And the next US president is...

Our US editor's analysis of the Iowa Caucus - a vote that saw a win for presidential hopefuls Obama

I’ve done more than my fair share of tramping the streets of Iowa and bracing the snow of New Hampshire in the past, mainly because the much-hyped caucus and primary elections there are practically the only time when national US politicians literally wear out shoe leather and even come face-to-face with, horror-of-horrors, real people.

Very quickly, though - certainly within a month - the shutters come down when definite Republican and Democratic presidential candidates emerge - and one, at least, then stays cocooned surrounded by Secret Service men for the rest of his life. (This time, given the current hatreds running through the American bloodstream, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have quietly had Secret Service protection for months.)

But for the past week I’ve spent most of my time in DC, vainly trying to explain to Brits why they shouldn’t pay too much attention to whatever turned out to be the political verdicts of 212,000 Iowans - 0.11 per cent of the American electorate, according to my calculations - on Thursday night.

There would, I explained, be a plethora of headlines in the British papers on Friday morning that could range from 'Hillary’s the Gal', or 'It’s President Huck-To-Be' - to, quite possibly, 'Barack Storms His Way To The White House' or even 'Hillary: It’s All Over'.

Yes, the early primaries can be crucial in building what George H W Bush liked to call “the Big Mo” - but they can also turn out to be stunningly irrelevant. Take none other than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton: both lost Iowa, but then went on to win two-term presidencies.

Candidates have to take the strategic gamble either of pouring money and resources into the early small states in the hope of building the big mo, or waiting for the more important ones to come on Super Tuesday. Bill Clinton lost practically all the early primaries, then famously pronounced himself - accurately, as it turned out - to be “the comeback kid” on Super Tuesday the next month.

I’d say it’s now touch-and-go whether Barack Obama, following his victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa, can now maintain the big mo up to and beyond Super Tuesday on 5 February.

Perhaps significantly, post-caucus analysis of his victory in Iowa on Thursday night showed his support came overwhelmingly from the youngest generation of voters - while Hillary’s main bloc of votes came from the over-sixties.

That makes sense: Obama is a spectacular orator who can carry away the politically innocent en masse into moist-eyed enthusiasm, but he will now come under a merciless spotlight.

He is woefully inexperienced in foreign affairs - more so, believe it or not, than George W Bush was when he entered the White House (he, as Texan governor, had at least held negotiations with the Mexican government) - and has failed to convene one single meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s European Affairs sub-committee, which he is supposed to have chaired for the past year.

But he has the funds and fame and perceived glamour to sustain his momentum, and Hillary’s support may now dramatically subside - although Iowa was never going to be one of her stronger states, and both Clintons possess a steely resolve rare in politics.

And on the night of Obama’s Iowa victory she was still 21.2 points ahead in polls across the nation. She remained seven points ahead for next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, too, 20 ahead in Nevada, 0.6 in South Carolina and a whopping 24.8 ahead in Florida for its 29 January primary.

Could she be the “comeback girl” by the time 22 states, including the giant of California where she is currently 19 points ahead, go to the polls on 5 February?

Iowa was certainly a distinct setback for Clinton, but it was quite possibly a fatal one for Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The ultra-smooth 60-year-old Mormon put all his eggs into the basket of the early states to get the big mo, spending more than $7m on attack ads in Iowa alone.

But his slick, ultra-élite background as the near-billionaire former liberal governor of Massachusetts did not go down well with the ruddy-faced Republican farmers in rural Iowa - and the more they saw him the less they liked him. (Yes, I know my description of Republicans in Iowa is a cliché - but there’s some truth to it, too.)

So what happened on the Republican side? Exactly what the New Statesman predicted, of course. "Step forward 52-year-old Mike Huckabee," I wrote in the NS in early November last year - just about the first reference anywhere to the rank outsider, as far as I can see, as a serious presidential contender.

I pointed out then that the guitar-strumming Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor - he was even born in Hope, Arkansas, too - is a likeable fellow amidst a field of flawed oddballs like Romney or Rudy Giuliani, who is keeping his powder dry for the later big states and, like Hillary, remains his party’s frontrunner.

But Huckabee is as ignorant of foreign affairs as Obama - last week he got hopelessly confused about Pakistan and where its borders are - and his appeal to the so-called Christian Right will be much weaker next Tuesday in the politically aberrant, rough-and-ready New Hampshire. Huckabee and John McCain, who was devastated to finish fourth in Iowa, are still neck-and-neck just behind Giuliani in the national polls.

I’m looking forward to the scrutiny that Obama will now face and can’t help wondering whether his halo may now begin to slip. Thursday night in Iowa, Obama modestly told his adoring young fans, was “a defining moment in history.” Perhaps significantly, he started playing the race card he has assiduously avoided in his campaigning up until now: a major strategic error, perhaps? “You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do...the moment when it all begun,” he roared. Maybe. You should never underestimate the gullibility of an American electorate that can put George W Bush into the White House for two terms, but I still have my doubts about Barack Obama's suitability to become America's 44th president.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood