Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.


The Obama victory is seen to represent the hope of achieving the seemingly unattainable: clearly an important symbol for organisations like nef whose primary objective is nothing less than changing the world. While part of the wonder of the moment comes from basking in the thought that “Only a few years ago, no one could have imagined that this was really possible”, there is an interesting sense in which this isn’t entirely true.

One of the most concrete ways in which America does imagine possible futures for itself is through that most American of art forms – high quality television drama. Two of the most popular American drama series that emerged early in the Bush era provide images of an African-American presidential candidate who overcomes adversity to win the presidency (24), and of an avowedly intellectual and highly-educated president whose intelligence is of more importance than his popular touch (The West Wing).

Both of these things might have been said to be firmly in the realm of fantasy politics, had they not come to pass in the form of Barack Obama. It would be ridiculous to ascribe his electoral success to these TV programmes in any direct sense. But it is plausible that they might have played an important role in preparing the imaginations of the American electorate. When Obama first came into the public arena, might he not have been helped by the fact that, at a perhaps sub-conscious level, fans of these shows were already familiar with the idea of a president possessing these supposedly unelectable qualities? Did this mean that voters were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt for long enough to listen to his message, instead of dismissing him out of hand?

In many ways, this reflects the way in which nef sets out to bring about wholescale change to the way society operates. Our proposal for a Green New Deal has been noted as “one of the fastest spreading memes” in reaction to the triple crunch of credit crisis, oil depletion and climate change, and is already being reflected at the highest level of international political discourse. On other occasions the ideas we produce for making the world a better place don’t stimulate such an immediate and measurable response, but from small drops wholesale shifts can sometimes flow. According to the parable of 24, The West Wing and Obama, the simple act of enabling people to imagine that a different world is possible is a crucial step in making them not only possible, but a reality.