I’ve lived abroad for many years, but I grew up in the US, and still carry a US passport. I cried for joy the night Barack Obama was elected. But I didn’t vote for him. I want to explain both of these things as a way of explaining what his election means for the future.
If you watched the crowds on the television, the younger people had faces shining with hope. The older ones were crying. We all knew why. We have come such a long, hard way. When we were children the civil rights movement began, and I never thought I’d live to see this. So many people struggled, and so many died, and racism went on and on. Then there it was. Obama was elected. Many black Americans registered, voted and campaigned for the first time. But it’s important to see what this tells us about white people too. Three quarters of Obama’s voters were white. He won because white people have changed.
A lot of left and liberal people didn’t believe that would happen. For 15 months I’ve been telling Americans and Brits that very large numbers of whites would vote for Obama, particularly in the primaries, because he was black and they didn’t want to live in a racist country. Everyone told me I was wrong.
This moment mattered because race is so important in the US. Our worst war, the civil war, was fought over slavery. Civil rights was the most important movement of the 20th century. And behind slavery is something much less talked about, the fact that the nation was built on one of the largest genocides in history, the extermination of the native people.
Now a black man is president. No one is a fool. No one thinks that means racism is over. But it means a large number of Americans have changed. That’s why it’s historic. The younger people mostly didn’t cry. They don’t know how long and hard the struggle’s been. They weren’t in the generation that hoped in the 1960s, and saw our dreams turn to shit. A lot more of them voted for Obama.
So hope is their main thing.
Race is the big thing, but not the only reason people hoped and cried. Whatever Obama does or doesn’t do, the voters rejected war. Everyone knows Obama was the only mainstream politician to speak out before the invasion of Iraq. John McCain has the hots for war. This vote may not mean peace, but it marks publicly that most Americans want peace.
Then there’s class. For more than a generation politicians have glorified the market, greed and competition. Working people have been squeezed. Americans on middle incomes are making no more per hour than their grandparents did. Work has got harder, faster and often more humiliating. There are also less public services than 30 years ago. In opinion polls, roughly 80 percent of Americans now say that there is something seriously wrong with the country. A large majority believes the lives of their children and grandchildren will be worse than their own. These are heavy things for hopeful and patriotic people to say. Almost no one used to say them out loud.
All this is because inequality has increased massively. Americans feel class because class is being forced on them. Last year the pollsters for all the Democratic candidates in the primaries told their campaigns that the voters had moved left, and wanted left talk on the economy, health and class. So the candidates talked left.
Obama didn’t say “working class”, he said “middle class” the way US politicians do when they mean “working class”. But he said class, and he said, “Enough.” And then when the credit crunch hit, the majority of working people decided it was time to vote for their own interests.
So – race, war, class. This is a turning point in the US. But that’s only half the story, because I didn’t vote for Obama. I could have. Almost all my family and most of my friends did. I didn’t try to argue any of them out of doing it. I didn’t tell them that what the US really needs is a labour party, either. That wasn’t what this election was about. And I didn’t say there was no difference between Obama and McCain, because any fool knows there is.
But I did tell them I didn’t vote for Obama, because I wanted to say something about what we can expect.
The first reason I didn’t vote for him was Afghanistan. I lived there for two years. Obama has promised, many times, to send more troops and kill a lot more Afghans. I can’t be part of that.
It’s that simple for me, but it’s a lot more complicated too. One way people often put it is to say Obama won’t keep his promises once he’s elected. That’s not quite right. He hasn’t promised much.
Obama has chosen his words carefully. He has promised to remove all combat troops from Iraq in 16 months if the circumstances are right. He has promised to leave guns alone. He supports civil unions, but not gay marriage. He has promised to question trade deals, but not quit the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has promised swift action on education, jobs, energy and climate change if the economy permits.
What people hear him saying, though, is what they have in their hearts. Their hearts are with him, so his must be with theirs.
But we have to face facts. Obama is also the preferred candidate of the ruling class. McCain was right that the media favoured Obama. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune endorsed him.
In the past two years the big money went to the Democrats, not to the Republicans, and not just the small online donations. Obama had more money than any candidate ever, and his biggest donors were in the Wall Street investment banks – Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and the rest.
