Okay, so the word “endorse” is a bit strong; an endorsement is the sort of thing that is designed to influence others, and my sway over the American electorate is, well, non-existent. So I guess you could say this post is more of a personal endeavor, a chance for me to pull together a thought process that has been building over the past month.
You see, a funny thing has happened on the way to the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination: I became emotionally invested in the outcome. You likely know full well that I’m an American politics junkie, so I’m always intellectually invested in the whole process, and my emotions often run high once things get down to the binary Democrat/Republican choice. But it’s rare that I’ll get this caught up in which candidate emerges as the Democratic nominee. Going into this race, I expected that I’d be pretty much neutral between Barack Obama and John Edwards, both of whom I admired in different ways.
Months later here I am, writing a lengthy blog post explaining why, from the comfort of my Canadian sofa, I’m supporting Barack Obama. You might be tempted to chalk this up to the fact that Edwards is pretty much out of the running at this point, but you’d be wrong; I was starting to develop this thesis well before Obama’s win in the Iowa caucuses. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of thought on this whole situation these past few weeks, and it’s led me to one undeniable conclusion:
Barack Obama needs to be the next president of the United States.
A bit of warning before I begin: this is going to probably more historical than you’re expecting. It draws heavily on the ideas that I explored in my undergrad and my honours thesis, but should not be considered remotely scholarly. It’s also likely going to be far less eloquent in words than it is in my head, so I apologize for that in advance. Finally, it’s also going to be long – upon its completion, I realized that it had officially become the longest post in this blog’s history. So get comfortable, I suppose.
In order to understand modern American politics, you need to understand what happened in the 1960s.
The immediate post-WWII era saw the rise of what became known as the “liberal consensus,” a period of time where the difference between the two political parties was minimal (which is why the Eisenhower administration wasn’t all that different from the Truman one). The premise of the liberal consensus was simple: the majority of issues in American politics had been satisfactorily dealt with, and the role of the federal government was to maintain the status quo, promote a growing economy and uphold a strong defense against the Soviet Union.
Like all political consensuses, fault lines emerged. Race was the big one, as the rising civil rights movement was about to blow the whistle on the policies of segregation still common across the nation. Another was a foreign policy that went too far in the quest to contain communism, leading to military action in Southeast Asia that only produced death, draft and debt. The final factor was the rise of a new generation – the baby boom – whose arrival on the political scene seemed poised to challenge conventional social and political norms.
In 2004, during John Kerry’s campaign, Bill Clinton said something quite profound. It was to the effect that the political divides in 21st century America can be reduced down to one question: where did you stand on the social and political changes in the 1960s? If you believed that the rise of the New Left – championing civil rights, anti-militarism, individual rights and freedoms, secularism – was a good thing, you’re probably a Democrat. If you believed that it was a turn in the wrong direction, you’re probably a Republican.
That’s a bit simplistic, but he was onto something. The battle lines of today’s political feuds – liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, blue state/red state – were drawn in the 1960s and haven’t changed much since then. The terms of the debate have shifted a little. Instead of school prayer, it’s abortion and intelligent design. Instead of affirmative action, it’s illegal immigration. Instead of anti-communism, it’s anti-terrorism. But if you were on one side then, you’d likely be on the same side today. The liberal consensus fell apart, but no uniting force emerged to replace it; only division.
Some would argue that the rise of modern conservatism – the Reagan coalition – challenges my thesis, but the numbers show otherwise. While Reagan as an individual was able to garner cross-party support (we’ll revisit the Great Communicator in a bit), the number of voters who considered themselves liberals, conservatives or moderates actually changed very little in the 1970s and 1980s. Sure, the redrawn landscape tended to favour the Republicans (if only for their dominance in the U.S. south) but there was not a widespread mass conversation to conservatism. What occurred was not a political realignment, but a dealignment that still resonates today.
The effect: the United States has spent the past four decades re-arguing the 1960s.
This, my friends, is the tragedy of modern America. This repetitive debate has choked the country’s national discourse at the same time it has suffocated any opportunity to discuss the larger systemic problems inherent in the agreed-upon common ground (the unsustainability of consumption economics, climate change and environment degradation, etc.) Only by bridging this great divide can the American public and its leaders begin to start new debates and tackle new problems. The future of the nation and the potential for a more progressive America hinges on the need to break free from the chains of history and rewrite the national dialogue.
And there’s only one candidate running for president with the faintest hope in accomplishing this.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself; first, a quick word about why this moment – eight years into the 21st century – is the ideal time to talk about changing the national debate in America.
