Saturday, 8 September 2012

Clinton tells it like it is

Bill Clinton summed it up perfectly when he described the forthcoming election in the USA as a choice between ‘we’re all in this together’ or ‘you’re on your own’. Co-operation or dog-eat-dog. A role for government or the tyranny of the unbridled market. Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

Of course, to British ears, the perfectly decent idea of being ‘all in it together’ has been devalued somewhat through its disingenuous adoption by George Osborne and David Cameron. But on the lips of Mr Clinton it has slightly more credibility.

He’s a rare beast, Clinton. An intellectual with a folksy, down-at-home style of delivery. As he engages with the arguments, we somehow forget that he’s William Jefferson Blythe III, the Rhodes Scholar. He’s the guy down at the local bar, who’s been around the block a few times and seen a thing or two. (Contrast this with the incumbent President, who can never disguise his intellectualism. A lot of people do like Obama, but in a way that they might have fond feelings for a former teacher or perhaps a boss at work who let them go home early on a Friday sometimes.)

But leaving aside the delivery, Clinton gets right to the heart of the election. In fact, he gets to the heart of political debate in most modern, developed societies. Having moved beyond the simplistic ideologies of the early-mid 20th century, the choices we now face are always over the extent to which we regulate the market and control the interests of the powerful. It’s not one system versus an alternative system. It’s a tap of the barometer and a swing in one direction or another.

What’s very interesting is the way in which electorates in many countries are completely split down the middle in this debate. The battle between Sarkozy and Hollande in France, for instance, was – in reality – pretty evenly poised. The rhetoric may be couched in language that seems old-fashioned by the standards of the UK and US, but ultimately the choice is the same. Do we believe that people achieve more when they compete or do we maintain that we reach our true potential when we co-operate?

Another society where this 50/50 split is very evident is Israel. Although, superficially, there are other, more important fault lines (hawks against doves, secularists against religious devotees), the country is ultimately divided by two different philosophies. Co-operation on the one hand, conflict on the other.

Without getting too philosophical about it all, the choice which Bill Clinton describes is one which reflects the fundamental conflicts we all face as humans. How far do we let selfishness dominate our actions? How far do we demonstrate altruism? Biologists believe that everything’s determined by our genes and that pure altruism is a myth. Sociologists counter that we’re shaped by our environment and are capable of overcoming our biological programming. We constantly try to resolve these tensions as individuals. We also try to reconcile them at a societal level.

So, which side is going to triumph in America this November? Once again, the forces are pretty evenly matched. Remember the knife-edge contest between Al Gore and George W Bush in 2000? The latest polls suggest we could be experiencing déjà-vu all over again.

As in the British system, a lot of people’s votes really count for diddly squat. With the profoundly undemocratic electoral college, the presidential candidates can afford to ignore a large portion of the country and focus on so-called ‘swing’ states. These may be leaning slightly more to the Democrats, but there’s a lot of jiggery-pokery going on. Republicans have been busily trying to change the regulations regarding voter entitlement in many states, in a process Ari Berman of Rolling Stone magazine described as “a centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008.”

Some of the entitlement issues are still playing out in the US courts, so it’s difficult to know the impact they will have. There’s no question, however, that Obama has a real fight on his hands.

What are the Republican weaknesses? Romney’s record at the cut-throat end of capitalism has already been a big issue. His selection, as running mate, of Paul Ryan – a Wisconsin Congressman influenced by the eccentric philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand – is another point of attack. A hidden issue, which for reasons of political correctness goes largely unspoken, is Romney’s Mormonism. How many of the natural Republican supporters in the evangelical heartland will sit on their hands come election day? Much as they may dislike Obama, can they bring themselves to endorse the Church of the Latter-day Saints?

If I had to put money on the result, I think Obama will win re-election by a whisker. If he does, he may owe something quite considerable to Bill Clinton. More people tuned in to see the former president than watched the New York Giants take on the Dallas Cowboys in the opening game of the NFL season.