November 8, 2008
by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni
It was hysterically funny, wasn’t it? For a shameless lefty like me, Wednesday morning was one of those once-in-a-decade delights, like watching all those Tories getting smacked out of Parliament one after the next in May 1997. So with seeing all those Republican setbacks this week, I can’t deny I gave in to the temptation to stop thinking about the full reality of what was happening, and just to let myself laugh long and hard, allowing eight years of angry tension to dissipate. At last, after two terms of George W Bush’s stolen Presidency had forced eight years of right-wing domination on the USA – and by extension on the rest of the world – and many, many years of Republican control of Congress, every last remaining crumb of their corrupt, arrogant, aggressive power had evaporated like a sprinkling of water on a hob.
And oh the relief of seeing that ‘honest’ John McCain should be the one who loses at the final moment of defeat. Now I know he has a reputation as a liberal Republican, and that he comes across as a very sweet-natured, honourable man. And yes, I applaud the great dignity of his concession speech. But he is not, never has been, and never will be, a liberal Republican. He is even more of a violent pro-militarist than both Bushes and Reagan combined. He is opposed to gay marriage, he is opposed to a woman’s right to choose abortion, and he wishes for the USA to invade Iran, a country that, for all its unappealing and oppressive qualities, has not violated any aspect of International Law. He is also, by his own admission, prone to incredibly erratic fits of anger. Had this man and his ignorant fanatic of a deputy (Sarah Palin really believes that the Earth is just 6,000 years old and that Man used to walk with dinosaurs? And she would have had her finger on the nuclear trigger should anything have happened to McCain in office…? Yikes!) got their clammy fingers on the keys to the White House, can you imagine the horrors that might have followed?
For this reason alone, the outcome of the Presidential Election was priceless, as was the aforementioned amusement at seeing this corrupt, lying, cheating, vote-rigging, arrogant, bullying, insufferable, ignorant, militaristic, and immoral administration of neo-conservatives and hardline Anglicans finally getting what had been coming to them for so long. They lost the White House, they lost the House of Representatives and they lost the Senate. All of the USA’s central Government has gone to the Democrats! Not one clammy Conservative hand on any of the legislative pillars! Huzzah!
Then of course, we can smile broadly and with real pride at the greatest, most historic development of all. At long last, one of the great powers of the Western world has a leader who isn’t a White man. No great power in the West has been ruled by a non-White since the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire almost a century ago (and it was debatable if even that counted, seeing how far the Empire had declined by then).
Just thinking of how Black Americans were treated by their own country as little as forty years ago – and how they are still treated to an extent even today – the rise of Barack Obama is an amazing breakthrough. In the 1960’s, especially in the south, the division between Black and White was effectively apartheid, and all the evil that that entailed in South Africa was just as present in the USA. Now a Black American (well, mixed-race American anyway) has risen to the highest office in the country. Given the horrors that White Supremacists were prepared to resort to (still are? Yeah, I reckon so) to prevent emancipation, this is surely the ultimate breakthrough, and it took just forty years to get there. It was a truly wonderful moment when Barack Obama was confirmed over the finish line of 270 Electoral College votes. Yes, my heart did swell with pride to see that enough of my fellow palefaces had finally gotten beyond the bad old days of pig ignorance and irrational fear to choose a President on the basis of what they perceived to be just policy, rather than a cowardly desire for familiarity.
Symbolically, it could be classed as the greatest breakthrough in politics ever. For if a man from a Black American background can become leader of the mightiest country in the history of Mankind, surely the possibilities have finally shed all their old limits.
So why did my smiles not last all the way through until today? Because, alas, once the rush of amusement at Republican misery, and the racing pulse caused by witnessing historic change, have both dissipated, reality once again imposes itself on the thought processes. And reality is less kind to Obama than people’s dreams.
One of the key things that has to be recognised about Barack Obama is that he only became electable in the eyes of the US media because he is not a man of change. Nor for that matter, are the Democrats a party of change. The Republicans are generally a firm right-wing party, fiscally and socially conservative. They believe in low taxes, small Government, and minimal public services. So the Democrats, their arch-enemies, logically must be in favour of higher taxes, larger Government, and enlarged public services, right? Right?
Um, not right.