In the great narrative of history, the Bush administration will be viewed as a colossal misstep for the United States. Its failure is embodied in its reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the alarm clock that awoke the western world to the complex realities of the modern world. An administration explicitly designed to push a cabal of old Cold Warriors back into the White House, it tried to tackle 21st century problems with 20th century tactics: war and coercison, primarily.
The failure of the Iraq War – regardless of the short-term stability brought by the surge (though I’d love to be wrong on that) – is the failure of the 20th century to confront these modern problems, a demonstration that the old rules no longer apply, and a sign that the world is a very different place than during the America/Soviet dichotomy. If there was ever a time when the nation cried out for new approaches to tackle difficult challenges, it’s now.
As a result of the Iraq War – along with a number of other factors – the Republican coalition that has been able to unite just enough people to win elections is collapsing right before our very eyes. Uniting behind different presidential candidates – none of whom inspire much enthusiasm – the base of the party is shattering into its varying elements and is starting to turn against the foundations of the Bush administration. Conservatives have seen what the ascendancy of their political ideology has brought, and frankly, they’re not happy (for a variety of reasons).
The implication of all of this is that both the political andthe ideological landscape of America is more fluid right now than it has been in many a moon. If there were a time to lay the groundwork for a new political discourse, it’s now.
Change. It’s a word that’s been thrown around so much in the past month that you wouldn’t be blamed for never wanting to hear it again. The problem is that while all the talking heads and political pundits have bought into the narrative that Obama is “the candidate of change,” few have delved into why exactly that’s the case. The best example of someone not quite “getting it” was when Hillary Clinton made the case that all the Democrats were change candidates, since they would be different from George Bush. Sigh.
John Kerry gets it, though. When he endorsed Obama and went on the Sunday talk shows to share his support, he talked at length about Obama’s potential to be a “transformative” candidate. Again – another word that’s starting to get thrown around without a lot of insight. But to me, these aren’t just buzzwords or political slogans: I think that Obama can actually live up to their bold promise.
There are three elements that I think are necessary to produce to the kind of transformation needed in American politics, to bring together the political divides of the past 40 years and tackle new problems with new approaches. And while many of the presidential contenders might fit well with one or two of these elements, only Barack Obama embodies all three, making him the sole candidate with the potential to bring real change to America.
Let’s explore them:
Personality: On a simple level, this could be reduced to “which candidate can get members of the other party to vote for them.” But it’s a bigger concept than that: it’s about rhetoric, about charisma, about the ability to inspire. The political divide that America needs to overcome is vast, and requires more than the conventional partisan rhetoric (as much as the Democrats might like to steamroll the Republicans out of office). It requires the kind of leadership and vision that inspires political opponents to give previously-dismissed ideas a second look.
The foundation of Obama’s appeal as a bridge candidate – to bring political divides together – comes in part from the fact that he himself bridges many of America’s harshest tensions. On race: here is a black man who is winning as much support from whites as he is from blacks (a tension that Jesse Jackson was never able to overcome…but that’s a subject for another essay). On religion: here is a man of great faith who uses God to given hope, not to scorn or condemn.
But Obama’s appeal is about more than just symbolic unity; it’s about his forward-looking rhetoric that inspires instead of ignites. Hillary Clinton has designed a campaign that is winning points by pandering to the anger in the Democratic base but threatens to play solely to the converted. Obama, on the other hand, wants to fill the church pews, one American at a time. His stump visits are less speeches than sermons, enticing others to join a crusade for change in America. His victory speech in Iowa ranks as one of the most inspiring political speeches I’ve seen in my lifetime; it sounded like Ronald Reagan reborn as a Democrat.
I’m not the first one to make that comparison, and it’s a fair one; Ronald Reagan was the last president who had the personality needed to bridge America’s political divides. But Reagan only succeeded in doing so for his own electoral gain; he provided no sustained solution to America’s political split. The reason for that?
Policy: My political science teacher, Mr. Plato, used to say that all politics was about economics; a bit reductionist, but not too far off. Ronald Reagan built a strong presidential coalition based on his persuasive personality, but his policies only produced short-term unity. That’s because the Republican ascendancy brought with it economic policies that only divided America even further.
There was trickle-down economics – the belief that providing tax breaks and savings to the wealthiest Americans would stimulate growth across the board; “a rising tide lifts all boats,” as Reagan put it. Too bad that that the American economy is rigid enough to prevent capital from automatically making its way down the social ladder. Then there was the philosophy of limited government, which really amounted to a social Darwinist view of society that blamed the lower class for their own failure and offered little or no chance for upward movement.
