Europe,  Stateside

Obama: American exceptionalism at its best?

I’m wondering if our European readers think this article by Andrei Markovits at Jeff Weintraub’s blog is a fair take on the reaction on their side of the Atlantic to Barack Obama’s presidential nomination.

Ever since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for President, the overwhelming response from the European media and from cultural and political elites has been euphoric.

In many ways I find this total euphoria wonderful. In a piece that Jerome Karabel and I wrote in December 2007, we argued that one of the positive consequences of electing someone like Obama President would be to help restore respect for America around the world–not just because of what Obama says or what he would do, but also because of who he is, and what his election would represent about American society…

At the same time, I can’t help noticing some aspects of this euphoric response, especially from western European elites and from the prestige news media, that are disingenuous and even hypocritical.

In an awful lot of those responses, the basic message runs along the following lines. Now, finally, there may be a chance (a chance, not a certainty) that those American barbarians might be about to return to their senses–which, in essence, means European senses and sensibilities. In contrast to the cowboy Bush and his dangerous supporters, Obama is practically an honorary European, who can appreciate the wisdom, virtue, and enlightenment typically monopolized by Europeans (which usually means western Europeans). This is often followed by the ultimate seal of approval–they would be delighted to vote for Obama themselves, if given the chance.

All very heartwarming. But having followed the European media with some care since my arrival in Vienna on June 1, I have seen very little acknowledgement of one inconvenient complicating reality. Obama, or someone with Obama’s social background and political style, would have a hard time getting elected dog-catcher in any of these European countries, let alone President or Prime Minister (or, in Germany, Chancellor).

There are various reasons why that’s true. Despite the swooning praises of Obama from the western European chattering classes, the reality is that someone in their own countries with Obama’s political style would actually turn them off. A European candidate with Obama’s message of hope and idealism would make a lot of European journalists, intellectuals, and politicians roll their eyes. And in western European countries with established party systems, it would be almost impossible for a political outsider like Obama to vault over a party hierarchy so dramatically.

But the most fundamental reasons run deeper. A number of European countries have elected women to high political office, even the highest. (Score that one for the Europeans, at least some of them.) But as Jerry Karabel and I pointed out, none of them has ever elected a non-white person of any extraction to its highest political office–that is, head of state or head of government. (Actually, no predominantly-white country in the world has ever elected a black person to its highest political office.)

OK, neither has the US so far. But the more telling point is that in none of these countries have significant numbers of non-whites risen high enough in the political system that they could even be considered plausible candidates for the highest offices.

And surely Obama is right when he says (as he does repeatedly and proudly): “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” Are European elites, whose default attitude to the American people is often one of snobbishness and contempt (see: Moore, Michael: European popularity of), now prepared to acknowledge this? Or does it come across as typical American bluster?