The Democrats may be considered a left-wing party in the USA, but then the USA has always been pathologically anti-Communist. In practically any other country in the world, the Democrats would be recognised for what they really are; a centre-right party. Granted, they don’t believe in massive tax cuts for people who already have far more money than they are ever going to need, as the Republicans do, but then neither do they believe in forcing the rich to pay a great deal more. The Democrats may believe in more regulation of the market, but the amount of regulation in the USA at any time is trifling compared with the control in socialist countries, or even in State-Capitalist countries in the European Union. The Democrats may believe in more public services than the Republicans could ever tolerate, but education is always meanly underfunded regardless of which party is in power, and neither party has ever shown the slightest inclination to introduce that most fundamental of rights to their people; free health care for all.
In real terms, the Democrats are not a left-wing party at all, and sadly, Barack Obama is as clear an example of the Democrats’ conservatism as anyone. If he were living in the UK, he would be a Tory, or at least a New Labour man. And while Obama was undoubtedly the lesser of the two evils on display on Tuesday, if you study what his policies are rather than just the colour of his skin, there is actually not a huge amount to distinguish him from McCain.
Now Obama may not have gone as far as McCain, but it’s clear he still wants Iran brought to heel, and he won’t rule out using force to do it. Further, while McCain remains a typical Republican in his unswerving support for Israel and Jewish Zionism, it needs to be recognised that the Democrats usually support them too, albeit with more qualification, and Obama in particular is very warm in his embrace of Israel’s policy against its neighbours and the Palestinians. (And please, any Americans or Israelis reading this, don’t resort to the typical tactic of labelling anyone who dares to wag a disapproving finger at something Israel does an anti-Semite; it would be absurd in this case as I am Jewish by birth myself. I just won’t allow my ethnicity to guide my judgement.)
To his credit, Obama has committed – sort of – to withdrawing US troops for Iraq, but that is as far as his international policy can definitely be said to veer from McCain’s.
More telling than this however are the two men’s records on domestic affairs. John McCain approved the renewal of the Patriot Act, granting enormous unchecked powers to the Police and the NSA to interfere in people’s private lives, pushing the USA further down the road towards becoming a Police state. But then so did Barack Obama. John McCain supports the continued Federal use of the death penalty. But then so does Barack Obama. John McCain’s plans for healthcare did not even brush on the topic of making it free to all at the point of delivery. But then neither did Barack Obama’s.
One of the many amazing absurdities about the Republican campaign was their constant attempt to dismiss Obama as a socialist. Their motivation for this was that the very word ‘socialist’ has become an insulting badge, a dirty word, in mainstream US politics, and anyone who believes in Socialism is automatically demonised as a mad, evil fool. To most American ears, the accusation of being a socialist is as hateful an insult as being accused of being a fascist.
Socialism is simply the ideal that all people should be paid in similar amounts*** for doing a fair day’s work, regardless of what their job should be, that the Government should oversee the conduct of the market to prevent corruption and unfairness, that public services should be run by the state as opposed to by private companies (who would treat profit as more important than standards of service offered to the public), and that wealth should be re-distributed from the rich to ensure that everyone gets a minimum standard of living. On the whole, for all the obvious practical difficulties that enforcing this would entail, it’s hard to say exactly what is ‘mad’, ‘foolish’ or ‘evil’ about it. Even if you disagree with the ideals, there is surely nothing shameful about them. But either way, it astounds me to hear neo-conservative blowhards like John Bolton assigning the label to Barack Obama, and even more so, people actually falling for it (assuming any of them do).
Obama rejects real re-distribution of wealth almost entirely; tax rates for the very rich in the USA are set to go up all of 4% with him in charge, to a paltry 39%. Compare that with 60% in some European countries, countries that don’t even class themselves as socialist. His plan to increase healthcare coverage is so watered down that it won’t bring universal free care even a step nearer. He plans to reintroduce some regulations to the market, to make sure that the more reckless lending that banks have been guilty of, and some of the corruption and false figures that became endemic in the US market over the last ten years, are not repeated. But he has no intention of re-introducing direct state control of the markets, or to nationalise any industry. (I’m not necessarily saying that he’s wrong to oppose nationalisation, incidentally, at least not here, I am merely pointing out that he cannot be opposed to nationalisation and still be a socialist).
Furthermore, I must re-iterate that I cannot see what is so reprehensible about being a socialist. I am one myself, so I suppose that makes me biased. But if I believed for a minute that Obama really were a socialist, I would have supported him with far fewer reservations and I would not merely have laughed merrily, but would have celebrated long and loud when he won. As things stand, my reasons for being happy with events in the early hours of Wednesday morning were mainly negative ones; I was pleased to see that the Republicans would not remain in control of the Senate, and I was pleased that John McCain would not become President. The only positive reason to take pleasure – the accession of America’s first Black President – is a profound one, but that does not say much for Obama in his own right.
