Obamania may not signal a big shift to the left—but at least it is inspiring Americans againby Robert Reich / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
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Almost 40 years ago, Bill Clinton and I sailed across the Atlantic to take up residence as students at Oxford University. I recall only two things from that voyage. The first was becoming seasick and retiring to my small cabin. This was followed a few hours later by a knock on my door and the appearance of a lanky southerner bearing chicken soup. Bill Clinton didn’t say, “I feel your pain”—that phrase came years later on the campaign trail—but I was nonetheless touched by his empathy and generosity. Despite my queasy stomach, we talked long into the night, mostly about what had happened to America.
Both of us had been politically active, but now looked forward to putting an ocean between us and the disappointments that marked America in 1968. Two months earlier, Chicago had been the scene of a riotous Democratic convention, during which numbers of young people who had been lured into politics by Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign and then Robert Kennedy’s rousing call for social change were beaten by the police. By the time of our voyage, Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, McCarthy’s bid had flopped, the Democrats were in the process of nominating Hubert Humphrey and the Republicans Richard Nixon. The Vietnam war continued unabated. Several American cities were in flames.
My other recollection from that crossing was finding Bobby Baker on board. His decision to travel to England at this time, on this particular ship, seemed a cruel joke—suggesting there was no real escape. (Baker had been a crony of Lyndon Johnson until Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, had exposed his alleged deals with organised crime, forcing him to resign.)
Why do I trouble you with these reminiscences? Because the upheavals of 1968 splintered the Democratic party and marked the beginning of the rise of a new Republican majority—and the subsequent rise of the neocons on foreign policy, supply-side tax cutters on the economy and evangelical Christians on social policy. The Democratic establishment drifted into the comforting somnolence of a seemingly solid majority in congress, losing touch with the white working class that had been at the core of the New Deal coalition. The left all but abandoned politics—some vanishing into the hills to find spiritual enlightenment; the more academic disappearing into hermeneutics and deconstructionism; blacks, gays and women losing themselves in “identity” politics; and the few who remained (including Bill and me) supporting George McGovern in his disastrous run for president in 1972. Since then, it’s been basically right-wing politics—Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and the two Bushes. And, oh yes, my old friend’s administration, of which I am proud to have been a member (as labour secretary). But Bill did not move the Democrats or the nation left. He moved the Democrats to the right and kept the nation essentially where it was.
Are we approaching another turning point, like 1968—but one that reverses the great pendulum of American politics and moves the nation left? The George W Bush presidency has been such an abject failure—only 30 per cent of Americans approve of the job he has done—that the country may be ready. The economy is heading towards a recession, or worse. Inequality of income and wealth are wider than they’ve been in a century.
Add to this the fact that Americans are not—perhaps never were—as right-wing as their Republican leaders claim. According to polls, most Americans now believe the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to be unfair; most think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that America should pull out; most say they are willing to pay more taxes to improve inner-city schools; most support more regulation of business in order to improve the environment; a majority thinks homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal and that abortion should be left up to women and their doctors; the vast majority believe large corporations have too much power in Washington; and most support restrictions on lobbying and financing political campaigns.
But is all this enough to augur a move to the left in American politics? Don’t count on it. John McCain, the presumptive Republican standard-bearer, has a fair shot. Although he is not a part of the Republican establishment—he supports reform of the immigration laws, initially opposed Bush’s tax cuts and doesn’t kowtow to the evangelical right—make no mistake: McCain is a right-winger.
What of the Democrats? John Edwards, the most left-leaning of the three major candidates, and the only one who consistently emphasised the widening income gap and the worsening plight of America’s poor, has been forced out. Of the two who remain, Hillary Clinton is no leftist. As a senator, she voted in favour of Bush’s Iraq war resolution in 2002, and, more recently, in favour of certifying Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. She wants universal healthcare, but won’t support a “single-payer” plan like Britain’s NHS, which is the best way to control medical costs. She won’t commit to raising taxes on the rich to finance social programmes, except for rolling back the Bush tax cuts. She won’t even pay the large, looming cost of the baby boomers’ social security by raising the portion of income subject to social security taxes.
Obama at least has the courage to demand that the rich pay more for social security, but his health plan is no more radical than Clinton’s. He talks more openly than she does about the need to reduce inequality, but has not been specific about whether or to what extent he’d raise taxes on the very wealthy to pay for social programmes, beyond reversing Bush’s tax cuts. He was against Iraq from the start, but so far has avoided much detail about how and when he’d extract US troops.
Yet “Obamania” has almost nothing to do with specific policies. It is rather Obama’s almost pitch-perfect echo of the John F Kennedy we heard in 1960 and the Robert Kennedy last heard in 1968. It is a call for national unity and sacrifice—not in the interest of military prowess but in the cause of social justice, both in the nation and around the world. His appeal is for more civic engagement, not necessarily more government. He has the voice and wields the techniques of the community organiser he once was in Chicago, asking people to join together. Not since 1968 has America been so starkly summoned to its ideals.
It is easy to write off Obamania as another bout of that naive enthralment that occasionally claims US voters. Perhaps it is. This is what Hillary Clinton and my friend from 40 years ago are counting on. But if the Clintons could stop to think back to what they felt and understood then, they might come to a different conclusion, as have I.
To see the enthusiasm for Obama as a potential turn to the “left” does not describe what is occurring. He is not promising and will not deliver European levels of welfare and tax. But the US does seem ready to start a new political chapter. The nation wants to be inspired again, as it was 40 years ago. Recall that neither JFK nor his brother were leftists. They were realists, but also idealists. They understood that nothing good happens in Washington unless the public is mobilised to make it happen. For purposes of practical electoral strategy as well as high-minded moral aspiration, they never tired of reminding the nation of its founding principles—above all, that all men are created equal.
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