Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Mike’s Letter from America #11

Why Obama Won

So he did it! At 11 pm Eastern Standard Time, Barrack Obama was confirmed as the first African-American to be elected president of the United States. The sheer historic nature of this achievement, less than fifty years after the Civil Rights movement was struggling to end segregation and Jim Crow, makes it hard just yet to put it in perspective, and what follows is my own attempt to draw some instant conclusions. Reactions to Obama’s win range from a belief among his supporters that anything is possible, to the warning of TV pundits that he has to ‘govern from the centre’, and that we must downplay our expectations. There will be plenty of time in the future to consider if, when, how, and why Obama will let down those high hopes, but right now the dominant mood is one of celebration at the end of 8 years of neoconservative rule. 160,000 people gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to hear Obama’s victory speech, and there are reports of spontaneous celebrations in the streets up and down the country. Obama may not be a radical (despite what McCain says), but this certainly doesn’t feel like any old election.

The feeling of history being made is not just down to Obama being African-American, there is also a real feeling of change in the air. Young people came out to vote in unprecedented numbers, and the votes of first-time electors went about 2-1 in favour of Obama. But Obama won across the board, increasing the Democratic vote among all sectors, including white workers, who are so often written off as ignorant conservative rednecks. McCain’s patronizing attempts to laud ‘Joe the Plumber’ (a reactionary tax-dodging petty-bourgeois wannabee who had 5 minutes of fame interrogating Obama on his tax plans) as a working class hero spectacularly failed in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Joe’s native Ohio. The reason?

The economy.

Or, as Bill Clinton used to say, ‘the economy, stupid’. 63% of voters said the economy was their main concern, and the Wall Street crash of 2 months ago really sealed McCain and the Republicans’ fate, as working people rightly blamed years of free market policies and corporate deregulation for their plight. But even before that moment, home repossessions and rising unemployment meant that the economy was already the leading issue among voters.

But the move toward Obama is more than simply a case of booting out an unpopular government when times are bad. It represents a move to the left, despite the best efforts of the Democratic Party hierarchy to be ‘moderate’. In a mild, filtered, and very American way, Obama was forced to talk about class. Whereas before he had stressed his plans to cut tax for the bottom 95%, in a speech that I heard on TV on Monday he was talking up the same policy as an INCREASE in taxes on the rich, and attacking the record profits of the oil companies. Whether he does it is another matter, but the fact that he was saying it was significant of a political shift. So too is the constant stress on the ‘middle class’ in the speeches of Obama and Biden. The concept of the middle class in the US is rather different from in Europe, as Americans like to deny that this country has a working class. In the sense that Obama used it, referring to the people who are losing their jobs and homes, it meant the working class.

Further proof that Obama’s win symbolizes a shift to the left is the question of Iraq. On the face of it, this was not the big issue that it might have been. Only 10% of voters said it was their main concern. However, with the economy dominating the election campaign, that still left the war as the second biggest issue among voters. It’s true that Obama hardly emphasized his anti-war credentials in the debates, as he stressed his support for escalation in Afghanistan, and seemed unable to challenge McCain’s claim that ‘the surge is working’ in Iraq. Nevertheless, Obama is the first person ever to win a U.S. presidential election while opposing a war that’s still in progress.

Finally, Obama’s win was sealed on the ground by an amazing volunteer army of enthusiastic, and usually young, supporters. To take an example close to home (literally) my teenage step-daughter and a group of her friends, all of them too young to vote, formed a pro-Obama group at high school, and have been out at least twice every week for the last two months knocking on doors, making phone calls, and putting together campaign materials. I cannot think of any like this happening in my memory around electoral politics, only in mass movements such as Stop the War and the Anti-Nazi League.

That’s why the election of Obama feels different from Blair’s election in 1997. Yes, there was a similar sense of euphoria and history around Blair. Yes, Obama is also a centrist like Blair, and even now there is speculation about which former Republicans will be asked to join his cabinet. But there is the making of a mass movement behind Obama, and it’s to that movement, rather than to Obama himself, that we must look for real ‘change you can believe in.’