During the 2008 presidential elections in the US, change was the central campaign slogan. Obama was the first to use it consistently and seize the change momentum; and also the more obvious change candidate. But by the later stages of the long primary campaign, Hillary Clinton - who had initially branded herself as the experienced candidate - was contesting the change mantle herself. And in the proper elections, even John McCain, the candidate of the incumbent party, tried to sell himself as a maverick and champion for change.
It's interesting to see how the change slogan has now caught on in the UK elections.
The LibDems of course are the natural "change party", and the slogan that opens their website is: Change that works for you.
On the other hand, it must be impossible for Labour to use the C-word after 13 years in power, and with Gordon Brown a veteran Chancellor of the Exchequer and subsequently Prime Minister.
But the Conservatives? Why not?
Their (very mediocre, if you ask me) campaign videos - like the one below, or the one here - end up with this rather counter-intuitive punchline: Vote for change, vote Conservative!
But... wait a minute! Isn't Conservatism supposed to be more about stability and (return to) traditions than about change? Sure enough, a Conservative government would be a change after 13 years of Labour, but to make change the central campaign slogan is in a way like saying: "Vote for social justice and equality, vote Libertarian!", or "Free sex and drugs for all - vote the Catholic party!"
What does this change frenzy reveal about the political psychology on the two sides of the Atlantic? And where can this dynamics eventually lead?
I don't have a definite answer to these questions, but here are some initial thoughts:
- There is an obvious collective wish to break with recent past and turn a page, a generally negative valuation of the last decade. Both the US and UK have been through traumatic experiences during this period: terror attacks on their territory, prolonged wars with questionable rationales, financial crisis and economic recession. Also - in particular in the US - a very problematic legacy of semi-acknowledged war crimes and human rights abuses ranging from unwarranted wiretaps to torture of prisoners in the name of a self-perpetuating "war on terror", which feeds collective sentiments of frustration, shame and guilt - or, alternatively, aggressive denial (by the New Barbarians).
- This wish to make a clean break with the past - in its essence an utopian idea since a tabula rasa is impossible - can go quite far, possibly producing unprecedented political choices. In the US, this has meant the election of the first black President; in the UK, it might well mean an overhaul of the traditional party system, with the LibDems, the eternal "third party", apparently set to achieve a breakthrough this time. But there is an intrinsic tension between - on the one hand - the proliferation of the change discourse with anti-system accents and people's rejection of traditional politics, and - on the other hand - the need (much less discussed and explained) to manage change within the existing political framework, not outside of it. In other words, there is a built-in tension between campaign promises of radical change (which are not new in themselves; what's new is that virtually all parties claim to be for "change") and the available modalities to deliver change - which are fatally limited and within the existing system.
- Politics is (re-)claiming a central position in people's concerns and aspirations that in general it has not had, in recent history, in Western countries, and is becoming more value-based and identity-based and less pragmatic and less open to compromise. "Change" is a very broad concept, that can mask very significant differences. Societies that some years ago seemed largely post-political are now re-politicized in a rather profound, potentially durable way; political arenas that seemed to converge towards the centre are again increasingly polarized. True, the US was always more politicized than Europe and still consuming its culture wars - let's not forget Newt Gingrich's "Conservative Revolution" of the mid-1990s, which preceded the neocon takeover under Bush Jr; but even there, the current polarization seems extreme - for instance, healthcare reform, the big signature achievement of Obama's presidency so far, has passed with zero Republican votes.
- Where is this going? Difficult to say. But I would argue that there are some limits to the degree of political vibrancy and anti-system sentiment combined with value-based political polarization that a society can endure for a longer time (years), before it spills into broader societal pathologies. In other words - I think that, particularly in the US, the social fabric is by now increasingly fragilized, among others by the escalating political antagonisms, and that we may start witnessing in the near future some rather strange or unexpected phenomena around the tension, cracking or breakage points. For instance, a return to political violence of the kind that has not been seen in decades is a distinct possibility. By some accounts we are seeing some signs already.
UPDATE 2: Could this become a defining moment of the UK campaign? Interesting comparison with the US campaign - and what would have been an equivalent of Brown's gaffe there.