The 2008 US Presidential election is behind us. A fair estimation of the results might be as follows: A clear, significant statement of the US electorate; a hollow, likely disappointing result for the people. After the euphoria of the Obama victory, it is vital that we separate these two assessments and avoid the cynicism of leftist isolationism and the self-deception of hopeful idealism. What the voters wanted was unquestionably significant change. What they were promised was change. Whether change will come from the Obama administration is - at best - questionable.
The Meaning of the Vote
The vote was most importantly a repudiation of racism and the Bush administration. White voters in working class areas cast aside crude racist appeals, put aside the three-headed Trojan horse of abortion, gays, and guns, and voted economic self-interest. They knew that McCain would do nothing for them and they wanted to believe that Obama would. A kind of reverse Bradley effect - unnoticed by the media - was operating. Many were afraid to openly support an African-American, but were comfortable doing so in the privacy of the voting booth, canceling out any lost votes from the opposite tendency. Thus, the polls proved to be an accurate, if not underestimated, gauge of the election results.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. The level of overt racism - the open, vulgar racism fostered by talk radio, shock jocks, internet slime - should diminish with the expression that most citizens are comfortable with an African-American President. Of course it won't disappear.
Also, the vote opens the door to a more unified working class. Make no mistake about it, union leaders who were lukewarm, often absent fighters for equality were forced by the circumstances of the campaign to take strong, out-front statements against racism. This is a good thing, and, though their efforts were sometimes clumsy, commendable.
Of course much work lies ahead in the struggle against racism; voting for Obama is not a free pass for racial insensitivity.
The three strongest constituencies for Obama (giving Obama the largest portion of their group vote) were African-Americans, Latinos, and union labor. African-Americans understandable took pride in the candidacy of Obama with predictable results. Latinos voters represented 8% of the total vote, siding decidedly for Obama. Both the growth of their total vote and their stronger support for this Democratic candidate mark a greater importance in electoral politics and a powerful progressive tendency. These results were duplicated in Florida, where the intimidating gusano influence continues to wane.
The election confirms the demographic expansion of the minority population and their increasing importance for anti-monopoly political organizing. The shift in the Latino vote makes the excuse for appeasing the anti-Communist Cubans in foreign policy even more lame.
The union labor vote - which overlaps substantially with the minority vote - was strong for Obama: 67% supported him, according to the AFL-CIO. Most importantly, the union electoral drive proved effective in blunting and overcoming racism and the always present distractions of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage. Like the Prohibition issue in the election leading to the New Deal victories, these issues are used to deflect attention from more fundamental issues. The union electoral effort shows the potential for influencing policy well beyond the electoral arena and much more frequently than the electoral cycles. Labor activism is an untapped source, lacking only ideological clarity and militant leadership - a task for the left in the coming period.
The Catholic vote went for Obama despite the efforts of many right-wing bishops to to swing the vote towards anti-abortion candidates. Protestant Obama fared better than Catholic Kerry in 2004 - another measure of self-interest trumping self-identity.
In general, the vote results show an electorate ripe for new policies, new answers and moving in a clear progressive direction. The trends exposed by the Pew Research Center's two decade long polling study ("Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes") towards social democratic policies and away from insularity and obscurantism is born out by the 2008 election.
The Meaning of the Obama Victory
There is a glaring contradiction between the wants and needs of the people of the US and the issues debated and embraced by the Presidential candidates - it is as if they existed in two different worlds. The institutionalization of the two-party system both allows and insures this fact. It is no criticism of Obama or his hope-filled partisans of change who worked with such great enthusiasm to point this out. But, by the same token, it is delusional to forecast a progressive turn in the Obama administration from this great effort. If Nader, if Cynthia McKinney, if even Bob Barr were allowed to debate the candidates before a television audience, there might well have been progressive issues on the legislative table. If... if... if... But the institutionalized two-party system does not allow for such opportunities. And it will continue to block any move leftward without a dramatic mass movement forcing it.
The political influence of the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council surrounds Obama with the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as chief-of-staff only underlining this reality. With Emmanuel as the gate keeper, the notion that progressives at least have access to the White House is even more remote. Despite the fact that the DLC is completely out of touch with the needs of the majority of the citizenry, they exercise inordinate influence within the Democratic Party. It must be remembered that they have a strong base in the South as well as the suburban bed-room communities in the North. These suburban communities proved to be the power base for sweeping away the progressive platform of the Democratic Party after the 1976 election victory.
Again, in 2008, suburban voters left the Republicans and sided with the Democrats. Despite their fickle loyalty to the Democratic Party (they respond mainly to the Party's social liberalism agenda of gun control, abortion rights, gay marriage, and other personal freedom-based issues), they are the main justification for the constant urging by the Party's pundits to tack towards the center and center-right). Their "activism" is what the Democratic Party best understands - money and power. And they stand as rivals for policy influence with African-Americans, Latinos, and labor.
On the economic front, Obama's advisors are hardly inspiring; indeed, they are a bit scary - Paul Volker, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin. Austin Goolsbee, Jason Furman, Timothy Geithner, and Warren Buffet have all the wrong corporate and academic credentials. None have stepped too far from the warm, comforting waters of neo-liberal orthodoxy. And in a world of real oppositional politics all would have been ferreted out for previous personal or policy sins. For the hope-crazed progressives, there should be some puzzlement at the absence of Krugmans, Stiglitzs, and Reichs from this group (actually Reich is part of the transition team - a rose among so many thorns).
At this early date, the names floated for key cabinet positions are largely political retreads of previous administrations and old legislative warhorses. Very few wear any progressive medals for deviation from the center, center-right agenda.
Regrettably, the electoral victory was no victory at all for the left. That is just to say that the Obama victory brought no assured policy reward for left support. At best, the Obama administration would be more accomodating to, less intransigent against any advances forced upon it by mass action. That is something, but hardly a justification for most of the left's unconditional support of the Obama campaign. The occupation in Iraq is no closer to conclusion; universal single-payer health care is no closer to being achieved; there is no plan to end the Afghan war; the Cuban embargo remains policy; Palestinians remain political untouchables; and so on and so on... And every indication is that the Obama administration will continue down the path of advancing imperial interests and privileging corporate America.
Looming over this election is the global economic catastrophe - a giant gorilla towering over all other issues. Many see a repeat of the Great Depression - a sense not completely farfetched. And many hopefully see Obama as the new Roosevelt launching a new New Deal - a sense built upon the sand of "Yes we can". In truth, Roosevelt was not the great savior of capitalism or the people, a myth that lingers in liberal theology. But the facts give no portent that Obama is Roosevelt, either. It's time for the left to put the aside comforting illusions and rebuild an independent, oppositional front that is not dependent upon the good will of the corrupted Democratic Party. We desperately need that left to forge a true people-saving agenda from the destructive gorilla.