FORWARD” that are worth fighting for. As I left for Los Angeles on Friday, I was trying to imagine what the content of that slogan will be. I believe if Obama is reelected we will successfully expand or protect certain discreet civil and personal rights: the right to marry the person you love; the right for undocumented students to drive a car and fly on an airplane; the right of a woman to be in control of her own body. And eventually, like other developed countries, universal health care will be largely regarded as a human right, not as one more element of an insurance system. But I didn’t leave the convention with any hope that a clear way forward exists for tackling the massive economic inequality, the enduring poverty, the failing schools that are a deeper threat to democracy. When your economy doesn’t seem to work, some very hideous “solutions” begin to take on an alluring power. Is a Tea Party-elected congress going to suddenly embrace the need for a communal purpose? To ask the question is to answer it.
In Charlotte, the Democrats got their politics straight. They left united, fired up and ready to work. Trying to make a difference, and being able to in this benighted political landscape, are two different things.
President Barack Obama Takes the Stage at the DNC, September 6, 2012
The DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University
Kelly Candaele: I want to ask about the history of North Carolina, a state that Obama won last time around, the first time a Democrat has done that since Jimmy Carter. There is an interesting political history here that you touch on in your book Reconstruction.
Eric Foner: North Carolina was a slave state of course, but it was not part of the Deep South, and there was a very strong unionist sentiment. In fact, North Carolina was one of those states that first rejected secession, and didn’t secede until after the war actually began with the battle at Fort Sumter. It was a little different than South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi. After the Civil War, North Carolina had a pretty strong Republican Party for quite awhile. It was one of those few states where they actually achieved a kind of coalition between poor whites and former slaves. The poor whites in the mountain areas of western North Carolina, and the former slaves mostly in the eastern part of the state, joined together in the Republican Party because both of them had similar aspirations, and both of them were adamant that the old confederate planters not get back into power. Even though Reconstruction ended in 1876-77, it stayed alive for a good while in North Carolina.
In the 1890s there was a kind of second Reconstruction in the state, with a coalition between white Populists and black Republicans taking over for four years from 1894 to 1898. They were ousted in a violent campaign, similar to the kind the Klan had run in the 1870s in other states. So there was a long tradition of inter-racial cooperation in North Carolina which was possibly more extensive than quite a few other southern states.
KC: When Obama was first elected, I believe you were on the “Charlie Rose” show making some comparisons between Obama and Lincoln. I don’t know if you would regard those comparisons as somewhat facile now in some respects.
EF: Well, Obama faced some very difficult problems when he came in, and he tried to grapple with them. I’m one of those people who, while strongly supporting him, feel somewhat disappointed that he didn’t do more in some respects. Lincoln was 150 years ago, so any comparison is going to be somewhat ahistorical. But what Obama can learn from Lincoln — and what I hope he’ll have a chance to learn with a second term — is the necessity of rethinking some of your positions if things are not working that well. One of the things I most admired about Lincoln is his open-mindedness. He had a very thick skin. He didn’t mind criticism. He welcomed criticism and liked to hear all points of view. He had people in his cabinet who were quite critical of him. I don’t know whether Obama has that capacity. My impression of Obama is that he likes to surround himself with people who sort of agree with him. He doesn’t like criticism, especially from the left wing of his party. Lincoln listened to the radical Republicans. He wasn’t a radical Republican and didn’t agree with them on a lot of things but he understood that he and the radicals were more-or-less in the same boat. They may have been going at a different speed but they shared fundamental values, whereas Obama seems to feel that the more liberal elements in the Democratic Party are enemies of his, rather than allies heading in the same direction. So I hope in a second term he would look a little more at how Lincoln managed to negotiate his path.
KC: Do you think this is an issue of personality, how Obama views politics, or some other structural factor like who is funding these political campaigns now?
EF: Look at Lincoln’s personality. He was open-minded. He didn’t hold a grudge. According to Moncure Conway, an abolitionist who spoke to Lincoln in 1862 and asked him why he wasn’t moving faster on emancipation, he said that Lincoln told him, “Go out and attack me if you want, I don’t mind. Go out and demand emancipation and build up public opinion.” It was similar to when FDR met with A. Phillip Randolph about banning racial discrimination in defense employment, and FDR told Randolph to go out and “make me do it. Go out there and attack me for not doing it.” Obama doesn’t seem to have that attitude.
