‘Hit the road, Jack’
Guy Rundle reports from outside the White House on the generous spirit of relief at the Republicans’ defeat.
‘Pack your stuff and go, pack your stuff and go!’ The crowd outside the White House was several thousand strong by midnight: black, white, young, old, activists and tourists, straights in suits, white gangstas, the blinged up and old hippies.
They’d begun gathering minutes after John McCain’s concession speech had begun, broadcast from a sombre gathering on the lawn of a Phoenix five-star hotel. The lights twinkled in the ground floor of the first residence, almost cheekily. The crowd sang ‘Kiss Him Goodbye’, then they sang the Star Spangled Banner, then ‘Hit The Road Jack’, then the anthem again. Everyone was smiling, everyone was hugging and hand-slapping. Even the shouting at the White House had a generous edge. It was the good nature of profound relief, and also disbelief. After all this, it had happened. It had not been snatched away.
So in the end, despite the near hysteria willed and non-willed on both sides, there was no Bradley effect. No hidden racism, no stolen result, no last-minute moment of fear in the booth. US president-elect Barack Obama’s victory was almost exactly that predicted by the poll averages, winning with 52 per cent to 47 per cent of the popular vote, and taking half a dozen states as predicted. He took the old battleground deciders, Ohio and Florida. He took the ‘New West’: Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. He took the new south of Virginia, and may get North Carolina. And he reclaimed the mid-northwest Iowa and Indiana, and possibly Missouri.
The Democrats picked up another 20 seats in the House of Representatives, and another five in the Senate, with the possibility of three more that may yet deliver the Democrats a working ‘supermajority’. On the whole map, there was only one note of cheer for conservatives (and only one section of them). Proposition 8 in California, putting a gay marriage ban into the state constitution was voted up, as were similar measures in Arizona and Florida. When Obama emerged to give his victory speech, at 11pm in Grant Park Chicago before 70,000 people, it was clear that something big had happened.
The story that will now be told is one of seamless triumph, of a campaign that expressed a movement of historic change, flawlessly moving from success to success without missing a beat. They would not lack for evidence. The Obama campaign, going back years, to his Senate race, was exceptional for its multidimensional abilities, its capacity to synergise different approaches and techniques. It was based on grassroots organising and internet savvy; on old strategies of community organisation and new approaches to coalition-building; on soaring oratory and a deliberate cultivation of the mundane. It was disciplined and creative, confident without being blithe.
Yet in the end, the supreme virtue of Obama’s campaign was its ability to hold itself together, so that it was in a good position to step in and take power when American conservatism had entirely fallen apart. Had that not occurred, we would be talking about a very different result, one more like the results that were coming in during July and August when McCain’s aggressive, feisty campaign was slowly pulling him ahead and the Obama team seemed unable to hit back effectively.
Obama won in that week when the US financial system teetered on the edge of collapse, and brought to a head the contradictions between ideology and practice that US conservatism had papered over for so long. As one bank after another fell, the virtue of market success and failure, of small government and the private sector collapsed entirely, a final act in the long farce of a high-deficit, consumption-driven, militarily over-extended regime that was hoping it could delay collapse until someone else had to deal with it.
Following the AIG and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crises, the government was suddenly, if not socialist, at least talking the language of systems and macrostructures, and acknowledging the essentially interlinked nature of state and market. When Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson presented his initial back-of-a-napkin bailout plan, it already represented a surrender of the core moral language that had been used to discipline and shape US society in the past eight years as social and physical infrastructure decayed noticeably. When even the Paulson/Barney Frank plan failed, the entire government effectively surrendered, and adopted Gordon Brown’s plan of unblushingly taking state part-ownership of the financial sector.
For the exhausted Bush administration this was not a problem. For McCain, it was. The bailout was deeply unpopular with the sort of people that McCain needed to win, and it must have been tempting for him to stand against it and become their champion. But the professional politician and administrator also knew that the global financial system was an arena of management, not of morality – and that the consequences of a deepened crisis of confidence for the global economy could be unprecedented.
That contradiction dictated McCain’s too-clever-by-half strategy of ‘suspending his campaign’ and flying back to Washington to sort things out – before meekly accepting the worst version of the bill, and looking futile and erratic. Obama meanwhile, having no problem with accepting a systemic view of the whole, held back a decision for two days, came out with provisional support with guarantees of social equity etc, and spoke in favour of the bill in the Senate.
Suddenly Obama – in comparison to Bush and McCain – looked like the only person displaying anything resembling leadership. The traditional political virtues were reversed. It was the Democrat who was displaying the traditional conservative virtue of prudence, the wisdom of knowing that action for its own sake can be worse than withdrawing to reflect and understand. McCain by contrast grasped unsuccessfully for the revolutionary virtue of audacity – a quality that looked routine and kitsch under the idea of the ‘game changing’ move.
For the McCain team, having failed the leadership test, the only way to recapture an imaginary relationship to people’s values was through the worst sort of populism, a potent mix of anti-intelligence and naked fear. They had already begun on this road with the hasty selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as candidate for vice-president. The initial, undoubtedly elitist, reaction to Palin’s life and personal style obscured what quickly became clear – that she not only lacked the minimum knowledge a president would require, she seemed to display an active incuriosity about the world she might soon be partially running.
