Obama or Nobama?

It was my turn to write this week’s Scottish Roundup (nominations always welcome of course, even if it’s nothing to do with politics). I keep an eye on the Scottish blogs throughout the week in preparation, and towards the end of the week it became pretty clear that one particular wee stooshie had to be covered.

Labour blogger Kezia Dugdale has been involved in a campaign called Scotland for Obama. SNP blogger Calum Cashley was none too impressed. Then a number of other bloggers — SNP supporters among them — decided to take Calum Cashley to task.

I have to confess that I’m not a great fan of Calum Cashley’s blog. To me, it seems unnecessarily confrontational, negative, sarcastic and maybe even a bit boorish. It’s certainly not the sort of thing that would persuade me to vote for him come election time. But despite the response to his most recent post, in this instance I’m probably more inclined to agree with Cashley.

Maybe it’s just a reflection of my increasingly anti-political or apolitical (certainly in terms of party politics) viewpoint (I will consider the roots of this in a future post if I can get round to it). But there is something about the amount of attention that the US Presidential election receives that rubs me up the wrong way a bit. It’s not that I don’t recognise that the position of US President isn’t an incredibly powerful one. But political campaigns in general are starting to really get my goat.

Mostly, it is the implication that a campaign like Scotland for Obama will make a difference. It just comes across as a bit attention seeking. “Look at me and look at how much I care!”

I am pretty sceptical of most political campaigning. Of course, I have my views. But I have never joined a club, I’ve never gone on a demonstration and I’ve never worn any political t-shirts. This is because I know it will make next to no difference.

Come election time, of course, I love it. I stay up all night to watch the results. It’s great fun to cheer on the good guys and boo the baddies. As Jeff says in the tagline to his blog, “Elections – Probably the Best Spectator Sport in the World”. But beyond that, what does political campaigning mean?

Do I need to go on a rally to prove how much I care? Not really. Will the Scotland for Obama campaign make a jot of difference to the outcome of the election? I hardly think so. In fact, as Calum Cashley rightly points out, if enough Americans find out that those pinko Europeans are campaigning in Obama’s favour, if anything it will probably have a negative effect.

I am not sure it’s my position to tell Americans how to vote anyway. I know it has been pointed out in the posts I have linked to above that Scotland for Obama is not intended to tell Americans how to vote. But the point still stands.

Imagine if the boot was on another foot. What if somewhere in America a group of people gathered to express their support for, say, David Cameron. What would you think of it? I would think they were the most enormous fools. I would roll my eyes. I might ignore them. But it would more likely make me even less inclined to vote for Cameron.

The thing is that our viewpoint is unquestionably altered by the fact that we don’t live in America. The issues, the agenda and the political climate are completely different over there.

I know that whenever I have heard visiting foreign students express an opinion about Scottish politics (there is no shortage of this in the Edinburgh Uni politics department) it has often been the most ill-informed bum drizzle. You can’t blame them for that. They cannot possibly have as good a feel for the issues as someone like me who has barely set foot out of Scotland. They are projecting their views on American (or whatever) politics onto a map of Scotland. But it’s a square peg in a round hole.

I recognise that the same phenomenon would occur in reverse. In deference to this, I mostly keep my viewpoints on other countries’ politics to myself. I have my own opinions, of course. I do care what goes on in other countries. But you wouldn’t find me going around the place wearing an Obama badge or anything like that.

I have done a few of those online quizzes that tell you which candidate you should vote for. The results are here and here. When I did those quizzes though, there were a number of questions that I didn’t have the first clue about. In some cases I had not even heard of the issues and I couldn’t possibly have an opinion on them.

The same even applies when you’re in the same country. When I tried out Vote Match London about a quarter of the questions were about issues that I had never heard of, and half of the questions I had no opinion on whatsoever. For what it’s worth, it told me that I should vote for Boris Johnson. Would I vote for Boris Johnson if I was an actual Londoner? I simply don’t know because I’m not a Londoner.

And here is the thing. I am sure that London does not need my help to elect their Mayor. Equally, the USA does not need to hear my views on the Presidential campaign. An argument against this has been put forward by Political Dissuasion:

Would you criticise me for organising a rally against Robert Mugabe’s treatment of the people of Zimbabwe, where people are dying, starving and being jailed for actions and rights that you and I take take for granted?

There is quite a noticeable difference between the USA and Zimbabwe. One of them is democratic and the other is not. For all of its faults, at least in the USA there is a reasonable expectation of free speech, a reasonably free press, reasonably free markets and so on. None of this exists in Zimbabwe. So the people of Zimbabwe need international support so much more. Even then, I would limit myself to saying that I think Zimbabwe should be freer. Once they have the “rights that you and I take for granted”, I am sure they will be able to conduct their own affairs without the help of the likes of me.