You know, Lincoln had a radical abolitionist movement pushing him from the left. Obama doesn’t have a very strong, grass-roots vibrant movement pushing him from the left. The grass-roots vibrancy now seems to be coming from the right. So that’s why I say it’s not just personality, it’s politics. The political situation now is not such that the President feels he needs to move to the left, because that’s not where the political pressure is coming from. Those like myself who want to see him do that have to get out and organize people.
KC: It seems like, after reading your history of the Lincoln and Jacksonian periods, there were clearly delineated issues being fought over that were fundamental. Lincoln and Jackson were eventually not afraid to take principled and strong stands.
EF: I think the Democratic Party is caught in a dilemma, in that on the one hand Obama is, correctly, drawing pretty sharp differences now between himself and the Republicans. Perhaps he erred early on in thinking that he could accommodate them. It takes two to be reasonable. He spent a lot of time doing that with no reciprocation from the other side. So he is sharpening the lines. On the other hand, the Democratic Party itself is a house divided. You can go out and talk about the need to help the middle-class, but there’s an important part of the Democratic Party that is screwing the middle-class. Hedge-fund guys are in the Democratic Party, free traders in the Democratic Party, the Robert Rubin/Clinton guys are very strong within the Party.
KC : There is an anti-union faction and a great deal more who simply ignore organized labor.
EF: Yes, that’s a total disaster for American democracy. And that’s not just a question of personality. Obama has no historic connection or personal connection to the union movement. Law professors tend not to be members of unions. He understands that in certain states the union movement is still a powerful force, but certainly as President he hasn’t seen assisting unions as much of a priority.
KC: People sympathetic to Obama often defend him by saying he doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver his agenda into place, especially given Republican opposition and Congressional gridlock. You’ve looked at a number of Presidents in terms of the leeway they have to move and maneuver. What’s your take on that?
EF: The President has a lot of leeway. The President cannot pass a law by himself, obviously. But the President can lead, and has the greatest platform in the country to put out ideas and proposals and confront the other side. Some Presidents were very effective in doing that — FDR and Reagan, for instance. But if your assumption is that your aim is to develop cooperation with the other side, that can be done only under certain circumstances. Today, when the other side is controlled by this extreme right wing that has no interest in allowing Obama to accomplish anything, I think you need to be re-thing what kind of political leadership you are going to offer.
KC: Does history tell you that at some point, in terms of this polarization, one side is going to have to be defeated in order to break that stalemate?
EF: It’s a funny thing, polarization. In public opinion polls, there is a pretty large center that is not being represented effectively by either party. I think that most people would like to see cooperation in Washington, so Obama’s effort to do that is to some extent popular. On the other hand it’s not a way to get anything accomplished. We are deeply polarized, and on many issues it doesn’t seem like there is any way to get away from that. If you look at the elections from 2000 to now, what’s actually astonishing is how little change there is from election to election. A couple of states swing one way or the other, but basically the pattern is set. Now something can come along in American politics once in a while and disrupt the pattern, whether it’s the Civil War, or the New Deal or Reagan. That creates a new pattern. But now we are in a pattern of stalemate. It seemed that when Obama was elected it might be the beginning of a political realignment but it has not worked out that way.
KC: This polarization seems somewhat asymmetrical in that the left is not calling for state socialism, but just a more robust regulation of capitalism. The right seems to want to dismantle the state altogether, with the exception of the military and some moderate protection for the elderly.
EF: Well part of the right. That’s the funny thing in that, just like the Democrats, the right is somewhat divided amongst itself. Dismantling the state is not necessarily what all of them want. Some of them want to use the state for their own purposes. If they do get in it will be interesting to see how they try to do that. What has happened of course since Reagan is that the political dialogue has shifted so far to the right so that moderate liberalism now seems extreme. Even calling for expansion of Medicaid is called ultra-radical. You know a realignment has happened when the other side — in this case the Democrats — have accepted the basic premises of their opponents, so they therefore just tinker around the edges of policy. I think in a way Clinton consolidated the Reagan revolution. So somebody has to shake loose out of this. Democrats can’t just be Republicans with a human face.
