Progress pausedby Bonnie Greer / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
On the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, an arc of American history came to an end. Or it appeared to. But his era was not—counter to much commentary—swept away by some unique and profound tide of populism, even though the angry and disenchanted have always formed an undercurrent in American politics. The new ascendancy of the right is attention-grabbing, and both Democrats and Republicans are struggling to come to terms with America’s new political atmosphere.
But this new Republican administration represents only a temporary triumph over the deeply-rooted liberal consensus which has shaped US civil society more profoundly than any other political tendency in American life. It is but one touchdown in a long-running game of political football played since the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican presidential hopeful in 1964.
The Obama era actually began 154 years ago with Lincoln’s executive order of 1st January 1863—the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a war measure whose aim was simple: to break the southern insurgency. Lincoln changed the legal status of more than three million enslaved people, the backbone of the region’s economy. And he did this at federal level. This was the societal equivalent of an atom bomb: it destroyed the entire base of the south’s economy while creating another class of people: free blacks. The Union army was deployed as its enforcer.
“All men are created equal” has, over the century and a half since, slowly but remorselessly become the business of Washington. Five great federal revolutions put Obama into the Oval Office, all with the aim of “fixing” America: raising up those with the least, and constraining those who had the most.
First was the New Deal in 1933. Franklin D Roosevelt enacted 15 major laws in his first 100 days to increase employment and provide support for the poor. Much of the New Deal reached into the south, disrupting its pattern of resistance to federal authority, which too often expressed itself in white supremacy. Second was Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal” in 1948, proposing universal health care, an initiative Lyndon Johnson gave credit to when devising his own plan, Medicaid. Truman also signed the executive order which led to the desegregation of the armed services. Third was the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregation in publicly-funded schools was unconstitutional in Brown versus Board of Education, a ruling that President Dwight Eisenhower enforced. Fourth was John F Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” which directed federal funding towards education, aid to rural regions and the ending of segregation.
Fifth and finally came Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. At a stroke, all discrimination based on race, colour, religion, gender or national origin was outlawed. Segregation in workplaces, federal government facilities and unequal voter registration requirements ended. “We’ve lost the south for a generation,” the Democrat Johnson reportedly said. Shortly afterwards, the Republican Richard Nixon helped launch the “Southern Strategy” which drove the “Solid South” of segregationists and states-righters into the Republican Party, where they remain today.
“Within a few decades, the US will be a majority minority nation—the existence of ‘Latinos for Trump’ is proof”
Obama, only child of a Luo Kenyan father and a mother of English, Scottish, Welsh and French ancestry, was three years old when Johnson deployed the federal government as a weapon of change. LBJ’s actions, powered by the Civil Rights movement, enabled Obama to step into a world waiting for him. Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the rest were making space for intelligent, talented black kids.
This isn’t to say that it was easy, but liberalism had become the consensus, the voice of reason, the beacon of civilisation itself. But it forgot another group, just as needy, whose skin colour gave it privilege and safety, but not mobility. For them, liberalism took its eye off the ball. Now the American white working class is being conned by the present occupant of the Oval Office with promises of the return of “King Coal,” steel plants, shipping, the land itself.
But the future is robotics, AI, nanotechnology, biotechnology and other technologies beyond the imagination of most of us. This reality, along with ageing demographics, means that time is literally running out for “Trump America” and its equivalents in the UK and Europe, as indeed the arrival of Emmanuel Macron already suggests.
Demographers forecast that, within a few decades, the US will be a majority minority nation. Race, as we understand it now, will no longer matter. In an upside-down way, the existence of “Latinos For Trump” is already proving that point. Anti-multiculturalism warriors will be out of business because “race,” as we understand it now, will no longer matter. This is already becoming the case for younger millennials—like my young niece. Her father is Latino, and she is obsessed with all things Japanese, and when she studies Black literature in class she tells her teacher: “I know all of this. My mother is black.”
It’s not about left or right, it’s simply about the way the world is going. Nativism, clinging to closed borders, closed economies and monolingual states will make way for another reality. The end of the Obama era will then be seen as one more beginning.