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Interview with Gary Younge on the US presidential elections

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Author and journalist Gary Younge spoke to Willemijn Wilgenhof about Obama’s record and the mood among the US working class
Issue 2322

Four years ago there was lots of enthusiasm around the US presidential elections. People hoped for change from the Democrats’ Barack Obama. Has there been much change?

In 2008 there was a real joy at a black person winning the presidency. That shouldn’t be diminished, but it also shouldn’t be elevated to something of substance. It was symbolic.

There was also a real desire to move beyond war and racism to some new way of being in America. Obama’s skill was to personify that without really promising anything.

The 2008 election happened in the midst of an absolute meltdown of capitalism. There was talk of nationalising the banks. There was talk of bailing out huge numbers of homeowners who had negative equity.

At that time, when there was a real desire for something new, Obama looked new and acted new. But he hasn’t brought change. Black people are just as capable of operating capitalist, racist machinery as white people are.

Obama’s presidency signalled the acceptance of black America, with caveats, into the ruling class. Materially it hasn’t brought anything.

How do people see Obama now?

The degree to which people want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt shouldn’t be underestimated. But there is cynicism.

Obama understands there is a challenge to him from the left. So he’s helped the children of undocumented people to get the right to stay. And he’s voiced his support for gay marriage.

It would be wrong and lazy to say there is no difference today. Combat troops are out of Iraq. There’s an end date for the war in Afghanistan. There are two women on the Supreme Court, one of whom is a Latino. It’s just that the difference is insufficient and incremental.

In 2008 Obama changed who the electorate was. More people—young, black, Latino—came to the polls as they thought there was someone to vote for. Four years later they are less convinced.

Probably those most disappointed are Latinos. There’s now the largest rate of deportations of Latinos since the 1950s. A lot of young people voted for Obama. Now there are record increases in youth unemployment.

Both Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Obama try to appeal to the working class. Do they succeed?

Romney tries to portray himself as in touch with the needs of working people. Yet his personal wealth is twice the combined wealth of the last eight presidents.

George Bush was very capable of acting like an everyman. Romney doesn’t have it in him. His base is white working class men and he just can’t reach them.

Obama can say, “I’m less for rich people than Romney is.” He talks about things like his mother having to deal with health insurance claims while she was dying.

He went to an elite private school yet can lay claim to a connection with the working poor. Obama was a community organiser and worked among working class people.

How important is racism in this election?

This will be the most racially-polarised election since people could vote. There will be lots of coded bigotry.

The number of Republicans who think Obama is Muslim has doubled since the last election, which is stunning. A large number of people will vote for Romney as they don’t like the idea of a black president.

Obama’s race goes beyond colour. In around 2042 white Americans will be a minority in America and a significant number of them don’t like that.

As someone with a recent history of immigration Obama represents a threat of globalisation. The people most worried about globalisation and foreign trade are Republicans. I think Obama, with his “foreign sounding” name, also represents that.

Finally Obama’s father was a Muslim. This is a time when America has lost one war in Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan without any tangible gain.

Meanwhile Romney has antagonised non-white people. To win Romney has to win 61 percent of the white vote. That is a lot. Bush won only 58 percent in 2004.

To win Obama needs 80 percent of the non-white vote, which is around what he got last time, and 40 percent of white vote, which is a little bit less than last time.

Racism still works in American elections. It’s just that the demographic increase in Latinos and decrease in whites means it can’t work as well as it used to.

One Republican has said this is the last time there’ll be an election like this. The Tea Party represents the last hurrah of a time when being a white racist can really win. The country’s changed too much.

How has US foreign policy affected the campaign?

The only way in which the rest of the world comes up is about Europe. Republicans say the Democrats’ profligate policies will lead America to being like Greece. Democrats say austerity will lead to a Europe-style crisis.

Basically the issue is the economy. Nothing else is likely to intrude, not least because nobody does well if it does intrude.

Republicans are trying to make Israel an issue. But they can’t really bring up Iraq or Afghanistan as these were their idea and they failed. Obama can bring up Iraq with his base, but beyond that it’s a painful memory. And Afghanistan isn’t settled.

What do you think the chances are for the rise of a third party candidate?

Fairly slim. Obama was the best thing that American electoralism could produce. And that tells you a lot about American electoralism. The electoral system doesn’t work.

Given the amount of money involved in elections there’s no way for a third party to break through now—unless it has billions of dollars.

That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t stand to get their agenda across. But American electoralism is very limited. It works according to the golden rule—that the people who have the gold make the rules.

What impact have movements from below had on the political landscape?

Prior to Occupy Wall Street the main people railing against bailouts were right wing populists and the Tea Party. Now even Republicans have said they don’t want to be seen as defenders of capitalism because to many it means defenders of Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street shifted the conversation to saying inequality is the problem. There has been a surge in left wing activity and that is the best chance for change.

Interestingly, it has taken place almost without reference to Obama. In Occupy Wall Street his name barely came up. But it gave him a kind of limited narrative of fairness.

Workers and ordinary people don’t always win but they are fighting back. Even before Occupy Wall Street, in February 2010, 36 percent of Americans said that they viewed socialism positively.

The way that Americans think of themselves and their country has been challenged. Increasingly people feel their children will have a worse life than them. The idea that America’s best days are behind it is growing.

In Chicago teachers have fought a Democratic mayor and a Democratic machine. Republicans have come out against the teachers. That brings into sharper focus the fact that, when it comes to workers’ rights, they don’t have a defender in the electoral sphere.

These things help to shape the conversation that is possible and test the balance of forces. And sometimes they produce results.

Obama’s response to young Latinos followed campaigning by Latinos. His declaration that he supports gay marriage came from stuff that was going on in the streets and from lobbying.

These things make a difference. You can’t guarantee their victory. But you can guarantee their defeat if they don’t fight.

Further reading

Gary Younge’s book Stranger in a Strange Land—Encounters in the Disunited States is available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Megan Trudell’s article “The Occupy movement and class politics in the US” is available on the International Socialism journal website.

Hal Draper’s classic essay “Who’s going to be the lesser evil in 1968?” is available at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Willemijn Wilgenhof is an activist in Internationale Socialisten, the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in the Netherlands


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