In fact, I don’t think I’m alone on this. In this election, for the first time in a long time, the balance in focus between a candidate as a person, and a candidate’s policies has tilted in favour of the former.
Yes, Barack is an incredibly good speaker. Yes, he’s even drawn comparisons to JFK. Yes, he has a level of charisma unseen in generations. However, I think that something else is to blame. Step up, democracy 2.0: the age of the You Tube video.
There’s an obvious emblem for this trend; a video that has received an astounding 13 million views since it was first posted online on February 2nd. Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame, along with a host of his celebrity mates (Scarlet Johansson, John Legend) gathered together and shot a music video with Bob Dylan’s son Jesse behind the camera putting Obama’s New Hampshire concession speech to music.
It is an astonishing video: inspirational, powerful and very, very catchy. Yet for a video cutting up a political speech there is a distinct lack of substance. There is almost no talk of policy and no mention of what Barack will do if elected. Instead there is a repeated mantra, "Yes, we can," rising to a crescendo in a similar manner to a sermon delivered at an all-singing, all-dancing, American evangelical church. The song engages the emotions and takes this to deliver a slogan, "Yes, we can," repeated until it can’t be ignored or forgotten,before leaving the viewer with a final order, "Vote."
Perhaps, as has been suggested, this is preaching to the converted, and therefore policy questions have been dealt with by that pint. Certainly the video’s inspirational power is unpredecedenetd and overwhelming. The song already has iconic status. It has its own Wikipedia page and its stylish, black-and-white style has already sparked a number of spoofs attacking John McCain . In contrast, the effort of Hillary’s supporters is deeply embarassing. The ‘dynamic’ camera angles and amateur singing are painfully uncool and faintly irritating and it is not surprise that You Tube has had to disable comments after the film was exposed to mass ridicule.
But as attractive as Barack’s video is, is this what politics should be? Is the ability to inspire and unite, to bring in a new generation and to connect across party and demographic lines sufficient? Isn’t there a point where the issues have to take priority, where substance has to overtake style?
I confessed at the beginning that I am a Barack supporter in a big way. I am a fan of this video too because I’ve watched the debates, I’ve read the candidates websites, and I know where they all sit on policy. However, the age of You Tube – of instant uploads and user-generated content – has led to the growth of a cult of charisma which threatens to hide the key ideas underneath. Yes, Barack’s inspirational ability is crucial and hugely important, and yes, his ability to draw support across party lines will allow him to get much more done in office than Hillary’s attack-dog style, but there is also a point where voters have to be careful not to switch off reasoned thought.
You Tube is clearly a powerful tool, but it is also a dangerous one which threatens to change the very roots on which democratic elections were first established. Presidential elections shouldn’t simply be a popularity contest. We can’t discount charisma and its many benefits, but we can’t make it the sole criteria either. And given that this trend is user-generated, a demand for the retention of the place of policy must be user-generated too. So please, back Obama. But don’t do it just because a group of celebrities made video. In the age of democracy 2.0, don’t allow ideas to get trampled underfoot.