KC: I was talking to Congressman John Lewis this week about this political crud that keeps surfacing with these Republican ads about welfare.
EF: I’m not so sure that the people who are influenced by that are those who would have voted for Obama in the first place. If race is such a big issue here then why do people — as reflected in the polls — say they like Obama better than Romney?
KC: The race is so tight that you are going after one or two or three percent here, so it could make the difference. You mentioned Clinton “tinkering around the edges,” but he did more to reduce poverty than any recent President.
EF: Yes he did. The earned income tax credit tremendously expanded under Clinton. But the problem was his rhetoric about the “era of big government is over,” government can’t do this, welfare reform and so on. He did some very good things, as has Obama, but somehow they never publicize those things. Much of what Obama has done that I admire has been done sub rosa, under the radar. He has done a lot against poverty but nobody can name the things he’s done, because he doesn’t want to take credit for them. The whole logic is the middle-class, the middle-class, the middle-class. Nobody talks about the poor.
KC: Is there a grand narrative of American history that makes sense of this for you?
EF: I will unfortunately fall back on the historian’s answer, which is, “It’s too soon to tell.” Thirty years from now, when I won’t be around anymore, we will be able to see what the grand narrative is. Right now it’s obscure to us.
KC: Looking at your work tracking history, the narrative line that seems to run throughout has been the evolution of freedom and equality.
EF: Yes. One of the numerous crimes of George W. Bush is that he kind of discredited freedom as a word. Nobody talks about freedom anymore. Obama never talks about freedom except occasionally when he talks about Afghanistan. Even Romney doesn’t talk about freedom very much. Freedom has been discredited by Bush’s excessive and cynical use of the term. I personally would like to see the Democrats come back and seize the notion of freedom. My work argues that freedom is a very potent idea, and whoever has possession of it has achieved a position of formidable strength in politics. Since the Republicans don’t seem to be talking about it, I’d love to hear Obama, or Hillary, or Biden, or somebody talk about it, and talk about why economic security is part of freedom and women’s rights are a part of freedom. These issues can all be understood as part of American freedom.
KC: Ironically, these freedoms arose with the increasing power of government as well, a situation that the anti-statist conservatives would have thought impossible.
EF: Yes. Government can be an agency of freedom as well as a danger to freedom; the key is to make it one thing and not the other. We can’t just let the Tea Party identify freedom with destroying the government.
Above On Right: Julian Castro
Below: Barney Frank
Advisor to Ed Milliband, Leader of the British Labour Party, Member of the House of Lords and Member of the Labour Party Shadow Cabinet
Kelly Candaele: You and Ed Miliband have similar roots in the United States. Talk about that.
Stewart Wood: I received a PhD from Harvard and spent five years in Boston. Ed Miliband spent four years in Boston, his father was an academic there. We both have a passion for the United States. We are European Social Democrats and from the European family of center/left Social Democrats in our approach. This might seem a bit paradoxical, because one of the things we both like about America is coming here and seeing the seductive power of the idea of individual freedom. I don’t want to be too pompous about it, but it’s a reminder that freedom is not some sort of secondary or third level social value. The challenge is to have a pursuit of social justice, fairness and prosperity that’s shared, but without relegating liberty away. What I always feel coming back from America is that liberty is an absolutely primary value.
KC: One of my favorite literary critics, Irving Howe, wrote a book about Emerson, about his particular strand of individualism, and the appreciation of the individual conscience. One of the things he points out is that this idea of individualism has its undeniable strengths, but that often when it gets played out in the political sphere it can become much more problematic.
SW: I agree. I was at the Republican Convention last week. It seems both Democrats and Republicans have a kind of contest for individualism in a different way. For the Republicans — at the present moment anyway — it seems that they feel America has lost sight of the genius of the individual, that there is a straight zero sum relationship between the government and the individual. Almost every platform speech told a story about their family and their ancestors that was stripped down to an individual against nature story. The government wasn’t even mentioned. And when it was mentioned they didn’t flesh it out. One speaker talked about their immigrant ancestors coming in and getting land from the federal government to start a farm; other people talked about the G.I. Bill but mentioned it in passing. Here, with the Democrats, the argument is that individual flourishing can't happen without collective effort and a good government. So it’s a kind of contest about how you can get to a stage where the individual can be free, thrive, make money and support their family.
