Streetwise Professor

September 11, 2008


Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:00 am

I spent the last week in Switzerland and Austria. I spoke at the Swiss Futures and Options Association meetings in Interlaken, a delightful place. The event itself was nice, but unexceptional. The most interesting experience was a lunch with several European participants.

My four companions were interested to learn from me, the only American at the table, what I thought about the upcoming election. I gave them the shock of their lives when I opined that I gave McCain far better than even odds of winning. They pressed me to know why. I gave several reasons: (1) no one as left as Obama has ever been elected president; (2) Obama has never been in a contested election, and is very likely to make a major mistake in the pressure cooker of a presidential contest; (3) the election will hinge on working class and middle class voters in a handful of states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri, and Obama has not done well with those voters in those states; (4) Palin’s selection dramatically improves McCain’s chances with those voters; and (5) Obama’s political skills are overrated, and he has been sheltered from scrutiny by a friendly media during a time when attention is less intense, but that won’t be the case in the last two months of the race.

My analysis may be right or wrong–we’ll see. That’s not the point. The point is the reaction of my lunch companions. They were clearly unsettled by the prospect of an Obama defeat. I think that they considered his victory inevitable–and desirable. The possibility of a McCain triumph frightened them.

One guy has a very responsible position in the European Commission, and was formerly in the government of a large EU state. He was visibly distressed at my prognostication. He became extremely agitated, fidgiting in his chair. Not that he disagreed with me, I don’t think–he didn’t challenge my reasoning. No, I think he was agitated because he thought I might be right, and the prospect mortified him. He stammered–I exaggerate not, he was stammering–“How could the US elect a woman who only received a passport 2 years ago?!? Americans are so insular.” The idea that somebody so uncosmopolitan could be even considered for national office was utterly fantastical to him.

He then asked me whether Americans didn’t understand how popular Obama was in Europe. I said “They know all right, and to be honest, the screams of 200,000 Germans is just what might have cost him the election. Most Americans don’t care what Europeans think, and some Americans–including those likely to be pivotal in this election–certainly don’t like taking instruction on whom to vote for from Europeans.”

One of the other people at the table thought it was shocking that the fate of the world rested in the voting choices of a few million working class Americans. The condescension was palpable.

My takeaway–the insularity goes both ways. Europeans are insular in their own way. They have their worldview, and have a hard time comprehending that not everybody shares it. Moreover, the media cultures in Europe–and the US–feed this insularity. If you get your idea of what Americans think from the New York Times, well, you are pretty uninformed.

All of this transpired early in the morning (US time) of the day of Palin’s speech. I can only imagine how the angst has increased in the days since, with McCain’s surge in the polls, and Obama’s string of miscues.

I can see McCain’s new ad: “Tick off a Frenchman (or Italian or German): Vote for McCain-Palin!”

Upon reflection, I think that the fact that my interlocutors seemingly agreed with my prediction, as much as they disliked it, is just another manifestation of anti-Americanism: “Of course Obama is far and away the better candidate, but the Americans are so stupid they can’t be expected to vote for him.”

Here’s hoping that they’re right about that.

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