The moment I saw the name – Extended Stay Hotel Charleston Airport – I knew I just had to stay here. Number 5,125 on a street that didn’t exist five years ago, on a row of chain hotels, a perfectly pleasant slab tilt commuter chain hotel, the name is so honest, so perfectly… Maoist in its expression of a civilisation now expressed largely through brands and chains, that I just couldn’t resist.

Across the featureless boulevard is the sprawling shopping centre – identikit buildings of identikit chains in low rise buildings in a half-hearted pseudo-southern style. Alienated isn’t in it – the place makes Jeffrey Smart look like Grandma Moses.

I’m all for challenging postmodern landscapes, thrilling in their brutal emptiness, but this is ridiculous. Every town, every city seems to be like this, its old high street dilapidated and boarded up, its old shaded neighbourhoods of wooden houses under willows broken up by sporadic Subways and Pizza Huts, its shops and stores strung out along a highway that takes you past a place where the town used to be.

This is where America lives now, in these sub- and ex-urban webs, of tracts of housing disconnected from any centre, of megastores marooned in carparks, the whole thing tied together by cable, the web and the freeway. It’s happening everywhere, but elsewhere there was more resistance from some notion of community, of place and history. Here, in a country which takes a pride in ripping it up and starting again, it all happened so fast that people never realised it was happening – and still have not. Yet everything that is happening, or not happening, in America, is a consequence of this great social self-deconstruction, the fact that the country has essentially fallen through a hole in itself.

What it means is that every candidate, save for Huckabee, must essentially talk to people as either individuals, or as individual members of the nation as a whole. The days of the intermediate group being spoken of, at least explicitly – of race, region, gender, and above all class – are over, and what must be appealed to in people is their inner goodness, their inner patriotism, their inner desire for “hope” and “change”. Even John Edwards, the closest thing the campaign has to an old style politician, willing to use the “c” word, is running on the idea of fixing something “broken”.

Because no candidate can do what politicians used to do – give an account of how things work, whether that be class struggle, or king and country, or whatever, which connects to what should be done. There is poverty because… you are perpetually struggling because… these are the things you need to say to arm people for the struggle. When you are talking to your constituency, hope, change, etc, leave them with little place to go.

Thus the strange feeling – energy with nowhere to go – of last night’s Obama “Stand For Change” rally in mid South Carolina. Here, in an auditorium named after three students who died in a desegregation rally, a thousand or so jumping, shouting, mostly-young black people, introduced by comedian Chris Tucker and rapper Usher – and sh-t even I know who Usher is – Obama gave a pretty good speech about hope, and change, summoned up MLK’s electric phrase “the fierce urgency of now” and “being the change you want to be”, and drummed up the need to fill in the volunteer pledges (half of them white northern kids, young political semi-professional activists).

What Obama didn’t do, wouldn’t do, was really talk about what has happened in America – about what is in effect a war between corporate America and its population, who are squeezed for wages, for health insurance, for loan shark mortgages, in an ever-more desperate search for sources of profit in a silted-up economy. God knows if your own country had a health system like America’s you’d be occupying insurance company offices, like those brave young men occupied a whites-only bowling alley forty years ago.

But the double challenge faced by anyone wanting to get the place really moving is to make these more amorphous, less obviously immoral conditions visible as such – and in conditions where the whole notion of gathering and place is slowly dissolving. True, Obama has built an impressive grassroots community-based organisation, which has helped him overtake Hillary in South Carolina (he’s now leading her around ten points, on an even fifty per cent), and match her deeper war chest. But it’s a movement of activist-professionals, switched-on kids, projecting the appearance of a mass movement. In face of that, Hills has left the state to Bill, who was right up and down the coast today, taking time off only to unload once again on the press.

The Republicans of course are not faced with these problems because they are still dealing in fantasy – Mitt Romney peddling the idea that America can be re-industrialised by market forces alone, John McCain tapping into exceptionalist jingoism (“we are Americans and we never surrender”).

Their pitch is barely to the “people” at all, so much as to an audience – up and down Florida, ahead of the Tuesday 29th primary, they’re talking to small groups of people, in delis and lobbies, their staff frantically ringing around to get a quorum. And if the economy continues to tank, their increasing delusional smiley rhetoric will lead them into electoral disaster.

Only Huckabee has a real organisation on the ground – and if he hadn’t he would have been out of the race long ago – evangelical Christianity being the perfect counterpoint to atomised life, the last source of social solidarity in concrete, antimodern myth.

But Huckabee is on the clock. As is Edwards. It would be wildly wrong to say that there is no difference between McCain and Obama or Clinton – this contest has a greater left-right split than the recent Oz or UK elections – but nor does there seem to be anyone on the ground who can yet get people out of the mall or the Maccas and up on their feet to tear the joint apart.

It’s not easy to see where the country is, but that problem is not unique to the view from Extended Stay Hotel No 23.

For comprehensive coverage of the US election read Guy Rundle’s campaign trail here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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