John Micklethwait: ‘Republicans had the advantage, but they wasted it with sleaze’

The Economist is one of the most influential titles in America. Its editor John Micklethwait tells Ian Burrell why it has come out in favour of Barack Obama

It will be the American people who will choose their country’s next president tomorrow, and not an English gent who can tell the time from Big Ben by looking out of his office window. Yet John Micklethwait has an exceptional grasp of American politics and his views are all the more important because he edits The Economist, one of the most influential titles in the US.

On Friday, The Economist endorsed Barack Obama. “It’s time,” runs the leader in the current edition of the magazine that still likes to be known as a “newspaper”. “America should take a chance and make Obama the next leader of the free world.”

The decision to support the Illinois senator was taken at last Monday’s editorial meeting. That meeting followed a conference call between Micklethwait and 15 members of his US based staff, working in offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington DC and Texas. And it seems that John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate became the deciding factor in the decision. When Micklethwait visited America for the conventions, The Economist was still running a cover demanding “Bring Back The Real McCain”, an acknowledgement of the Arizona senator’s links to western Republican traditions and individual freedoms.

Such views play well with a publication set up by a Scottish hat maker in 1843 with a promise that “free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day”. But Micklethwait observes gravely that “it’s safe to say that picking Palin was not a move in our direction”.

Micklethwait, 46, was in the US at the weekend to partake in The Economist’s first New York-based festival, moderating a debate yesterday on “The Future of Brand America” at Gotham Hall on Broadway. One nagging issue over Micklethwait’s apparent enthusiasm for Obama is that he, along with fellow Economist journalist Adrian Wooldridge, is the author of The Right Nation, a book that brilliantly identified the innate conservatism in America and called the 2004 election for the Republicans when most commentators believed George W Bush was history.

Micklethwait, then USeditor of The Economist, became an in-demand pundit. Has he now changed his theory? “The thesis of the book was that America is a ‘right nation’ in two ways. One, that it was more conservative than other countries. We would stick with that, come what may. If you took David Cameron and Hillary Clinton and lined them up on issue after issue, on each one Hillary would be further to the right than Cameron; from the size of the state, to crime, to interventionism abroad , and religiosity. You could go through the whole list.” But on the other part of the thesis he equivocates. “The idea that is open to question is where we said America was a fundamentally conservative country where Republicans had an edge. I think our response to that would be that Republicans have roadtested that theory to destruction. To be as incompetent and as sleazy as they have been has made it very difficult for any inbuilt advantages they might have in the system to survive.”

It is clear that he has some reservations about Obama, questioning whether he is capable of standing up to a strong Democratic Congress on protectionism and tax hikes, and being uncomfortable with the senator’s championing of public service in his Denver convention speech. “Bits of that picture are very attractive, but it could also carry the message that you think that people working in business are somehow second rate.”

Although The Economist championed Ronald Reagan and also backed George Bush senior in the 2000 election, it supported Democrat John Kerry in 2004, on the grounds that he was merely “incoherent”, rather than “incompetent” like his opponent, George W Bush.

It is primarily a business journal, but has a broad readership. While most print-led media organisations are contracting, The Economist has continued to buck the trend and grow, with a latest circulation of 1,337,184 (up 6.1 per cent year-on-year). Micklethwait argues that the title benefits not just from globalisation, which it emphatically endorses, but from a trend that is benefiting other upmarket offerings. “There’s a broader phenomenon,” he says. “There are quite a lot of clever products that are doing well. The New Yorker is doing well, Atlantic Monthly is doing well.”

He discussed the success of the British periodical Prospect at a recent lunch with his old friend Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, who has, it seems, not alienated the genial Micklethwait.

Those who value The Economist’s ability to be “a cipher, a discriminator” may also be drawn towards popular culture Micklethwait has discovered with surprise. Among magazines most likely to be purchased at American airports along with The Economist is the celebrity gossip title US Weekly.

He cites an acquaintance who “was going to watch Millwall and then watch The Lives of Others”, which is not something Micklethwait (Ampleforth and Magdalen College, Oxford) would have done when he was a young man. “You were either a clever person who dressed in black, went to watch The Lives of Others and visited art museums, or else you weren’t. Now people are switching backwards and forwards and we are a part of that.”

The credit crunch acts as a circulation driver for The Economist and Micklethwait says he is unaware that advertising revenues have dropped off “in any meaningful way”. He claims not to be irked that BBC business editor Robert Peston has enjoyed a higher public profile than his specialist magazine during the financial meltdown. “It depends what you want your impact to be,” he sniffs. “He’s a good journalist, Peston. It’s a different thing, he’s trying to explain things to one group of people and does it very well.

The other obvious point is he’s British and not immediately known outside these isles. I’m not trying to disparage him at all.” The US website Gawker lampooned The Economist for its doom-mongering covers. “We tend to defend capitalism, but some people think we are much too pessimistic,” says Micklethwait.

As for Gordon Brown, he praises him in one breath and then criticises him in the next. “Brown deserves credit for coming up with the best plan in what one hopes is the final moment of doom. The idea of the guarantee I think was very, very clever, albeit borrowed from the Swedes,” he says. “What he doesn’t deserve credit for is all the dithering beforehand.” It is wrong, he says, to portray the crunch as a global issue in the face of which the Government was helpless. “It’s not totally a global thing. It has been exacerbated by things which happened here.

Britain is more vulnerable than other economies partly for reasons Brown has been complicit in.” Micklethwait admits his own theory on the robust nature of the American right might have to be revised a little. The Prime Minister, too, must be realistic. “What is transparently wrong is to claim the credit on the up and then deny it on the down.”

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