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Here come the liberals

For decades American conservatism defined global politics. Now we are about to witness a seismic cha

British politicians, commentators and the public like to believe in their sturdy autonomy. We have arrived at our decisions as freeborn men and women. We debate our ideas furiously in pubs, on radio phone-ins or via letters to the editor. We read the opinion pages. We elect a sovereign parliament that passes the laws and regulations that we mandate.

The truth is more subtle. We dance to another country's tune. It is the United States that makes the political, cultural and intellectual weather. It is the rich American institutes that develop the ideas for XYZ plan or ABC radical reform. Our academics, especially in the social sciences, want to get published in the American journals and ensure they please the editor in question. Our politicians watch closely to see what works in the US. We enjoy their movies and use their technology. The West Wing and Mad Men are part of our culture, as are Sex and the City and Friends. We think we are free; we are painfully and excessively influenced by the US.

Which is why the election of Barack Obama matters so much. In the tidal wave of tears of joy, analysis of county by county results, the "were you awake to hear the speech" conversations, naming the puppy and the critiques of Michelle's wardrobe - and yet another article on the big things in his in-tray - one thing has been underplayed. Obama's success will transform British politics. The centre ground will move significantly to the left.

No account of the rise of Thatcherism or the character of new Labour is possible without acknowledging the force and impact of the 30-year ascendancy of American neoconservatism. They won control of Washington in the late 1970s, creating the Washington consensus. No country - from communist China to the Nordic social democracies - held out. Everybody, to a degree, bought into the market fundamentalist consensus. Tony Blair could have held out more than he did - but the room for manoeuvre was tiny.

It went very deep. Editors of the top US social science journals published articles in this idiom because they had secured their jobs by conforming to it; ambitious British academics soon learned what was accepted and what was not. Young British investment bankers training in New York learned about the value of securitisation. Treasury officials on secondment to Washington bought into the consensus that privatisation and deregulation were the only ways forward. From social policy (remember zero tolerance and broken windows) to " light touch" financial regulation, and from a belief in labour market flexibility to distrust of public service broadcasting, the cultural and intellectual backdrop was conservative.

Obama's election ends that. American conservatism is now in profound disarray. It is not just that Republicanism has been forced back to the south and the mountain states: the intellectual paradigm that it championed led to nowhere but a credit crunch, a bloated and overpaid financial elite and the onset of a deep recession. No accident that Obama's lead jumped in the wake of the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy and the part nationalisation of the banking system. Conservatism was on the ropes. A change had to come. Yes it did.

Here is a checklist of areas where the discourse is going to move left - intelligently and moderately because that is part of the Obama DNA. Firstly, trade unionism. Barack Obama shares the view of liberal Democrats that the best way to roll back the stagnating real incomes of the squeezed middle of the United States is to strengthen the bargaining power of organised labour. An empowered upper working class across all ethnic groups is the backbone of both the Democrat party and the economy.

This president is the most pro-union since Roosevelt. He wants to help unions organise and get recognition through a simple membership card check system, which workers can use freely and anonymously to signal their readiness to join - fiercely opposed by American business. This June, Obama even wrote to Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy, urging him to work with unions in the US (as he already does in the UK). The anti-unionism that led US officials to veto OECD reports that questioned labour market flexibility will be over. Now the US will encourage the OECD to publish evidence.

The BBC and Channel 4 should also be relieved at the victory. Obama is a strong supporter of public service broadcasting and caps on media ownership; he wants to see every American television and radio network commit to neutrality. In the US, one of the live issues is whether the Fairness Doctrine, requiring equal time between different points of view on broadcast media, should be reinstated - it was abolished by Ronald Reagan.

The subsequent avalanche of right-wing shock-jocks, the dumbing down of the American media and the partisanship of Fox News are even more an issue for the left in the US than the power of the right-wing print media is in Britain. For Democrats in the House, and Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is of iconic importance. Obama may stop short of imposing a legal obligation on broadcasters - but he will go a long way towards it.

So it goes, too, with tax. This is the president who will redistribute income from the top 5 per cent earners above $200,000 to the other 95 per cent. There may not be much cash involved, but as Professor Avner Offer says in The Challenge of Affluence,, the point about higher tax rates is not so much the cash they raise but the signal they send about the dominant values of society. Obama has clear views on that. As he has on tax havens.

His reforms of Wall Street will be far-reaching; he will constrain bank bonuses, introduce tough new regulations and, as Roosevelt did, set up a wave of new banking institutions. He is already committed to a National Infrastructure Bank. When this is set up, financing roads, railways, bridges and dams across the US, the argument that Britain should have one too will become irresistible. Obama will try to deliver universal health provision. He will try to extend college access. He will want to build affordable homes. He will try radically to lower the US's carbon footprint, lower petrol consumption and improve energy efficiency. He will aim to reindustrialise the US.

As for foreign policy, he will be more multilateralist and there will be no Iraqs on his watch. But he is closer to Tony Blair and David Miliband (I think, rightly) as a liberal internationalist than many on the British left might like. Enlightenment values, democracy and human rights are worth asserting as universal rather than western principles. And, at the limit, worth fighting for. Trade is a big question mark. His party remains very protectionist.

For all that, the message is unmistakeable. Barack Obama will change the trajectory of the US.

I have found it odd to have been pro-BBC, pro-multilateralist Europe, pro-moderate trade unions, a City of London sceptic, pro-public service, pro-fairness and pro-redistribution for more years than I can remember. Now the leader of the world's hegemonic power, in control of its political, intellectual and cultural levers, is making this cluster of views the mainstream. The Labour Party and the wider liberal left are being given permission to be moderately and intelligently social democratic again. It may be a hackneyed phrase - but this really is a seminal moment.

Will Hutton is executive vice-chair of The Work Foundation

Obama's inner circle

Rahm Emanuel: chief of staff An Illinois congressman and the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat. A centrist renowned for his aggressive manner, he is a former ballet dancer and was a volunteer mechanic in Israel's army during the first Gulf War in 1991. After working for the Clinton White House, he made $18m in two years at an investment bank. He is feared for his tactical prowess on Capitol Hill by Republicans and by Democrats who are not on his list of favourites.

Robert Gibbs: press secretary Gibbs has been with Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign, an affable Southerner with a temper. He was despatched on the trail in 2007 after concerns that Obama's message wasn't getting across; no adviser has spent more time at Obama's side. He made waves in a recent on-camera confrontation with Fox News's arch-conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Obama calls him "the guy I want in the foxhole with me during incoming fire".

Robert Gates The secretary of state for defence may hold on to his position in the short term to provide continuity in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked as a CIA chief and president of Texas A&M. He shares Obama's vision for emphasising "smart power" over raw military force, and keeping him on could lend a bipartisan aura.

Lawrence Summers Tipped for the position of treasury secretary, a post he held under Clinton, Summers is also a former World Bank chief economist and Harvard president. Intellectually, he is hugely respected, but his occasional tactlessness - notably his comments about women's aptitude for science - has earned him detractors.

Tom Daschle Tipped for a cabinet-level post, possibly secretary of state or health policy tsar, Daschle led the Senate for a decade before being voted out in 2004. His early support for Obama lent the candidate credibility, and his legislative know-how will be of use in driving the agenda.

David Axelrod A likely senior White House adviser, Obama's chief campaign strategist began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He will be keeping his eye on Obama's 2012 re-election prospects, though probably with less of a hand in policy than Karl Rove had.

Valerie Jarrett A contender for a cabinet post, Jarrett is more likely to become a White House adviser. Co-chair of Obama's transition team, she is a businesswoman and a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster