This week's big questions: Republicanism, Obama's future and are EU bailouts worth the bother?

This weeks big questions are answered by Adam Gopnik, essayist, author and staff writer for The New Yorker

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Can Barack Obama achieve in his second term what he failed to in his first?

It depends what you think he was trying to achieve. If you think his aim, for good or ill, was to somehow introduce a full social democratic regime, à la Labour 1945, to America, then, no, he won’t. But his key social achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is now sure to survive, and, for the rest, the American presidency is essentially a weak office, except in wartime. It is a job where 1,000 smaller sanities – judges appointed, torture ended, the right person placed in charge of what happens after a hurricane – and many small symbols (like that of a brilliant black man with an exotic name chosen and reaffirmed as President) matter most.

 

What do the demographic patterns in the voting say about the shape of 21st‑century America?

America is always altering. The Jews and Italians who were, so to speak, the Hispanics and Asians of the late 19th century are now simply and uncontroversially grouped together with the old Protestants as “whites” – and inside that envelope they smoulder alongside the older Americans at the intrusion of the new ones. Prosperity, historically, has altered ethnicity more than ethnicity has altered America.

 

Is American Republicanism doomed?

To paraphrase Mill, modern liberal societies are devoted to three things: individual liberty, and social and economic equality. Since it’s impossible to have economic inequality without damaging social equality – rich men start bullying poor ones – there will always be a press back from the bottom. Since it’s also impossible to have absolute economic equality without damaging individual liberty, the next rebound – businessmen protesting about being bullied by bureaucrats – happens, too. In this sense, a conservative, free-market party will always find life in a modern state. The problem for the free-market minded Republicans is that they are bound to an absolutist, theocratic wing, and that wing will, simply, no longer fly.

 

Does Obama’s victory mean a victory for reason over religion?

Obama is, whether we like it or not, a religious man who conceives his role in largely religious terms: unity, sacrifice, transcendence and community are his sacred words. They are not exactly the words of modern reason. But he is also a clear-minded secularist who sees the limits of “transcendence” and who knows that we’re each going to have to go to hell or heaven in our own way. His is a victory, then, for a reasonable liberal idea of religion’s place in the state over a strangely and persistently pre-modern one.

 

For us in Britain, does the identity of the US president matter less than it used to?

Does it? I don’t know. I suspect that, like it or not, for the time being the American president remains the pre-eminent symbol of constitutional liberalism in the world. When there is a good, smart and admirable man like Obama in place, everyone is a little happier – or ought to be.

 

You were Paris-based for many years. Can France thrive under François Hollande?

The trick about France is that it always thrives – it’s a rich and, at the administrative end, a very well-run (if sometimes exasperatingly bureaucratic) country. Try the trains. The catch is that, just as much as Americans believe that some day black helicopters bringing state troopers intending to enslave them will descend, many Frenchmen and women believe that a troupe of white helicopters will some day descend, bringing everyone a permanent pension from the government. France can no more be wooed off its love of a strong central state than America can be won from its suspicion of one. In that sense, a mild, reassuring Socialist is more likely to reform the French regime than a suspicious-seeming right-winger, like Sarkozy, could.

 

Are endless bailouts a price worth paying to preserve European unity?

For me, as an outsider, as I wrote not long ago, in thinking about Europe and its union, the number that one needs to keep in mind is not the rate of the euro exchange or the measure of the Greek deficit but a simpler one, of 60 million. That is the approximate (and probably understated) number of Europeans killed in the 30 years between 1914 and 1945, victims of wars of competing nationalisms on a tragically divided continent. It is a sign of the huge success of the EU that no one in Europe now believes that such rivalry could ever restart. Of course it could.

 

Paris or New York?

If I were a rich man, as Tevye sings, I would live half the year in each. In the absence of such riches, I love and live in New York, and dream of Paris at Christmas and in the early summer. Once a year or so, I still get over and walk around in a state of what I think is called hyper-mesia, flooded with memories of children, now grown, playing in Parisian parks that never seem to alter.

 

Your latest book is about winter. What makes it the superior season?

I am Canadian-raised, and my sharpest memories of serenity are attached to snowstorms in December, skating in January, ice hockey games watched and rooted for in March. Winter is the season of mystery and solitude, where, as Wordsworth wrote, we throw our bodies to the wind, and find our minds oddly stilled. And then there is Christmas, with its evergreen (in every sense) appeal even to the most secular of liberal Jews, like me. I hear “In the Bleak Midwinter” sung by an English choir and I collapse; why, exactly, is the subject of the book.

Adam Gopnik’s latest book is ‘Winter: Five Windows on the Season’, published by Quercus

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