The USA needs no help in this regard. They have their freedoms that they take for granted. If I were to stick my nose in, I would most likely be batted away. And if an American sticks his nose into my country’s politics, I would bat him away as well.

There is the other argument that US politics affects us all, which I suppose is true to an extent. But does it really affect us? I have my doubts. The likely winners of the election are much of a muchness. People like to pluck out the Iraq War as an example of how much American politics affects us, but these people forget that most Democrats were all for invading Iraq at the time as well!

Incidentally, I do have an opinion on the US Presidential candidates. As it happens, I favour Barack Obama. But I don’t pretend that this is based on any nuanced policy view. It is based on the fact that John McCain is a baad, baad Republican and that Hilary Clinton is a screeching maniac. Honestly, Clinton drives me nuts. She is like that teacher you could hear giving someone a row from the opposite end of the corridor.

There are other reasons, which I covered here. I really dislike the tone of Clinton’s campaign. You can just tell that she came into the campaign thinking she had a divine right to be President. The message of experience is total bunk. Her sumtotal of experience is limited to being married to a former President. Big wow.

At least Obama’s message is more positive. But here is another area where I agree with Calum Cashley. If the American public buys into all of the hope rhetoric, it is lining itself up for disappointment. We have seen this in Britain in the 1990s. Labour pulled off the exact same trick. “I’m here to save you from those awful conservatives!” Well we all know how that turned out.

The truth is harsher. No matter who you vote for, the government gets in. I’d love to see Barack Obama usher in a new era of hope for America. But if he actually does it I’ll eat my hat.

All of that said, I don’t criticise Kezia Dugdale or anyone else for getting involved in Scotland for Obama. It is a harmless campaign and if the people involved get a buzz out of participating then that is all good. We are all adults living in a democracy. By the same token, Calum Cashley is perfectly entitled to chip in, and I don’t think the points he made were as awful as some people are making out.


  1. I didn’t post on this topic but also found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Calum Cashley (whose sarcasm and brusque nature is not merely characteristic of his posts, but also his replies to comments, however well intended or informative). I remember the Guardian write-in campaign in the last election where various Islingtonistas wrote well-meaning letters to voters in a borderline county in a borderline state.

    What happened? Bush won big there, and the Republican majority was far greater than ever before. The local newspaper started a campaign, and people objected to the interference – in the same way I do when passing acquaintances from overseas tell me to vote for X or Y, who has really impressed them.

    I’m really interested in the US campaign, watch the Daily Show, download Colbert – and admire Kezia for getting so involved, but…



  2. Ah yes, how could I forget that Guardian campaign! That is a great example of what I am talking about. It would be, I think, the height of arrogance to assume that anyone in America (or even here) cares what I think about the US Presidential election.

  3. PS Should have said that I’m not convinced by Obama personally – but then I’m a keen reader of Andrew Stephen in the New Statesman (I think all of the stories are archived on-line at their website – including the tale of the Life Magazine issue, and the “business associate” in Chicago (who will no doubt feature in any McCain campaign) both of which left me with plenty of questions).

  4. I am pretty sceptical of most political campaigning. Of course, I have my views. But I have never joined a club, I’ve never gone on a demonstration and I’ve never worn any political t-shirts. This is because I know it will make next to no difference.

    I agree with this – esp on party political things.

  5. I think it’s great that people are interested in politics full stop – whether it’s in their own country or any other country in the world – although it’s definitely more of a contest of personalities in the US and I suppose therein lies the rub.

    The emphasis has shifted from the difference in the policies of Republicans vs Democrats to the fund-raising/singing abilities of Obama vs Clinton; and whilst it’s highly entertaining to watch and great fun to take sides as per Scotland for Obama, it does take away from the fact that what the Democrats really need is someone who has the ability to beat McCain in November.

    Having said all of that, and knowing that there’s not a huge difference between their policies, I prefer Obama over Clinton; he’s optimistic (arguably naively so, but that’s not a bad thing), he’s young and he doesn’t have an ex-president for a spouse. However, Hillary might have the edge over him in some of the swing states and if that means a Democratic win in November then I would vote for her.

    I don’t consider saying that as ‘telling Americans how to vote’ – as if my opinions are going to sway anyone anyway (!!); but I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to express clearly that I don’t feel comfortable with the possibility that those who represent me are influenced by someone like George Bush.

    Oh, and Obama has the best ‘fan site’ in lolbama.com 🙂