This makes sense. The US ruling class hopes that Obama can rebrand the empire. Their grip on Iraq is shaky. They are losing in Afghanistan. When Russia invaded Georgia, the US secretary of defense had to go on television and say that the US would not send troops to Georgia in any circumstances. Bush is hated around the world. This is an empire that can’t fight another war.
Military wants out
From the ruling class point of view, it’s worse than that. The majority of the American people is against the Iraq war. The military – privates, generals, and wives, husbands and children – want out. In the Second World War for every two badly wounded US soldiers, one died. Medicine has moved on. In Iraq and Afghanistan ten seriously wounded men survive for every one who dies. But they take damage. You see them all over small town America, where soldiers mostly come from. They drive their wheelchairs with the US flag flying, or walk into the diner on crutches. Last summer my 82 year old mother went into a geriatric hospital. Half the people in her physiotherapy group were badly wounded young men.
Soldiers and marines are now going back to Iraq and Afghanistan for a fourth or fifth tour of duty. The army is sending back soldiers who were wounded or have post-traumatic stress. And they know the odds, sooner or later. So do their families.
So the world is turning against the empire, and so are Americans. Now there’s a serious economic crisis. In the opinion polls, large majorities of Americans were against bailing out the bankers. One senator from Missouri said that of the first 4,000 calls he got from home, just one favoured the bailout. Obama and McCain both voted for it, but working America is furious with the rich and the corporations. Wall Street is feeling more than nervous.
This is parlous territory for the people who run the US. Obama, the majority of them hope, can make the US new in the eyes of the world, and make the empire and the corporations new with him.
There are a lot of signs this will work for a while. Every European leader is falling over themselves to get to Obama first. The social democrats who always liked the system but hated Bush are now in love with the new president. And it extends a lot further than that. Listen to the people you know, wherever you are in the world.
Can Obama rescue the empire? Maybe. Will he betray people’s hopes? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the balance of forces.
The first thing in the balance of forces, but not the most important, is what Obama himself wants. His first book, published well before he was elected, reveals a decent and thoughtful young man. But he has been loyal to the US ruling class for some time now. His clothes and manner align him with the ruling class. He was editor of Harvard Law Review, the smartest and most successful student in the most important training ground for the ruling class. All the flags, all the patriotism, all the right wing sentiments that liberals discount by saying he is only trying to get elected – he means it. And as everyone says, his advisers and appointments don’t look good.
On election night I heard the deputy leader of the Democrats in the Senate say that Americans were facing hard times, and that what Obama wanted could not be done in a day or a year or even a four year term, and that Americans were going to have to stand together and sacrifice together. Then I heard Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House of Representatives, say it. Then I heard Obama say it in his acceptance speech. Sacrifice, he said, together.
He, and they, are preparing ordinary Americans to pay for the sins of the system, and building a story about why hopes will not be met. That’s the line right now. That doesn’t mean it is what Obama will keep doing.
I’ve heard people on the left say Obama is bound to betray the hopes of his supporters. I don’t agree. What mainstream politicians do depends on the pressures on them.
Right now Obama has two roads open to him. He could rebrand the empire and force through sacrifice. Former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did that. Or he could take the road of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). FDR was president in the 1930s, during the depression. He pushed through the New Deal that created some jobs; and a world war that created more. He wasn’t that strong for labour, but workers thought he was, and in one year and over 200 factory occupations they doubled the number of people in unions to 37 percent of the workforce. Roosevelt didn’t destroy the empire or capitalism – he saved and expanded both. But he did it by moving far enough left to get the people behind him. Everyone in US politics and the media knows the FDR “New Deal” route is open to Obama. It’s risky. The upheaval could get out of hand. But it’s there.
Obama may come to a moment when Americans are angry, foreigners are rebellious and the economy is cratering. At moments like that mainstream politicians face a choice. They can duck the challenge, and shrivel. Most do. But some of them roll the dice.
I don’t know which one Obama would be. And he won’t lead the struggle for a new world. FDR didn’t. He acted as a brake, holding back and taming the movement. Obama would do the same. But a lot of people in my parents’ generation thought FDR had led a crusade.
