Flipping between the 24-hour cable news networks on my JetBlue flight out to San Diego on Sunday was interesting.
MSNBC showed Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama over and over again, and why wouldn't they? He explained much of it on their own program, Meet the Press.
CNN's approach was dominated by their newfound appreciation for the celebrity journalist. Four years ago, Anderson Cooper seemed like the only interesting person on the network -- to the point that they extended his program, Anderson Cooper 360, from one to two hours every night. But now they have Campbell Brown and Soledad O'Brien and Lou Dobbs and Jack Cafferty. It's a news celebrity love-in. You tell 'em, Anderson/Campbell/Soledad!
FOX, unsurprisingly, did not cover the Powell endorsement, except to trot out a few loyal analysts to explain how Colin Powell isn't that important. What's really important is that Barack Obama once sat on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago with former "Weatherman" Bill Ayers. And McCain has taken to calling Obama a "socialist" or purveyor of "tax and spend liberalism," which was Alan Keyes' line of attack during the Illinois senate campaign four years ago.
As a person who first became aware of the political world at a time when Reagan and Gorbachev were sitting down in Geneva to discuss a ban on ballistic missiles, this deep spring of knee-jerk anti-liberalism that McCain is hoping to tap into is foreign to me. The first political reality I ever knew was one where "greed was good." I learned about Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives in school; the idea that you are going to stir me into voting Republican by linking Obama to a philosophy of government that hasn't really been in vogue since 1966 isn't going to sway me.
FOX, though, relies not on first-hand experience, but conditioning. Their newsmasters believe that you may not remember Lyndon Johnson or the Weather Underground or even a time when liberal politicians won districts in the American South handily. But if we link Obama to domestic terrorism and Kennedy-Johnson liberalism, nay, socialism enough, it will stick. McCain stands for "real American" values like free trade and cutting taxes and preemptive war. Lyndon Johnson? Socialist. Harry Truman? Appeaser. Jack Kennedy? Elitist. Barack Obama? Terrorist.
Estonian politics aren't too far removed from American politics. I recently sat down with an Estonian journalist who referred to Finance Minister Ivari Padar as a "socialist" throughout the conversation. Now, if you are like me and you have traveled the dark backalleys of the Left, you know the difference between your socialists and your communists and your anarcho-syndicalists. To them, social democrats are right wing. To a lot of Estonians, though, they're all the same.
Still, a recent poll though found that 50 percent of Estonians said that Padar was performing well, compared to a third who said the same of Prime Minister Ansip. On Hannes Rumm's blog though, a commenter pointed out that unlike their counterparts in Finland, Sweden, and the other nordic countries, Estonian Social Democrats only can garner 10 percent of the electorate's support.
That seems like a tiny sliver, but when you realize that most voters have no party affiliation, it's a reliable slice of the Riigikogu and one that has served their interests well enough to boast of Padar's public approval. At the same time, there is a disconnect. Pre-war Estonian Social Democrats went the way of the Estonian state in 1940. The heydey of social democracy was in the 1960s. Now as we near the end of this decade, some Estonian voters are looking for a viable alternative to the economic liberals and conservatives, but it doesn't seem to exist.
There is an unmet market need for something new, the only question is in which ways it will materialize. In America, some voters might see a false choice between Reagan and Johnson, when Obama and McCain perhaps represent neither. In Estonia, voters may see a choice between liberalism and socialism or conservatism and populism, but is that really the case?
In presidential and parliamentary democracies alike, there is an idea that there are two polarities each tugging the electorate one way or the other given the time and circumstances. In the US, we've had a quarter century of the Washington consensus. In Estonia, you've had nearly 20 years of a similar consensus. But as we prepare to consider the other side of the coin, voters like me in either country are confused about just what that other side will be.