They don’t use these words – “trickle-down,” “social Darwinism” – anymore, but they remain the hallmarks of Republican economic policy, widening the gap between the rich and the poor in America. It’s for this reason that I believe that, in the current political environment, it will be a Democrat that is most likely to produce solutions for the country’s political divide. And while Obama isn’t quite the economic populist that, say, John Edwards is, he would certainly do more to bridge the two economic Americas – and the two political Americas along with them – than any other serious candidate running for president.
But both of these elements – personality and policy – pale in their importance to the third one, the one where Obama is light years beyond any other candidate in this race.
People: Where does change come from? Do you subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, where change starts at the top and works its way down to the people below? Or are you more of a populist, believing that those in power only change when their hand is forced by the masses?
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. While leaders can inspire change, sustained change must be embraced by the masses. Unfortunately, on a macro level the body politic is a rather conservative beast – it desires stability and looks unfavorably upon the uncertainty that change always brings.
The solution, therefore, is to change the body politic. Barack Obama has the potential to play a similar role in our time that John F. Kennedy did in his: a leader to inspire an entire generation of political consciousness and involvement.
Kennedy was not a member of the New Left, nor did not create it; the demographics of the baby boom alone meant that some sort of political shift was bound to happen. But I’d make the case that a massive youth-driven political movement coming on the heels of the election the youngest president in America’s history was not a coincidence. I’d argue that Kennedy’s presidency enabled the New Left’s rise, providing younger Americans with a leader who spoke their language, who moved beyond past divisions (religion, in this case) and gave them a sense that their voice was valued in the nation’s political dialogue.
This is the true power of an Obama presidency. Obama represents a young, bold change in leadership to a generation who has been denied a voice in politics by the sheer numerical dominance of the baby boomers. Like Kennedy, he’s not of their generation, but he sounds like it and represents a clear break from the politics of the past. The youth vote that Obama is pulling far exceeds those of any other candidate in recent memory, suggesting that the true impact of an Obama presidency has little to do with policy. It’s about inspiring a neglected generation to start thinking critically about the world around them and begin to engage in the political sphere, whether that means joining a political party or holding a rally in the streets.
That, my friends, is how change happens.
Now, I can’t guarantee that an Obama presidency would accomplish all of these lofty goals, nor am I sure if it could even begin to make a dent in them given the harshness of the current political – and media – environment. But I believe that Obama is the only candidate with the slightest chance of rewriting the political narrative of America, which is why I believe that it’s imperative that the nation seize this opportunity that has been presented to them.
That chance is slipping away, though, bit by bit. Although Obama has done significant damage to the Clinton juggernaut, she still holds decent-to-strong leads in many of the states yet to vote, in particular many of the ones on Super Tuesday (where over half the country holds their primaries). Not only that, but two other variables are starting to come into play that weigh strongly in her favor.
The first is that the Clintons have launched a “good cop, bad cop” smear strategy that leverages Bill Clinton’s political capital to attack Obama while leaving Hillary out of the fray. It’s dirty politics, and it poses serious harm to the integrity of the party, but since when has that ever stopped a Clinton? It also just might work: Bill’s still a rockstar, even when he’s whiny, and I’m still convinced that a fair share of Hillary’s supporters secretly want a backdoor way to get him back in the White House.
The more troublesome variable for Obama is that with the stock markets tumbling and the whole U.S. economy headed towards recession, dollars and cents are threatening to replace foreign policy as the key issue that defines the rest of the primary season. It’s not that Obama’s particularly weak in this area; it’s that Democratic voters nostalgic for the strong 1990s economy will want to put a Clinton back in the White House, a faint hope at revisiting past glories.
It’s that backward-looking approach that terrifies me about the fact that we may be headed to a Clinton/McCain showdown. Just stop for a moment and think through the narratives that such a campaign represents. On the one hand, you have McCain, the guy who should have beat Bush eight years ago; it’s like a belated admission of error paired with the desire to correct past mistakes. On the other, you have another Clinton, a fact that seems like little more than a clever way to supersede the 22nd amendment. Both are entirely backwards-looking candidates, with little to offer to anyone like me who is looking for a genuine change in American politics.
This weekend is the South Carolina Democratic primary, a state with a strong African American voting block and where Obama has held a solid-if-unspectacular lead in the polls these past few weeks. At this point, South Carolina is pretty much a must-win for Obama. Without it, there’s no way he has enough momentum going into Super Tuesday to gain ground on Clinton’s lead; he’s down for the count. With a win, he’s got a fighting chance.
Therefore, I will spend my Saturday evening glued to the television screen, waiting to see if the voters in South Carolina have chosen to keep my hopes alive; that one year from now, on a cold January morning in America, the United States will be inaugurating Barack Obama as its 44th president.
Change has been a long time coming…I just hope America is ready for it.