But we can also break the empire and the corporations if Obama decides to stand with them. People think now that President Kennedy supported the civil rights movement. He did not. I was part of a peace movement that took the US out of the Vietnam War. We managed to do that because of the courage of the South Vietnamese peasants, the US demonstrations and the US soldiers refusing to fight. That anti-war movement took place under President Johnson, a hawk, and we forced Nixon, a Republican hawk, to end the war. We won because we mobilised more support, of many kinds.
So in the end the balance of forces can, under certain circumstances, either give in to or join the opposition.
Two groups of people are key. One is the activists who made Obama president. The other is the resistance around the world.
I’ll start with the Obama supporters. Hundreds of thousands of people threw themselves into the Obama campaign. This is campaigning on a level not seen in the US for 40 years. Obama attracted enormous crowds for a politician – 75,000 in Portland, 100,000 in St. Louis, and 250,000 in Chicago on election night. The anti-war movement has had crowds this size in the last few years, and the immigrant rights movement had a million on the streets in Los Angeles. But what’s new about the Obama campaign is the number of activists, and they want change.
Change is a word that can mean everything and nothing. The question is what it will mean to those activists. They will be the key people who decide if the movements start fighting again.
All the movements have been rolled up for 18 months. Before that 140,000 people in over 800 cities demonstrated over climate change; 350,000 marched against the war in New York, and 400,000 marched for immigrant rights in Dallas – the most right wing city in Texas. Then, for a year and half, nothing. One climate activist said to me, “All the oxygen has left the room.” This isn’t because the Democratic Party controls these campaigns. It’s because the activists on the ground thought demonstrations would be bad for Obama.
The key question now is whether these campaigns, and new campaigns, will stay quiet. There will be a lot of higher level Democrats arguing for that, and a lot of people who supported Obama will argue that we have to leave it to him. They will want to trust him.
Here the left can make a difference. We need people in every campaign arguing for action, to push Obama to act.
I’m writing from Britain. I’m not right in the thick of things. I can’t taste the air in the movements. But my guess is that at first the left mostly won’t win the argument. People will want to wait for Obama. But the crucial thing is that the Obama supporters hear the arguments, so that they can think about them while they watch what the government does. Whether or not they hear those arguments depends on two things: how many people in the movement make those arguments, and how they make those arguments. There are ways of talking that get people who don’t agree with you to listen, and there are ways that make them dismiss you, even if you’re right. It’s not an easy line to steer, because you can’t be so gentle you don’t tell people the truth. To get the style of argument right, you have to start from two things.
One is that both the left and the Obama activists are on the same side in the global struggle. If the Obama activists can’t be convinced, we all lose.
The other is that the central argument is not about what Obama will or won’t do – we can disagree on that – it is that whatever he does we have to get the movements moving again. If you think Obama wants to do the right thing, he needs all the pressure from below he can get to strengthen his hand. If you think he doesn’t want to, then we need to force him. The real argument over the next few years will be “do we march?”
It’s not already written down which way the Obama activists will go. It is possible they will trust him, lose faith and retire to cynicism. Such things have happened before. But I don’t think so. The tide of US politics has been flowing to the left ever since Katrina. Americans are not more left wing because Obama came along. He came along talking like he did because Americans were more left wing. The long wars and the economic crisis are likely to keep pushing people to the left.
There’s everything to play for. The left just has to be patient in talking and desperate for action.
That’s the US. But what happens in the rest of the world is also crucial. On one level, we will face the same pressures. Hope and support for Obama will run high, even in the Middle East and Latin America, where people know the empire best. Established politicians of all kinds are frightened. Many of them will turn to Obama, as will most of the people who thought Bush was the problem. But the feeling won’t be as strong. It’s not their country.
More important will be the state of the global movement. If Afghans keep fighting, and ordinary Pakistanis throw out the US armed forces, the world situation and the US peace movement will be transformed. If the peace marches in Europe are large, and if there are large passionate movements against making ordinary people pay for the crisis, US activists will hear about it.
People in the US sometimes talk as if all that matters is who the president is. But great movements have fought and won against established power. People outside the US often talk as if in the end the US government controls everything, but it doesn’t. They can be beaten.
It will be far easier to change the world if we build a strong movement in the US. But if we can’t, we can still change the world.
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