The re-election of Barack Obama means, in effect, no change in political terms. In cultural terms, it may mark a significant staging post. It hardly seemed possible that an empty vessel like Obama could have succeeded in duping the electorate for another four years, but, absent an alternative, his re-election became inevitable.
Obama, essentially an actor, conveys the impression of incorporating in his personality the idea of 1960s optimism forged with whatever leftist ideas survived the collapse of Soviet communism. However, he does so only in the most superficial sense conceivable, in the way a showroom dummy wears a suit of clothes.
As president, untested by any significant crisis or event, he managed to convey the impression of the elasticity of these ideas in the modern world, whereas the evidence all around is of their terminal failure.
Mitt Romney is another actor, seeming to derive from the other end of the ideological spectrum but really just making slightly different noises to seduce the mainstream with similar ambiguities and insinuations.
America is the home and heartland of this bogus politics – which has dominated the West for half a century – under which the false categories of “left” and “right” pursue the same swinging quark of public volatility, jettisoning conviction in the process of perpetually recycling an increasingly distilled idea of what an “approved” position might sound like. But Obama is actually quite a good actor, whereas Romney is barely village panto-competent.
To speak of this election in terms of policies or political consequences is to miss the point. Events – perhaps cataclysmic events – will unfold during Obama’s second term, but they will have little or nothing to do with the incumbent president.
They will be dealt with on the basis of policies and strategies long in place, and varying only marginally with any change of guard in the White House. If Iran is nuked, it will be because the industrial-military complex has so decided. If something happens to place at risk the Irish corporate taxation regime, it will not be because of Obama, but because the US has finally decided to put its interests before indulgence.
Politics, in our lifetimes, has merely provided a gracing aspect to the relentless heave of money and vested interests, operating largely beneath the surface and the radar of media descriptions. At the core of this culture is television, which enabled an unprecedented breed of political actor to manipulate public emotions and replace content with sentiment.
The great totem of the process is the autocue, by which politicians read their speeches while pretending not to. As time passed everyone became alert to the fact that they were reading their words, but everyone pretended not to notice, even as the alertness burrowed into every soul.
This escalating knowingness created a spiralling irony and contempt for politics, and yet these qualities seemed to have little effect on the actual voting process. Politicians pretended to believe and advocate things they barely understood as concepts, and voters pretended to believe them – perhaps because the politicians mostly repeated lines fed to them by cunning manipulators who had already divined what the public was thinking, having successfully told it what to think.
All this depended on TV, and not merely on television but a particular form: broadcast TV, watched by millions at the same time. Today, we survey the death throes of the broadcasting era and “mainstream media” age.
In the future, with people increasingly isolated within the prisons of like-mindedness constructed by social networking and online narrowcasting, it will be impossible for politicians to effect such trickery on whole populations.
This election, in which the Democrats have availed of the old and new media to turn an eclectic bunch of minorities into a majority, will probably be the last of its kind.
Who knows what the future will be like? The public may become more immune from manipulation or more cast into variegated cynicisms in which voters will be inaccessible not merely to the spells of media witch doctors, but also to the call of patriotism and enlightened self-interest. Or, (forlorn hope!) we could end up with a spectacular interaction of super-intelligent micro communities, giving voice to a concept of the common good.
I am reminded of the great rock ’n’ roll writer Lester Bangs reflecting on the death of Elvis Presley: “Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on, public enemy not counting. From here on in, you would have your heroes and I would have mine.” And so, he concluded, “I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
Obama is the global political Elvis, probably the last figure capable of summoning the universal zeitgeist we once thought could only escalate. In four years, we will not just be saying goodbye to the first black American president, but perhaps to each other in our “global citizen” incarnations, and to the idea of a political process in which a majority are simultaneously amenable to approximately shared understandings of the most vital things.