First published: January 21, 2008
Words can be powerful. Ask anyone who has suffered verbal abuse. Insults, put-downs, criticism and the like can cause deep psychological wounds that never heal. On the other hand, a few kind words, some praise and even a friendly hello can raise the spirits and enhance self-esteem.
So, it should not be so surprising to watch Democratic Party hopeful Barack Obama gaining momentum during the primaries in the United States through his message of hope. Certainly, his rhetorical flourishes around bringing a sense of hope back to Americans and the potential for change are credited with winning him the Iowa caucuses last week and bringing about his favourable poll results in New Hampshire (this column was written before the Tuesday vote).
Obama soundly beat his nearest competitors Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was once believed to be a massive political juggernaut for nearly the past year. Clinton placed third behind John Edwards, who is also making huge gains on his message for change.
Still, language in politics is often hollow. Words like “change” become next to meaningless because it is overused and ill defined. What kind of change is being proposed? Is the change realistic or doable? Can change ever be achieved? Most of us hate change.
Obama’s rhetoric is even more interesting than most.
“I am asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I am asking to believe in yours,” it states in his literature. “Our time for change has come…History will be made.”
Mixed with the language for change is the message of hope.
“Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment – this was the place – where America remembered what it means to hope,” he said in his victory speech in Iowa.
In a cold, hard light, this is blathering. There is nothing concrete being said here. This is coupled with some vague ideas around health care and jobs and education and whatever is the topic of the day. Hope does not pay the bills or ensure a person can get the medical treatment they need.
What is going on?
It is helpful to think about the context. Americans are engaged in a war they cannot win. Iraq is an embarrassment in foreign policy and getting uglier each day. The domestic economy is in shambles. The sub-prime mortgage scandal is crushing the American economy as banks and mortgage companies hemorrhage millions (and in some cases billions) of dollars. Gas prices skyrocketing. There were a couple of economists speculating about a possible recession for the United States in 2008. It is becoming so serious President George Bush tried to avert major panic Monday when he addressed a Chicago audience saying the mixed economic indicators are nothing to worry about. If they were nothing to worry about, then why mention them?
Americans are weary. They have a president that is one of the most unpopular politicians in modern history on top of all the bad news; it is no wonder a feel good message from a politician would stick. The hope Obama talks about is an energy behind social transformation. Hope is about freedom from worries, from fear, from the lack of political will to solve the kinds of problems most Americans face each day. Some would say this is about “feel-good” politics.
It is possible the average American really does not care how things are made different, they just want someone who can inspire them, make them feel better about themselves and their country. Debates over specific policies are absolutely not appealing to most citizens. It is only a minority of voters, the media and other politicians who are going to sweat the details. A majority just wants to feel they can trust someone. Obama’s message is empowering. It helps people feel like they can shape the destiny of the country and then shape their future.
This may work for Obama. He may be able to ride this rhetoric all the way to the White House in November. His opponents, particularly Clinton, will continue to pound away, seeking specifics or trying to undermine him. But, there is a grave danger is all of this.
At some point, Obama will need to deliver. The honeymoon only last so long and citizens will come out of their fuzzy warm feeling of hope and want action. Just look at the municipal elections just over a year ago. Many politicians in West Northumberland rode a wave feel-good messages to victory.
The starry eyes of voters are now clear. Residents are straining under the layoffs, plant closures, and radiation concerns, rising gas prices, fisticuffs in council chambers, insults traded between the public and councillors, and infighting between politicians. It is difficult to feel hope. And, empty rhetoric will not suffice. The future of policing, planning and development, strengthening the local economy/jobs and dealing with poverty cannot carry on. It is time to step back and rethink rather than plunge ahead.
Northumberland voters, like their American counterparts, want to feel good. As a new year begins, it presents a great opportunity for politicians to take a page from Obama by giving residents a sense of hope, something to feel good about and a sense of being empowered to shape their future in a meaningful way. Maybe, it is time for change.