Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The furnace of American mythology


So, what's up America? Forty-three years after Jim Crow (only forty-one in Virginia, which looks like it's gone Democratic for the first time since 1964), and despite a campaign laden with filthy, vicious racism and the incitement of a lynch mob mentality among the Palinites, you demolished the GOP and got yourself your first black president. On a landslide. Despite the massive vote-denying campaigns, you got out in record numbers - the highest turnout since 1908 by some estimates. And as for the white working class, all those supposed "Joe the Plumbers"?:

In another development not anticipated by the media, Pennsylvania exit polls found that one in four voters said race was a factor in their vote, but a majority said it was a positive factor--that is, that race was one of the reasons they voted for Obama.

The claim that Obama was weak among white workers was always overdone. After all, in the Democratic primaries, he made his breakthrough in the Iowa caucuses, where just 2.3 percent of voters are Black. In Virginia and Wisconsin, two other key victories during the primaries, Obama scored solid victories among whites.

Early returns from Macomb County, Mich., the stereotypical home of "Reagan Democrats" in the Detroit suburbs, had Obama up 57 percent to 41 percent. And in Ohio, Obama won among whites making less than $50,000 annually.


The number one reason, without doubt, was the economy (two and three being Iraq, and healthcare). Obama was able to recover his lost popularity after having tacked to the right in part by linking these themes in his broadcasts, pointing out that the Iraq war was costing billions and suggesting that this might be used to ease the burden on 'the middle class'. Whatever Obama now does, this historic vote stands as a massive popular repudiation of the agenda of the Right, but also as an affirmation of a new electorate. The last forty years have been characterised by variations on Nixon's 'southern strategy' - a misnomer, since it applied well beyond that region - which sought to mobilise and channel the "white backlash" against anti-racism and noisy protesters. Since then it has been obligatory to genuflect to this sentiment, whether it is Carter praising 'ethnic purity', Clinton attacking rappers and executing Ricky Ray Rector, Reagan belabouring "welfare moms" and the "reverse racism" of affirmative action, or Bush the Elder and his Willie Horton campaign. The frankly crude efforts by the McCain camp to quite literally 'Other' its opponent was an embarrassing failure, and that counts. A defeat for the vicious Islamophobia that was the signature of the 'war on terror' and that was nakedly deployed against 'Hussein', is particularly satisfying. And the rejection of red-baiting politics, in which Obama was habitually upbraided as a 'socialist', is equally gratifying. As Gary Younge put it, the election has almost been a referendum on whether Americans care about their jobs and income more than they hate black people. It has invited people to choose between economic justice and racial division, and most people have chosen the former. This doesn't mean the vote broke down neatly on race, or that the issue will go away - far from it. This is still the country of Katrina and the Jena Six. And there are dangers in a revivification of liberal nationalism. But it is a leap forward in class consciousness.

Amusingly, a poll of Republican supporters found that most of them think the government lost a) for not being conservative enough, and b) because of a hostile media. These scumbags really haven't been punished enough: I recommend that Obama supporters stage victory parades through upper class whitebread neighbourhoods. I also note that GOP supporters at McCain's rally are furious, absolutely bitter beyond words. When McCain tried to praise America's tolerance, which he said was demonstrated by the election of an African American to the office of president, the smatter of applause was surrounded on all sides by cold silence. When he even mentioned Obama's name, the shrill booing ran through the crowd like a shiver. They'll be the ones hailing Lou Dobbs for President come 2012.

I have no wish to piss on the worldwide celebrations, but be advised that Obama's team is even now trying to figure out ways to manage down your expectations. Beware that Obama, even if he had any liberal inclinations, is going to be under strict surveillance and pressure to 'govern from the centre', because practically every commentator on the box as well as the Democratic Leadership Council is demanding that Obama do just that and resist pressure from his constituents. As the DLC's William Glaston complains, "expectations are sky-high", and Obama must resist pressure from his supporters and avoid emulating FDR or LBJ, or he will risk an electoral disaster similar to that faced by Clinton in 1994. Galston's memory fails him: what destroyed Clinton's early popularity was his failure to deliver on populist promises on healthcare, job creation and redistribution of wealth. But this myth, that America is a uniquely conservative country, has just been heartily dispatched. The alibi won't stand: the Democrats control all three branches of government, with expanded majorities in the Congress and Senate. They have moved deep into Republican territory, including Indiana, which looks like it will fall to Obama by a narrow margin after having been Republican since the 1968 election. Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to get more than 50% of the vote since Jimmy Carter. He has taken vital swing-states like New Mexico, and has done much better there than Clinton did, with a convincing 57% of the vote. When Obama 'reaches out' to Republicans and starts blustering about bipartisanship, and when he appoints someone like Robert Gates as his secretary of defense, there will be no excuse. If he fails to carry out even his most limited reforms, he has no scope for blaming the Right. If he doesn't close Guantanamo and restore habeus corpus, he has no one else to blame.

All I'm saying is, to those hundreds of thousands of people marching and dancing in the streets, be prepared to be back on the streets soon. The system is designed to lock you out as quickly and quietly as possible.