KC: It seems that the debate within the Labour Party was similar to the debate within the Democratic Party in some respects. Part of the left in Britain criticized [Tony] Blair for moving too much towards an emphasis on individualism rather than the traditional collective philosophy — more in the direction of [Margaret] Thatcher. Do you buy that analysis?
SW: There is something to that, absolutely. The key thing that Blair brought about in Britain was that Labour had to be on the side of the aspirational, ordinary voter, the ordinary family. But he stopped short, for principle reasons, for ideological reasons, of saying that meant that government was pernicious and should be unwound. Tony Blair was a passionate defender of things that only government could do. That meant, in particular, providing universal public services. So the other half of the Blair mission in Britain was about underinvestment in our public services and where to invest economic growth. There were definitely limits to individualism writ large, as well as limits towards markets and what markets could do and where the state had to play a greater role. That clearly is a traditional difference.
I think the Democrats have a narrative about American history such that they have to fight against it in a way — against the idea of rugged individualism.
KC: Politics between the U.S. and the U.K. have tracked one another over the last 20 years or so. We had Reagan and you had Thatcher. We had Clinton and you had Blair. It seems like it was more than just a coincidence — something related to deeper global economic and social changes that put pressures on domestic economies, and therefore, on our politics.
SW: I’m an academic, and by background, come from a school of thought called “varieties of capitalism,” which argues that there are two kinds of advance economies: coordinated economies and liberal economies. The U.S. and the U.K. are liberal economies. So some of these political cycles are trackable to the nature of our economy. We are economies that are more deregulated; we generate more inequality; we tend to prioritize getting people into work rather than supporting not working. And our electorates tend to tolerate the politics of welfare much less, I think. That is a kind of environmental fact we share.
I think you are right that Britain and the U.S. have tracked each other politically, from the post-war period right through to 1980. We had a left to right synchronization. Obviously we did different kinds of things, but roughly speaking, the 1950s were a period of conservative prosperity in both countries. The 1960s were a more liberal period. The seventies were a kind of failed liberal period. The biggest disjuncture actually came after Reagan and Thatcher. We had 13 years of Labour government and you had Bush for eight years. From 2000 to 2010 there was a great divergence between our two countries. Britain’s affection for the United States definitely suffered during that period — there was a detachment. Britain doesn’t feel more European, it feels less European, in a way. But also less associated with America. I think Obama made a difference to that; whatever one may think of his politics internationally, he does have an appeal, and has pulled British people back towards a sense that they belong in a family with America.
KC: There were Labour Party operatives who came to the United States to watch the first Clinton Presidential campaign, looking for lessons that might be applicable to Britain.
SW: We were reminded of one of those lessons last night at the convention. One of the things the Labour Party learned at the time was on the Welfare to Work agenda. I was actually quite struck yesterday by Clinton’s confidence when he talked about his Welfare to Work ambitions. His basic message was “of course, we want to get people from welfare to work,” and it was almost a presumption that people on welfare want to get into work. In Britain the attitude is slightly different. The Labour Party has historically felt that it has to kind of concede to the right that a lot of people are sort of scrounging on benefits and we have to get tough with them on the presumption that they don’t want to get into work. Clinton just operated on the assumption that we liberals want to get people into work, which is a good thing; jobs is what it’s all about and a partnership with those on welfare is what we need to put into place.
The other message was that in order to be successful politically, you have to be rooted in a future oriented message. That was a very strong Clinton/Blair tie that bound them together. Investing in potential for the future; optimism that good government in partnership with people could provide the basic goods for people to flourish. Your Head Start became our Sure Start program and so on.
KC: There were obvious places where these close ties at the Presidential and Prime Ministerial level became problematic. Blair following Bush — if you want to describe it that way — into Iraq. That seems like a conundrum that is also there as well.