Six weeks into the campaign, she did not have the basic constitutional understanding of the vice-president’s role, important Supreme Court decisions, or the meaning of the first amendment. The response of the campaign – and many in the right-wing commentariat – was simply to insult not merely the idea of intellectuality, but of basic intelligence and learning. As more and more conservative commentators made clear that Palin was a deal-breaker, the populist wing of the movement became more strident. Any criticism was a ‘sneer’, even when it was clear that increasingly larger numbers of the general public shared their concerns.
With its moral core hollowed out, the McCain campaign latched onto every contingent part of the right political tradition, guilt by association most specifically. For a week, McCain tried focusing on Obama’s brief acquaintance with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. When it became clear that this gained no traction, McCain abandoned it. The populist right didn’t, and it marked the descent into deep irrationality that hamstrung the political right in the last weeks of McCain’s campaign, allowing Obama to pick up power all too easily. Palestinian academic Rashed Khalidi, pastor Jeremiah Wright, these people were visited and revisited to the boredom and incomprehension of the GOP.
The final act came when plumber Joe Wurzelbacher questioned Obama during a walk around in Toledo, Ohio. Though it was later discovered that he was a fairly doctrinaire Republican, Joe’s initial proposition – that he was about to buy a business making $250,000 which would fall into Obama’s tax increases – seemed to hit home, especially with Obama’s awkward argument about the multiplier effect ‘spreading the wealth around’.
Joe wasn’t buying the business, which wasn’t making a quarter million, and would have benefited from Obama’s plan to subsidise new hirings by small businesses. But for a while his remark to Obama – that his plan ‘sounded like socialism’ – caught fire and became a motif for the McCain campaign. As the details of Joe’s life emerged that started to reverse itself. Joe, to many, looked like a bit of a fool, dreaming of a business success that he would never achieve in the industry he was in. And McCain’s line – ‘it took Joe the Plumber to call Obama’s plan what it is… socialism’ – begged the question: if that’s the case John, why couldn’t you?
Bizarrely, with the Western economy now working under the Gordon Brown bailout scheme – ie, a plan by a man who once had been, long ago, an actual socialist – Obama’s mild fiddling with progressive taxation became ‘socialism’, ‘Marxism’ and ‘communism’. For anyone of basic nous, that contradiction could not survive. Even Fox News presenters, in some last gasp of integrity, began harshly questioning pundits who tried to preserve the appearance of McCain as a champion of free enterprise and Obama as a communist.
This mad period gave a rationale to people who already needed to hate Obama, but it persuaded no one to switch their allegiance. When intellectual systems collapse, they decay into paranoia, which is effectively a form of interpretation in which the mechanism has become jammed. For the right, Obama’s long-departed association with the old Chicago/New York new left, plus his economic policies, invited them into strange fantasies in which he was a sort of sleeper candidate for the radical left, waiting these long years to slide into the White House. Reading some of the British and American right on this man, the only word that comes to mind is hallucinatory.
Most likely, American conservatives will find President Obama as disappointing as will his supporters. In domestic policy, he will be a cautious centrist, building coalitions and making staged and very gradual change. In foreign policy, he has never made any secret of his interventionist principles, and the exceptionalist right of America to violate national sovereignty.
But there will be changes that, modest as they are, will change the quality and character of American life. Any halfway effective reform of the health system will change the whole mood of much of American life, in which 100million people or more live in fear of chronic disease, or accident or anything that would bankrupt them completely. Passage of the Employee Choice Act would make it possible for trade unions to unionise service-based workplaces, which is currently virtually impossible, and change the dynamic of class relations. And so on.
Within modernity, the US is so socially backward that an efficient, modest moderniser has the capacity to open up wider historical possibilities than may at first appear. But much of this will bitterly disappoint the liberal-left. This will not be a repeat of the Carter or first Clinton administration, of hapless liberals tangled in their own good intentions.
American conservatives and the liberal-left conspire in the fantasy of the dark prince of liberalism. Liberals will reconcile themselves to real modest gains soon enough. Conservatives will soon find that a centrist Obama administration is their worst nightmare – because it will transform the character of American politics, and render their existing formulations of politics as useless as the divine right of kings. Their hysterical fears are an expression of a deep anxiety: that their political formation is about to wink out of existence.
We will talk for a long time about who Barack Obama is, this brilliant and mysterious politician, deploying every trick of identity politics and then drawing it back to practicalities, energising a quasi-religious sense of self and biography, while not letting it – as McCain did – harden into a fetish of the hero. But our sceptical engagement with Obama’s message and approach should not be an excuse for cynicism.
The Obama movement mobilised literally tens of millions, most of whom were clear-eyed about what they set out to achieve. Outside the White House and across the nation, people were feeling a sense of possibility. They jeered George Bush over the fence, but they also sang the national anthem, filling that old war hymn with new meaning. The future will not be what they think it is, but damn it if this wasn’t a small piece of history today, or something like it.
Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.
Paranoid British fantasists for Obama, by Mick Hume
McCain and Obama: products of therapy politics, by Sean Collins
Republican rallies: the myth of the crazed mob, by Sean Collins
Turning Sarah Palin into a 21st century witch, by Frank Furedi
Please kill this Obama ‘assination porn’, by Brendan O’Neill
Obama’s Democrats: as conventional as ever, by Guy Rundle
The rise of Obama, the fall of Brown, by Mick Hume
Who is Barack Obama?, by Sean Collins
Why they’re scared of Obamamania, by Brendan O’Neill
Read more at spiked issue: America under Obama.
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