Walking between sessions at the Perugia Journalism Festival, I’m passing through the Corso Vannucci, the heart of this magnificent old city. With Italian elections taking place tomorrow, the Corso has been hosting political rallies each evening. Last night was a left party represented by a global funk band; they were better than the Communists, who just featured a guy with a bullhorn yelling about the need to smash the criminal state. This morning, there was a jazz band – no idea who they represented.
The session I was rushing to catch was “the Race for the White House 2008”, which features three Italian journalists as well as a historian from Columbia’s Journalism School. I’ve been fascinated to see perceptions of the US elections in the developing world through the Voices without Votes site run by Global Voices – I figured this would be a great chance to see the Italian perspective on US politics.
Mario Calabrese from La Repubblica frames this as a “spectacular election,” one with two competitive primaries and no incumbent running. He mentions the sheer size of the press corps – five major networks in the US turned out 100 people each, including 14 journalists, to cover the Iowa primaries. It’s important to consider the hundreds of millions of dollars raised, including many tiny donations for Obama. The novelty of the election is hard to underestimate – the possibility of a black president or a woman president.
Evan Cornog from the Columbia School of Journalism tries to set the election in some historical context. He points out that American political power tends to move in terms of one party being dominant over another. Democrats dominated for some time after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Republican dominance came on after Kennedy and peaked with the Contract with America. There’s an advantage to the Democrats at present because of Bush’s unpopularity and the frustration over the war. There’s questions about “whether this will overcome an innate conservatism in the american electorate,” and a national history that’s included slavery and racism. There’s enthusiasm for Obama and speculation that he will be the nominee. On the other hand, “the notion of electing a black president is as exciting to Americans as to Europeans”, but it’s disconcerting as well.
Maurizio Molinari, the US correspondent for La Stampa, has written a book called “Democratic Cowboys”, which the moderator recommends as the preferred guide to US elections. He explains the importance of novelty in understanding this election, pointing out that Republicans have been registering as Democrats in the primaries and that “white people are voting for Obama, a concrete example of this novelty.” This may bem in part because Obama uses language similar to that used by the Republican party on faith, and has criticized Democrats for forgetting the importance of faith.
Paolo Mastrolilli, foreign editor for RAI 1 News, reminds us that the most fascinating figure in this election is McCain. “McCain is the great surprise. To stem the novelty of a woman and a black person running, the Republicans have nominated the last person you think they would nominate,” someone hated by the religious right. For McCain to win, though, he needs to win the base – the 29% of American voters who still support Bush. If he can do that and convince Independents to support him, he’ll be very hard to beat.
Molinari is interested in the conlifct in the Democratic party as a “clash between the souls of the Democratic party,” between Clinton as the anti-Republican establishment, and Obama as someone who can involve young and African-American voters. He’s amazed that neither side will back down, arguing that in any European country, we’d see a negotiated sharing of power. “The soul of America is competition” and “if you step back, you are a loser.” He reminds us that McCain’s hero is Ted Williams, who stepped away from a baseball career to fight in the Korean War. Williams, a pilot, was shot down, but refused to bail out of a plane that was in flames. When McCain asked his why he’d made this illogical decision, he explained that he wasn’t willing to lose his legs and his baseball career. That desire to take a risk and preserve his career is why he’s McCain’s hero.
Cornog is asked repeatedly whether America is ready for an African-American president. He notes that America now faces a very different racial climate, where African-Americans are CEOs of major corporations and it’s not commented on. He argues that we need to understand Obama’s candidacy in the way we understand anti-Catholic sentiment in US politics. The “Know Nothing” Party in the 1850s was based almost entirely around anti-Catholicism, reacting to Irish immigration, and fear of Catholicism was still a major factor when Kennedy ran in 1960. His speech to ministers in Texas, drawing a firm line between church and state (a line he notes that Bush has tried hard to blur), was so effective that he later ran it as a half-hour long TV ad. He speculates that Obama’s speech on race was so effective that he might consider running it as an ad. It’s unclear if the US can elect a black president, “but if anybody can get us over that hump, it’s Barack Obama.”
In turn, Cornog has a question for Molinari, wondering what aspects of US political culture are hardest to explain to an Italian audience. Molinari explains that “left and right in the US doesn’t translate to the right and left in Europe.” In the US, the right can support environmental issues in security and economic terms – that’s uncommon to hear in Italian politics. There’s a tendency, he believes, to align the US right with anti-immigration parties like Lega Nord – if you do that, you’re shocked to hear George Bush supporting amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
Mastrollilli, in turn, argues that it’s hard to get Italians to understand American nationalism and patriotism. When he asked Clinton what America should do in Afghanistan, she responded, “We have to wage war until the bitter end.” His editors were shocked that a left-wing candidate would be in favor of continued warfare.
Molinari surprised me with some of his frank language about Obama has to position himself in racial terms. “Obama wears his identity differently from his wife. His wife is far more radical. The strength of Barack Obama is that he’s African American, but that fact does not define the whole of his identity, in the same way that Kennedy was an American and a Catholic.” He constrasts Obama, “who was educated as a white, speaks as a white American,” to his wife, who’s from a dangerous part of the South Side of Chicago. He associates Michele Obama with black separtism, Reverend Wright and a version of African-American politics that can’t move beyond revenge and the civil rights struggle and predicts that if she’s a vocal force in the campaign, Obama will lose.
I’ve been interested in how little discussion of the Internet there’s been at this gathering. Mastrollilli is asked about the influence of the internet in reporting American politics – he points people to the Drudge Report, the Smoking Gun and Politico.com. He acnowledges the usefulness of US political blogs – comparing them to Italian website Dagospia, “but more serious.” Some of these blogs, he reminds us, are “run by former political reporters and are very good.” So much for a shift to citizen journalism… :-)