By George Gregoriou
On November 4, 2008 my vote was cast Barack Obama. The results were gratifying. As a rule, since the 1960s, my vote was cast for the lesser of the two evils, or one who had no chance to win, hoping that the candidate disliked the most would be defeated. This time it was different. Watching the thousands of Obama supporters at the Grant Park in Chicago–men and women, old and young, black, white, Latino, Asian, many with tears in their eyes, was a moving experience. It was a sea change in American politics, including the image of the United States in the world. What was not possible in my half-a-century involvement in the American electoral process became possible on 11/4/08. An African-American was elected to be President of the United States on 1/20/09?
Obama had my support since he announced his candidacy. Commentaries were sent out in the wee hours of the morning. The message to Obama was simple: “keep doing that you are doing. You have my support, but, if need be, you will be criticized when you deserve it. My comments, as a rule, are grounded in the material conditions of the American political economy, its ideological dogma (market), and the institutional stranglehold on the democratic process since the American Revolution of 1776. It was actually the War of Independence. It was not a revolution–there was no overturn of the social and economic order. An independent political union was formed out of colonialism, which was rooted in the culture of (market) capitalism exported from Europe. Those liberated in the post-1776 period were white men of property (slaves were property). The vast majority of people–men, women, slaves, natives, were not liberated. The formation of a “perfect union” was constructed on genocide (Indians), slavery (African-Americans), and sexism. The slaves were freed (legally) in the 1860s and got their civil rights 100 years later, and women were not given the right to vote until 1922. Millions of workers are still struggling for living wages and to form unions, opposed by the federal state and big business.
Is this election the beginning of a new era in American politics and the end of the old politics, including sexism and racism? One hopes so. However, one cannot forget that 46 million plus votes went to McCain and Palin. These voters were not unaware of the fear and race-baiting diatribe of the Republican machine. They tolerated this smearing–Obama palling around with Ayers, a former Weatherman; Obama ʽthe Muslimʼ; Obama the ʽsocialist or liberalʼ—both heinous crimes, if one is situated ideologically just to the left of Genghis Khan or Mussolini. On the other hand, the rejection of the fear and the smearing by 65 million voters reflects the maturity of the American voters. The collapse of the economy, Wall Street, the financial markets, the rising unemployment, and the foreclosures on homes, had a lot to do with the mobilization for change.
The economic collapse (including my retirement funds), coupled with the McCain and Palin disastrous campaigning were important factors, but real credit belongs to Obama himself, and his staff. Obama is intellectually a gifted person, articulate, clear-thinking, with a calm temperament, which excelled all other candidates, Democrats and Republicans. The campaign was flawless. The mobilization of young progressive women and men, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Whites, including Catholics and Evangelical Christians, gave dynamism to the campaign for change. The Democrats have majorities in both houses, but not (yet) the 60 votes in the bag, to filibuster-proof the Senate. This can derail the progressive agenda—labeled ʽliberalʼ, ʽsocialistʼ, and ʽcommunistʼ, depending on how hungry for power are the Republicans.
11/4/08 was only the beginning. The difficult part begins on 1/20/ 2009, when the Bush regime vacates the White House, leaving the biggest economic mess since the Great Depression of 1929, on the eve of the 2008 election and all the way to the inauguration. All the eyes are now on Obama—what will he accomplish in the first 100 days? Will he move to the center or the right (to please the Republicans)? Will Obama be bi-partisan? No such moves, when Republicans were in control. The Republicans are squabbling over their defeat, and whether the party moves to neo-conservativism, the moderate center, or modernize or die? They tried ʽcompassionateʼ and ʽcaringʼ conservativism, and the moderate center. They went nowhere. Their only strategy, for the GOP, is to continue the Karl Rove-inspired attacks on the Obama presidency, defeat its progressive agenda, make elbowroom for a comeback in 20012. The knives are being sharpened right now, in Florida.
Will the democratic movement be ready for these attacks? Will the 65 million voters, who responded to the call and did their democratic duty on 11/4/08, return to the daily routines, family, work (for those who still have them), school, television, and political apathy by the attacks and counter-attacks? To paraphrase Aristotle, “nature abhors a vacuumʼ, as democratic activism recedes, the power brokers inside the government and the civil society, the lobbyists, the corporate oligarchs, and the Karlrovian like-minded pundits will roam the centers of power and hit the airwaves. A return to ʽpolitics as usualʼ is not what the country needs, with millions of citizens becoming political spectators, as in sports. The attacks will be relentless. The Karlovian strategy is to force the democrats to resort to their tactics, to make them like the Republicans. In such a contest, the Republicans will have the advantage. They will the real ones. It is not possible for the democrats to sound like Republicans and win elections through fanaticism, religious extremism, flag-waving, xenophobia, and warmongering.
Is this inevitable? No, but it might just as well be. It is in the nature of our politics to have passive, uninformed, and anti-political citizens, who mistrust government. All they hear is tax-cuts, capital gains, welfare cheats, and illegal immigrants. Such voices are given credence, when all they see is a ʽdysfunctionalʼ government offering those on Main Street the short end of the stick, and a ʽfunctionalʼ government giving those on Wall Street bailouts, tax cuts, and tax-free bonuses in the billions of dollars. When it comes to Main Street, there is a shortage of money–for childrenʼs health, health insurance for 45 million, schools, new sources of energy, and for a clean environment. The reason? Money goes where money is. This is inevitable in a society where political power (the elected government officials) is not only viewed as a formality, it is also disconnected from real economic and social power, the latter being in the hands of an oligarchy of industries, banks, media moguls, the military-intelligence complex, and a bureaucracy. We see politicians as elected officials who do what they have to do (mostly to get reelected), and at best to leave us alone (do not tax us). That is why elected political officials, even if they control the White House and Congress (and state and local governments) and have a mandate for change, can do so much, even less, the economy is in such a mess–unemployment and foreclosures on houses in the millions, two wars, and a national debt of $11 trillion dollars by 1/20/09.
The vote is fundamental in a democratic society. The voices of 65 plus million people were heard on 11/4/08s. But, do they have the power to alter the balance of power at the social, economic, and political levels? The Obama White House offers an opening. Without a doubt, the power to implement this progressive agenda will be limited, mangled in the institutional stranglehold, the checks and balances (statements?), and the passing of responsibility from one decision-maker to another—the well-known blaming game. Not all the representatives will be on board, for the new agenda. Old-timers are steeped in the art of compromise, subtracting or adding this or that clause on bills, even passing them unanimously, but they are mostly bills of the highest nonsense. That is why problems cannot be solved—they accumulated the muck of successive administrations until they explode in our faces. It is then too late.
A final word. The vote is like Novocain a dentist injects into a mouth, as a pacifier, to ease the pain. Without the Novocain the patient would jump out of the chair or pull the dentist hair, if it is a woman. One can imagine a society without the vote, men and women believing the vote is useless, or an election is stolen (as in 2000 and 2004). In a real democracy, millions would take to the streets, as they did in the 1930s when jobs and bread were in short supply, when capitalism collapsed, as in the 1840s and 1890s (the long cycles), or is in trouble every ten years (the short cycles). Millions of people also took to the streets, for political reasons, when Washington was out of control in the Vietnam war and when Bush was manufacturing lies in preparing for the invasion of Iraq. If the pain of the last eight years is eased a bit, will the voters return to the status quo ante, to the politics as usual, to cynicism and political apathy? If so, the progressive agenda we voted on 11/4/08 will be a thing of the past.
**** George Gregoriou, Professor Emeritus
Critical Theory and Geopolitics, Political Science Department
The William m Paterson Univiversity, Wayne, NJ 07040