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Some Blind Spots and Hypocrisies of European Obamamania

Posted: 06/10/08 06:36 PM ET

This follows up our May 28 Huffington Post piece, "Obama and the Progressives: A Curious Paradox," in which we pointed out that there's something puzzling about Barack Obama appeal to some of his most ardent "progressive" supporters. Andy Markovits is currently in Europe (serving as a Visiting Professor of International Politics in Vienna and following the European soccer championship matches), where Obamamania runs rampant. There are a range of different reasons for that enthusiasm, all of them understandable and many of them admirable. But European Obamamania (they actually use the word there) also has its paradoxical aspects.

Most of the report that follows comes from Andy Markovits in Vienna (with some joint input), so now I will turn things over to him. --Jeff Weintraub

=> Andrei Markovits: 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. It's clear that even the strong possibility of this outcome, as it has emerged over the course of the nomination contest, has already begun to have those effects on European public opinion.

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.

In France (depending on how the calculations are done) roughly ten per cent of the population are of Arab or sub-Saharan African origin. But the 577 members of the Chamber of Deputies do not include a single person of color. The German Bundestag has a few members of Turkish origin, but their numbers are minimal and none of them plays a prominent role (as compared with some heavyweight African-American, Cuban-American, and Mexican-American Congresspeople and Governors in the US). And so on. One can find isolated exceptions here and there (Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, for example, before she had to flee the country?), but the point is that they're isolated exceptions.

Nor is this just a question of race (and racism). In comparison with the US, European societies have more ethnically restricted and exclusionary conceptions of full citizenship and of political community that make it difficult for outsiders of all kinds to succeed politically. Consider who is Governor of the largest and most important US state, California -- the Austrian-American immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger. Is it even conceivable that a foreign-born immigrant with a funny foreign-sounding name and a heavy funny-sounding foreign accent could be elected Prime Minister of the most important German Land, North Rhine-Westphalia? (You don't have to guess -- the answer is no.) And ditto for Italy, Britain, France, and the rest.

(Frankly, it's hard to imagine someone with Schwarzenegger's career profile getting himself elected to an important political office even in his native Austria -- which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective.)

The recently deceased Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who came to the US as a child and eventually became a significant figure in national politics, used to say that a life-story like his would have been possible "only in America." Obama says the same thing, of course: "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." This is a characteristically American line, and one that irritates some people who find it a misleading and exaggerated slogan of national self-congratulation. But in Lantos' case, at least, his claim was almost certainly correct. Not simply because he was Jewish--France, along with its bouts of intense political anti-semitism, has had several Jewish Prime Ministers, most famously Leon Blum, and even post-WWII Austria had the long-serving Chancellor Bruno Kreisky--but because Lantos was also a foreign-born immigrant.

Nor is the American system's greater openness and inclusiveness for outsiders restricted to elective office. Consider, for example, that former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright are both foreign-born, and Kissinger still speaks with a heavy German accent. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili is foreign born, with an exotic-sounding Georgian name. Shalikashvili's predecessor at the top of the US military hierarchy, former Secretary of State Colin Powell is not just African-American (like Condoleezza Rice) but also the son of Jamaican immigrants. In the US, figures like these have come to be considered normal, even unremarkable. Are there analogous Kissingers, Albrights, Powells, and Shalikashvilis in any European country?

Since France came up, it is only fair to add that President Nicolas Sarkozy may offer a partial exception to this European pattern, with a more "American" profile (in this and other respects). His father was an immigrant from Hungary, and his maternal grandfather not only immigrated from Greece, but was born a Sephardic Jew in Thessaloniki. Because of this background and for other reasons, Sarkozy's election was recognized as a major break with French political traditions. Furthermore, though Sarkozy has been less than welcoming to current immigration, to his credit he has appointed two women of North African origin and one from Senegal to ministerial and junior-ministerial offices. But so far Sarkozy is a unique figure, and those appointees remain -- as indicated earlier -- marginal exceptions in the French political system.

In short, the fact that an African-American like Obama is now the presumptive Presidential nominee of a major US party constitutes a new and historic breakthrough for American society. But it is also brings home some important ways in which American society itself is profoundly exceptional.

=> To be entirely fair, European reactions to Obama's victory have included some recognition of this point -- not least, it would appear, in some quarters in France. According to a prominent French Obamaphile quoted in the International Herald Tribune on Friday ("Excitement in France over Obama Victory"):

"He inspires different people for different reasons, but he inspires most people" [....] "For the French establishment, Obama represents a new chapter in the Western alliance [....] For ethnic minorities he embodies the equality of opportunity they crave." [....]

"You can't welcome it enough, especially in this era of rampant anti-Americanism," Le Figaro, the French daily, said Thursday.

"With Obama, a certain idea of America is back: that of a generous society where equality of opportunity is not an empty promise. Hope and change, key words of his campaign, reinforce this rediscovered ideal, which resonates as much inside the country as beyond." [....]

Kama Des-Gachons, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman, was one of about 600 young men and women flocking to a panel discussion in Paris on Tuesday about the "Obama Effect in France." Her eyes lit up when she spoke about Obama. Not because he is a Democrat or because he opposed to the war in Iraq. But because his father was an African immigrant, like hers.

"He makes me dream," said Des-Gachons, whose parents came to France from Mali. "I even bought a T-shirt with the American flag. America is the country where you can make it."

Des-Gachons is living the American election campaign vicariously, as if she had a vote herself. Could she imagine a French Obama?

"Not anytime soon," she said. Despite a university degree from the Sorbonne, it took her two years to find her current job in finance.

"But who knows?" she added, echoing a hope that many in the audience expressed. "If Obama is elected, maybe it will change perceptions in France, too." [....]

Could be. In the meantime, that "Obama Effect" is a reminder of the genuine and enduring reality of American exceptionalism--for good and for ill, but in this case mostly for good. Perhaps that might make some people here dream, too?

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Andrei S. Markovits teaches political science, sociology, and German studies at the University of Michigan. His most recent book, on European anti-Americanism, is Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (Princeton University Press, 2007). Markovits is currently in Vienna as the Dr. Elisabeth Ortner-Chopin Visiting Professor of International Relations at Webster University, teaching a graduate course on Globalization and Sports and following the European Football Championship tournament (which is being played in Austria and Switzerland).

Jeff Weintraub teaches social & political theory and political sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He also blogs at: http://jeffweintraub.blogspot.com/