November 6, 2008
Leaving aside speculation over the future President Obama, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on a lesson from Campaign Obama, one which has particular resonance for Europe:
Populism need not involve an appeal to the people’s most base political instincts; it can also work by inspiring them to demand more from their elites.
In comparison to the Democratic campaigns of 2000 and 2004, Obama’s campaign was markedly populist. For sure, it wasn’t a campaign against Government per se. But it was a discourse supporting the people against the current elite, against the status quo. This was embodied in the campaign slogan “yes, we can”, which pitched “we” the people against those leaders who have so far failed to deliver “our” real hopes and aspirations. And it was evident in the fact that, like so many populist “Goldwater-Republican” campaigns before it, the real heartbeat of Campaign Obama lay in its grassroots support, not the political elite in Washington DC.
Yet the campaign was also extremely positive. The core message was inspirational rather than fearful. It was not a case of a leader “reaching down” to the people’s fears and resentments; it was an instance of the people asking their leaders to “step up” to their highest hopes and aspirations. In winning the election Obama has turned populism on its head and proven it can still succeed.
This is a lesson that Europe would do well to learn right now. At the Union level, populism is treated as the arch enemy of progress, embodied most vividly in Declan Ganley’s campaign against the Lisbon Treaty. And at the national level, the list of “successful” populist campaigns in Europe is a testament to the power of fearing the future and hating the Other. Twentieth Century European history bears witness to the destructive effects that this approach can bring, especially at a time of financial crisis and a shifting geopolitical landscape.
Campaign Obama demonstrates that positive populism is the only way to tackle this threat. The Irish referendum will not be reversed by a second yes campaign that represents the Irish political establishment more visibly than the hopes of the Irish people. And the ugly head of xenophobia will continue to rise in Europe’s national elections until our leaders develop the creativity to inspire their people with hope rather than buy them with fear.
Perhaps it may prove harder to inspire “cynical Europeans” than “wide-eyed Americans” in this regard. But the alternative is in nobody’s interest. And besides, isn’t this what politicians are for?