Last minute nerves

Obama may be looking like a shoe in but Democrats have had too many disappointments in recent years

A few hours out from Election Day, both candidates have made their closing arguments and all the cards appear to be on the table, so I don’t anticipate much more drama in the presidential race. The good news for Democrats is there is not a single poll that has McCain winning the election. Among Conservative opinion-leaders, the mood is subtly shifting from the desperate search for evidence that McCain's steadily closing the gap, to self-consolation that he's kept the race relatively close despite all his disadvantages.

I don't think any remaining uncertain factors will be enough to undo Obama's lead. That being said there is a feeling of anxiety among many Democratic activists right now that something could go terribly wrong on Tuesday. There's not much evidence to support such fears, and that even if McCain winds up doing exceptionally well among undecided voters, he's probably too far behind to close the deal.

I'd argue that aside from there well-earned Democratic pessimism based on past close elections, there might be two factors underpinning this anxiety. The first is obvious enough: race. With the McCain campaign heavily relying on submerged and not-so-submerged racial appeals, old fears about the willingness of white Americans to elect an African-American president have bubbled up.

The second factor is subtler: personal emotional investment in Obama. Democrats have long considered Obama a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation leader who can be "transformational;" others have reached this conclusion more recently. Still others simply think it's imperative, that the Republican lock on the White House is terminated this year, for reasons ranging from Supreme Court appointments to foreign policy.

I wanted to understand why there was anxiety amongst the Democrat activists and one personal experience summed it up best for me – a teacher who goes by the name Ed (who is campaigning in Pennsylvania) said to me that he has only had a strong emotional, as opposed to professional or ideological, investment in the outcome of two presidential elections: 1992 and 2004. And those two Election Nights represented the ultimate highs and lows.

“Back in1992, I remember the joy I was feeling sitting in Atlanta's premier political watering hole, Manuel's Tavern, surrounded by members of a class I was teaching, as Georgia was called for Bill Clinton just two minutes after the polls closed. In 2004, the bad news came to me from a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in Florida, and told me: "We're done in Florida, and we're done nationally," finally dashing the illusions born of faulty exit polls.”

Many other Democrats have had similar experiences, more negative than positive, usually and many more were wrenched by the endless and ultimately maddening drama of 2000 than with the near miss of 2004. But virtually all of them seem transfixed by this year's election, and what it might signify. That can produce anxiety, which will only be resolved when all the votes are in, and the Democrats have prevailed.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt