Ian Boyne, Contributor
Most Jamaicans, including those in the intelligentsia, have missed the real significance of the Obama victory, blinded by sentiment, symbolism and our ubiquitous parochialism ("What will this mean for Jamaica?" "Mi haffi support the black man!").
Barack Obama brings out the schizophrenia in us. People who hate gay people love this American president who is in favour of gay marriage. Conservative Jamaican Christians who think abortion is murder would give their own lives for this pro-choice president. Black Catholics here adore this liberal Protestant president who is in conflict with their American Catholic leaders over contraception and other reproductive-rights issues.
Jamaicans who are very strident small-government, you-are-on-your-own advocates of austerity and neoliberalism are strong supporters of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney when, in fact, their ideology mirrors Romney's; it's just that Mitt Romney is white. They believe in the same trickle-down economics like Romney. They also believe that our masses - our 47 per cent - are too dependent on government handouts and too enchanted by populist politicians like Portia Simpson Miller, just as America's minorities and middle class are with the populism of Barack Obama.
Our discussion of American politics, therefore, says more about our conflicted selves than it does about the reality of American politics. As with so many things, our discourse is more emotion driven than fact based and analytical. There have been all kinds of analyses of the American election of this past week but most have missed the overarching issue, aside from the changing demographics of America itself. Let's start there.
In November last year, the progressive Centre for American Progress released an important study, The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election, which built on the work on an earlier book published a decade ago, The Emerging Democratic Majority. The thesis is that America's demography is determining its destiny. The decline in the population of old white Christian men and the growth in the number of Hispanics, younger Americans, women and the organisation among gays and social progressives means that the Republican base is significantly being eroded. So the Republicans have a structural problem.
The study warned: "The Republicans can maximise their chances of victory by focusing almost exclusively on the economy. But they will need to downplay more divisive positions on religion, social issues, immigration and more extreme Tea Party positions on popular government programmes such as Social Security and Medicare." Which is exactly what Mitt Romney did not do. He did not rein in right-wing Christian nuts who talked about "legitimate rape" being a conduit for God's will. Romney continued to talk about "self-deportation" and he picked a running mate distinguished for his opposition to Social Security and Medicare. He was reading the playbook, 'How to Lose an Election', and he read well.
Old Christian white men now constitute one-third of voters. Americans under 30 voted for Obama over Romney 60-37, Hispanics 71-27, Asians 73-26, women 55-44, and blacks 93-6. This ensured that even though Obama won a smaller share of the white male vote than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, he garnered three times as many electoral votes as Dukakis did. That's what's called demographic destiny - and clever, focused, expert targeting and campaigning.
America's right-wing media gadfly Bill O'Reilly conceded on election night: "The white Establishment is now the minority. The demographics are changing. It's not traditional America." And that obnoxious right-wing zealot, Rush Limbaugh, confessed the day after the election: "I went to bed last night thinking we're outnumbered ... we'd lost the country". The changing demographics, and the Republicans' threat to entitlements, ensured that swing states swung away from Romney last Tuesday.
The Huffington Post had a piece on election night, 'Barack Obama Re-election Signals Rise of New America', which put it well: "President Obama did not just win re-election tonight. His victory signalled the irreversible triumph of a new 21st-century America: multiracial, multi-ethnic, global in outlook, and moving beyond centuries of racial, sexual, marital and religious tradition." In an essay last Thursday, 'The Return of the Obama Coalition', the Centre for American Progress says: "The GOP must face the stark reality that its voter base is declining and its ideology is too rigid to represent the changing face of today's country."But the demographics, as significant as they were in ensuring victory, were not what interested me most about the Obama victory: It was the triumph of progressive economic and political philosophy and the rejection of neoliberalism and minimalist government ideology. It is less significant to me that a black man won than the fact that a progressive politician blocked the assault on the working and middle classes which would have endured under Romney-Ryan. I would support a progressive white politician over a reactionary black politician any day.
I wrote that this was an ideological election - and that the stakes were high. (September 9) In a tightly argued piece in 'The American Prospect' last Thursday, Bob Moser wrote, "Indeed, what was won this year could be far more important than what was won four years ago." (Black sentimentalists would, of course, disagree.) In Moser's view, the overarching issue in this past election was, "Is America a democracy for all or a state ruled by the elite?"
He says, "Americans made foundational choices in this election. We decided that we do not support the wholesale demolition of government. We rejected the wealth-first economics that Romney represented. We affirmed our belief in social contract and our wariness of the fend-for-yourself philosophy of Ayn Rand Republicanism." Ronnie Mason is one of Obama's many Jamaican supporters but he certainly would not reject what the American people rejected last week. His campaign for small government, people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps -for Horatio Alger capitalism - continues daily.
Moser was clear: "The president ran and won on the most resonant pro-government message Democrats have offered in four decades." I said in my September column that this was the most ideological election in decades. And the American people responded in a way consonant with my own views on the role of government. Here in Jamaica, amid our Obama mania, people have bought hook, line and sinker that Reaganite dictum - repeated by Bruce Golding - that "government is the problem". It is a view which Obama fought valiantly against the Romney-Ryan ticket - with delightful results.
Bill Clinton made the choice clear at the Democratic Convention: "My fellow Americans, you have to decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared responsibilities - we're all in it together - you should vote for Barack Obama." The people did.
Obama staked out the ideological choices clearly last December in Kansas: "What's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, secure their retirement … [Republican] philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules." Obama steadily and piercingly took that ideological stance of Romney and Ryan and thrashed it on every occasion. We need an Obama in Jamaica!
Instead, everyone is singing out of the same neoliberal songbook, with people breathlessly asking, "When can we have this IMF agreement?" That's the only discussion in town these days - in a country celebrating Obama's victory! It's not hypocrisy. It's being in a state of intellectual stupor.
In his oratorically moving post-election speech Tuesday, Obama was flawless and on message. What defined America, he stated, was not its wealth, military power or even its popular culture. "What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold us together; the belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to another and to future generations." In those few words, he had dispensed with the entire arsenal of the Romney-Ryan doctrine of rugged individualism, atomism and you-are-on-your-own philosophy. Remember Margaret Thatcher's famous statement that there was really no such thing as society?
Ideas matter, and Obama has always been brilliant in showing up right-wing ideology. In talking about obligations to future generations, he was talking about social responsibilities to the poor, protecting their welfare and working to mitigate climate change to protect their future. He talked about responsibilities, not just rights. "We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions," he said to the thunderous applause of his multi-ethnic, multilayered throng.
I am not naïve to believe that Big Money has been defeated. I read Ralph Nader, Amy Goodman and Chris Hedges. But it has at least been constrained. Some more crumbs can go to the masses and the rape of the working and middle classes which would have taken place under Romney has been averted. Obama has made concessions to the Right and will continue to do so, though he will be more bold and progressive in his second term.
But that's what has made Obama survive this election. He knows how to build coalitions. He knows how to make alliances and to engage in give-and-take. He is a pragmatic progressive, not a blind ideologue. It was Winston Churchill who said, "No matter how brilliant a strategy, you should occasionally check to see the results." What's the use of having the most progressive political views if they can't be implemented? Politics is the art of the possible. And compromise is the essence of practical politics.
Obama has been strategically effective in outwitting his opponents by being muscular enough in foreign policy (bin Laden is dead, drones are killing enemies, and Guantanamo is still there). His enemies can't successfully project him as weak and endangering national security. He has not been reckless in foreign policy.
He has talked welfare reform and fiscal discipline while tackling energy, education and training as well as infrastructure. Obama appeals to moderates, not just liberals.
'The Daily Beast' is right: "At the heart of the campaign was a contest between progressive public purpose and a reversion to the hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government castigated by Franklin Roosevelt." And the American people have spoken.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.