President Obama and America’s Paradigmatic Change

Christopher J.Finlay writes:

The election of a mixed-race president who made innovative use of the internet to mobilise campaign volunteers and reach new voters may have ushered in a new paradigm in American politics, says Kathleen Burk, Professor of History at University College London, and author of the recent volume Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America.

Professor Burk, the invited speaker at the Reuters Institute seminar at the University of Oxford on February 18th, 2009, likened the significance of the move to internet campaigning in 2008 to the move of campaigns to television in 1950s America. Professor Burk presented this as a positive development, emphasising a return to greater interaction between the voting public and presidential candidates. If television marked the end of the whistle-stop tour in American politics, the internet could be said to mark its return, at least in a virtual sense.

Kathleen Burk said that the Obama team was able to turn this greater level of interaction into mobilisation, voter outreach, and fundraising. She emphasised how the Obama campaign built upon Howard Dean’s 2004 use of the internet to build a substantial campaign war chest primarily via small online donations.

In addition, the speaker also emphasised the low cost of internet campaigning and suggested that this could challenge the existing financial barrier that many potential American politicians face. In the internet age, American presidential candidates will ‘no longer need to have millionaire friends', she said.

While the speaker emphasised the positive implications of the internet, she did suggest some caveats. These included whether the American president would be able to retain the link to the grassroots cyber-campaigners who helped elect him and whether these same supporters would use this technology to rally against him should he not meet their very high expectations.

Professor Burk also discussed the concern that while we don’t know exactly who the internet reaches, it has traditionally skewed towards the young. Younger people have traditionally had much lower voter turnout rates than older Americans. However, Burk suggested that the Obama campaign’s focus on young Americans may well have socialised a new generation into voters, potentially marking another paradigmatic shift in American political culture.

Kathleen Burk contended that the paradigmatic change in American politics extended beyond the influence of new media. While she conceded that Obama's popularity was largely due to the fact that he wasn't George W. Bush, she highlighted the historic election of a candidate who 'is mixed race, which equals black' in the United States. Professor Burk suggested that this led many Americans to feel a sense of closure with regards to the issues of race that have lingered throughout American history, from slavery and the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. However, she warned that this enthusiasm for closure could obscure continued racial inequity in the United States.

Professor Burk also emphasised 'the phenomenal resurgence of pro-US sentiment abroad' after the election of Barack Obama. At the same time, however, she did voice concern about whether anybody would be able to shoulder the burden of expectations, both domestic and foreign, that the new American president has.