Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obama's personal qualities: Bad for democracy?

Here's Marina Hyde on how wonderful an orator Barack Obama is, and how ... er ... pale ... British politicians are by comparison.The US, with it's more professional polity creates - she argues - something of a gold standard that we can only aspire to in this country at the moment. She compares Bill Clinton's speech at Labour Conference a few years ago (following Blair's appearance) "being a bit like Robbie Williams opening for Frank Sinatra."

True enough. There does appear to be something frighteningly competent about Obama, and there is plenty of comment around saying that if he is half as good at governing as he is at campaigning, the whole Bush SNAFU will be forgotten within six months and the US will be restored to it's most loved status.

But all of this worries me. US Presidents make our politicians look like amateurs. National full-time politicians make local ones look like amateurs. As Hazel said the other day, we have a political system that favours career politicians these days, and some cabinet ministers appear to be more groomed and less authentic than their predecessors (and some of their colleagues!). The next Prime Minster will probably be from this professional treadmill, and this marks something of a change in British politics.

Politicians mystify most of us at the best of times. When they behave rationally, we think they are being weird - for the reasons I went into in this post. They are basing their decisions more on sophisticated polling now than instinct, and it makes them appear even less human. And in the meantime, while the public value the quality of their own local services, they don't value local government in general particularly highly because of the way that local government is reported. It's the old NHS paradox: That polling shows people saying "The NHS is bloody awful, but - as it happens - my local hospitals and doctors are really good ... but I'm lucky..."

This high expectation about the quality of communications skills and this lack of a route into politics for the streetwise mother is a serious problem. In an ultra-competitive arena, Obama has raised the game yet again to a standard that most aspiring politicians will never match (as Marina says, most successful national politicians won't match it) and this can't be good for democracy.

That the word 'local' gets conflated with 'parochial' and that the parochial is treated as a bad / boring / incompetent sphere is something that needs to change before Marina can get the standard of public life that she asks for in her piece.

Most people don't accept this, by the way. Hazel does though....

(Sorry for the lack of citations in this post. It's written quickly and arguments are from memory: But the stuff about polling and the NHS / local government is true - check it out if you have time...)

1 comment:

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