The best thing you can say for the new President, what truly sets him apart from McCain, is that he is a fantastic orator. His charisma, his hypnotic eloquence and his dazzling flair for the spoken word eclipse even Bill Clinton at his best. That’s all very well and good, but the same was true in the 1930’s of a certain chap from Austria with a side-parting and a toothbrush moustache, and six million dead Jews and twelve million dead Russians later, the value of Adolf Hitler’s fiery oratory was finally shown to be negligible compared with what really counted – the horrors he inflicted. I’m certainly not suggesting that Obama is a genocidal Nazi of course, but I am saying that words are just words, and what will count is not what he says on a lectern, but what he is going to do once he is in office. My reason for skepticism is that the many words he has given us over the last two years have offered few clues into exactly what he will do, while his endless cycle of references to ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and ‘the future’ was accompanied by precious few firm policy commitments. In short, there is still little indication of how he plans to bring about the changes required for the hopeful future he keeps harping on about.
In any case, when it comes to producing the kind of change that the USA is screaming out for, he cannot possibly be anything other than a disappointment. Despite the economic and military problems he will have to sort out, he has a great deal in his favour; massive public adoration and sympathy, both Houses of Congress firmly on his side, and the full four years of his term ahead of him.
He will disappoint nonetheless. Partly it’s because the expectation of him, thanks in large part to the manic hype his own charisma has created, has become so inflated that no human being could live up to it, no one at all. Not even the greatest Presidents of them all – the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford – could achieve what Obama has to achieve to live up to what is expected of him.
But equally, it is because he is simply not the type of politician who will bring about the kind of change that people are hoping for. It is not, I believe, that he is incapable of providing it, it is simply that he is unwilling to. It may be because he fears an anti-socialist backlash from the American right wing, or it may be because he is genuinely opposed to Socialism. But either way, I have grave doubts that any radical changes will happen under Obama at all;-
People in America are expecting reform of education to level the field and make sure that those children living in poor districts will get as good an education as those children living in well-off areas. Obama has no policy to address this.
People in America want to see healthcare available to everyone, and, insofar as is possible, free at the point of delivery. Obama’s plans will barely scratch the surface of the problem – a problem that currently sees the number of Americans who have no healthcare access at all almost equal to the entire population of England.
People in America want to see the poor given substantial financial support at a time when unemployment is on the rise and prices are surging up and up. Obama will not do this because he is scared to support redistribution of wealth in case he gets saddled with the ‘socialist’ label.
People in America want the free market partly brought back under state control to prevent corruption. There will be some new regulations imposed to deter the crazy transgressions of the last twenty years, but it will still be a very casual and reactive form of state capitalism; enough teeth to punish when transgressions are revealed, but powerless to keep them from happening in the first place.
Obama has failed to articulate much of what he will do, but as the above shows, he has been quick to explain what he won’t do, and they are all exactly the things that he needs to attempt if he is to bring about the changes and the future of hope that he has been hitting the eardrums of the world with promises of for twenty-one months.
If what Obama is offering is Socialism, then it is a very limited, very watered-down, USA-friendly version of Socialism, which differs from the undiluted free market capitalism of the Republicans only very modestly. This is why I believe that the joy we take from Obama’s victory should only be because of the triumph of finally seeing a Black man elected to the highest office. And that means our joy should be reserved for this week and this week alone – a week that is now over. From here on in, reality will be taking a sharp bite, and unless Obama is truly prepared to take a great risk with his reputation for the sake of policies he has shown no previous taste for, gross injustice will continue, and in four years’ time (probably eight, given the state the Republicans have been reduced to), we will probably be looking back with deep, deep disappointment.
Do not mistake me. I hope I am wrong, and I remain pleased that we saw the final demise of three decades of the Reaganite Republican Epoch this week; let’s enjoy the rot coming to a stop. And yes, I will be happy to give Obama a chance to prove me a feeble pessimist. But people have to be ready for some unhappy possibilities. There is no way that Obama can end the grotesque social injustice in the USA unless he comes up with policies that are far more wholehearted and ambitious for the underclasses. And I really can’t see it happening.
***NOTE FOR CAPITALIST/NEO-LIBERAL HUFFER-PUFFERS BEFORE THEY CAN OBJECT: I did not say identical, just similar – which surely must be far better than the present absurdity of superfluous workers like footballers being paid over twice as much in a single week as useful workers like engineers, nurses and teachers get paid in a whole year.