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Why President Obama won (translating Slavoj Zizek)

The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou was asked, after the 2009 US election, what he thought of the then President-elect Barack Obama, to which he responded, only partly amusingly: “Obama? As actor or as politician?”

It wasn’t meant negatively, he went on to explain, but rather that Obama had convincingly pulled off a return to the classical style of presidency, rather than the “modern modes of self-presentation”. Ironically, here, Obama had to act in order to avoid the trappings of the over-stylised American president.

So what would Alain Badiou think of Obama today? I’ve spent a little while this morning trying to find out to no joy, but my suspicion is that it would not be too far away from how Slavoj Zizek has posited Obama today, in his Guardian article, which has been very popular and hotly commented on around cyberspace.

Trouble is, Zizek doesn’t speak in a language that is familiar with everyone – and yet there is a real political critique at the heart of it: namely that Obama, given how radical the right have been during the election, has been able to pitch himself as the sensible man, restoring a sensible and stable politics. And yet, the magic is that he has been able to do this while simultaneously appearing to be the change candidate.

How Zizek goes about explaining this is by using quips that are very familiar to those already well-versed in his writing, but have actually been better articulated by a recent panel speaking at an LSE debate on Monday.

The panel noted gaping holes in the Republican’s mode of campaigning: Professor Anne Applebaum pointed out that they focused too hard on the economy when in fact they could have done some real damage looking at social issues further, while in a more moderate fashion than when they did. She pointed out that new immigrant groups, such as certain Asian populations, would be natural Republican voters for the amount of investment that demographic tends to put into education – but Romney neglected to speak to this cohort.

Professor Michael Cox reminded the audience that 80 per cent of the gay electorate voted for Obama which is not an insignificant figure at all, especially in a country where an estimated 9 million (about 3.8%) identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Not all of this 80 per cent will be strong Democrat supporters, but will have felt neglected and alienated by the particular tone of the subject of homosexuality, especially in the Republican camp.

Professor Cox also recalled one Hispanic voter who claimed to “hate Castro, love military spending and loathe abortion” but vote Obama because “the Republicans don’t want him here”. Professor Craig Calhoun expanded saying this was not unfamiliar within Latino communities also, naturally conservative but unwilling to go all out for Romney – who had pitched his campaign too tightly to the old, male and white voters (which, as the panel agreed, no American election candidate can really afford to do anymore).

Professor Calhoun went further by saying what I think improves on what Slavoj Zizek was saying in his piece, namely that voters did not have the chance to vote for a “somewhat conservative” candidate, instead only having the often unappealing “problematic reactionary” option. Many natural Republican voters had no truck with Romney’s politics of fear, resentment and division.

But, by and large, instead of wanting to leave it at that, natural Republicans voted Obama. As the panel mentioned those who didn’t know who they wanted to vote for probably just didn’t vote. This was not an election fought around those who didn’t know – this was one with big political colours attached. But Republicans who didn’t like their candidate wanted to punish him, also, in the only way they really could.

This favoured the Democrats and Obama, but it won’t be available forever. Professor Calhoun went on to mention that the Democrats had no big vision, only an opinion on the state of the right. This will be a problem for them in 2016 if the Republicans learn from this time round.

The crucial point here is that Obama didn’t do enough to change because he clearly didn’t have to. Romney was just that bad and the voters agreed. For all Obama’s talk of change, his strategy this time round was to do anything but. This relates to Zizek’s “ground-floor thinking”. Obama in 2016 cannot just assume that he will be carried by the fact that he is not the least popular candidate in the election, but start to change politics in the way he promised.

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