Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A French Obama?

Laurent Bouvet ponders the possibility. A key point of blockage in the French system is the political parties. For Bouvet, a French Obama will become possible only

lorsque les partis auront changé de nature, lorsqu’ils ne se contenteront plus d’être des clubs d’élus cumulards qui cooptent au compte-goutte leurs successeurs pour devenir de larges mouvements en prise avec la société qu’ils prétendent représenter.

There is some truth to this and to other points that Bouvet makes in developing his argument. I think, nevertheless, that he underestimates the magnitude of Obama's achievement. It's true, as he argues, that American political parties are decentralized and that local and state parties are relatively open to newcomers and serve to nurture political talent. It's also true that the national party created an important opening for Obama when it made him the keynote speaker at its 2004 convention. But party leaders were not intentionally creating an African-American présidentiable for the next election. They were pursuing politics as usual in a multiethnic society, showcasing a black man of talent as one way of honing their appeal to important constituencies. It was the man himself who recognized the opportunity when the odds against success were still very long.

Bouvet's analysis to my way of reading smacks of a wish, common among Socialists, that some tinkering at the grass roots might somehow galvanize a moribund party of élus cumulards into a movement party united by a new face. I think that's a misreading of what happened in the United States. There was no change in the nature of the Democratic Party that made Obama possible. After the 2004 elections, there were many opinions about what the party needed to do in order to become competitive again: it needed a network of think tanks to compete with the conservative think tanks, talk shows to compete with right-wing talk radio, links to evangelical churches to mobilize values voters, a better system of voter identification to turn out the vote on election day, etc. Obama did mount a good ground game, but in the end none of the other factors was essential. In the media age, a candidate with the right talents can compensate for a host of party deficiencies.


kirkmc said...

I think Obama was the right person at the right time, but, above all, a heck of a smart guy who knew how to get the right people working for and around him, and who, in turn, mounted the first Internet campaign. I think without the use of the Internet, Obama would not have won.

If they socialists think they can do that, I wish them luck. For now, they have shown themselves as nothing but a privileged group of (white) infighters.


gregory brown said...

Art, I'm sorry and a bit surprised to say to I find your analysis somewhat naive. I think the point about party structure is right on, not because American Democratic "party leaders" are less encrusted and inbred than French PS leaders but because the American system in which candidates contruct, and finance, their own campaigns was essential to Obama's rise. A comparable French outsider candidacy could and will likely triumph, but it will do so outside the PS or UMP. (Indeed, back in early 07 I was explaining Obama to French friends as the American Bayrou in this sense).

Secondly, of course of course Obama's racial background was part of what him appealing to "party leaders" who made his campaign possible. Not only did his mixed race background and post-racial identity offer a strong appeal to a lot of his early supporters but without a doubt, the prospect of taking away a crucial part of Hilary Clinton's base, the African-American vote, in the primaries was essential to any strategy to beat her. In this sense, Obama's racial background was as essential as his early opposition to the war in making his candidacy a viable, outsider alternative in the Democratic primaries, which is really when the issue you are raisign here was resolved.

Victor Tremblay said...

I agree with Gregory's comment. I think you are underestimating the effects of party structure and traditions on the rise of a candidate. I think Bouvet's analysis is correct on this point.

However, I share your skepticism that that the PS will be able to change a few rules to revamp the party with a new strong leader similar to Obama. That would require a complete overhaul of the traditions of the party and that simply won't happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Unknown said...

I wonder if perhaps, rather than say that the Democratic Party mounted a conscious effort, we shouldn't remark that the demographics of the electorate changed. I understand that "minorities" are on their way to become a majority two decades from now. That would suggest that their share in the electorate is already rising substantially, wouldn't it? Secondly, when looking broadly at the red-blue map, one cannot help but remark that the Appalachians and the south are colored red, which might suggest that alongside the broad shift from conservative to Democrat that occurred, color still had its influence. Am I totally wrong in suspecting that ?

Anonymous said...

Re Bernard's comment on red and blue: if you look beyond the state to the local level, you'll see that in many cases the real split is between urban and rural--even in California. How that is related to race is another question.