SW: Yes it is. I think foreign policy, because of the last 10 years, is a special case. A lot of the problems that British people have with America are contained within the Iraq and the Bush foreign policy. And Blair would say this himself. It undoubtedly damaged his standing. A lot of people, left and right, hold this against him. It remains divisive in our country. I don’t think it affects the wider issue of British/American cooperation on policy. We have a lot of people here who are cross-fertilizing ideas on the domestic policy front.
KC: The British Labour Party is a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International. The word “socialism” here is used here in some circles as an insult.
SW: Gingrich called Obama a socialist last week, I think. In many ways it’s a red herring — no pun intended. A socialist is a ridiculous thing to call President Obama it seems to me. He doesn’t believe in the state taking over industry. We use the term socialist in a different way. We use the term in the sense that we believe the purpose of government is to generate strong solidarity and greater equality. I don’t think that implies anything about the government takeover of the market economy, which is the connotation used here. Labour politicians under Blair were reluctant to use the word socialism because they thought it made them look too left wing. It’s not a statement about your readiness for the government to eclipse the market. It’s about your commitment to using government to create prosperity that is shared rather than reserved for the few. Concern about poverty, equality and the welfare of the majority. That’s what the term socialism means in our country now.
KC: This is related to our debate about health care reform, which is central to this election, as it has been called a “socialist” take-over of our health system by the right. You are not experiencing a mad rush to get rid of your universal health care system in Britain I take it. During the opening ceremony of the Olympics, you even had a tableau that celebrated the health system.
SW: Every now and then an American politician, usually a Republican, criticizes the health care system. The reaction in Britain is usually hostile from both sides. People [in America] don’t realize that the National Health Service enjoys tremendous support in Britain across parties. It’s not an insurance-based system or about universal insurance coverage; it’s a tax-payer paid system. There are clearly issues of efficiency that come with that kind of system. But when it comes to the National Health Service, everyone’s a socialist in Britain. Equality for everyone is very important. You can’t have a forward-looking life without having your health care assumed and provided. In a gentle way, I’d be very supportive of what Obama’s trying to do.
KC: We also have the issue of immigration. On the state level, we’ve made some progress with the State Dream Act in California, and other state initiatives that have made life easier and accepting for undocumented immigrants. I know that Britain is struggling with this as well.
SW: It’s no doubt that it’s a top issue of concern in Britain and we didn’t respond to that. It’s still a massive issue. Eighty percent of our immigrants come from the European Union, with which we have a treaty. We can’t stop them from coming in. Our control is much reduced. So policy tends to focus on non-European immigrants.
KC: Is there anything that you find bizarre in the way we conduct these Presidential elections?
SW: Yes: the incredible expense. Someone told me at the Republican convention that Congress allocated 100 million dollars for the security of both conventions. That’s way more than the amount spent by both parties for our entire general election in our country. Our campaign lasts six weeks. Who am I to comment on your politics. Foreigners shouldn’t come in and say “this is bad,” as it’s wonderful and remarkable and inspiring in general, but the Citizens United case made me think, my God, do you really want a politics that gives such a green light to large corporate interests? I know it’s not just a left wing concern; it’s a left and right wing concern.
KC: Another observation is that these conventions, and by extension the politicians themselves, are really creations of television. That what they do is create media celebrities. Everyone is talking about “Are the Castro twins the future of the Democratic Party” and so on. You have to look a certain way, talk a certain way and in a sense you have to be a TV star to be a successful politician. People said this about Blair of course. Clinton is a master of it.
SW: That question was there when Gordon Brown was running against David Cameron. Brown would say that he was simply not the master of image that Tony Blair was. For one thing, the rhetorical quality of speeches here is strikingly high. Sometimes they fall into a familiar formula, but nevertheless the quality of lines was good. Julian Castro had that extraordinary line about how achieving the American dream is not a sprint or a marathon but a relay. And Paul Ryan had that great line about the faded poster of Obama in the bedroom.
I’ll add that the most impressive leader that I’ve had contact with during my time as an advisor to the Prime Minister in Britain is probably Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, someone you wouldn’t think spends a lot of time taking lessons on public performance. She is a woman of substance, and at the moment, she finds herself leading Germany in a moment where substance is prized.
Photos and video by Kelly Candaele. Donkey Illustrations © Sonia Nicklés