Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (11-8-08)
What I cannot understand is why American politicians who speak publicly on this issue do not at least acknowledge that to the best information of the American intelligence community, Iran has no nuclear weapons research program,as opposed to a civilian enrichment research program. A pdf of the National Intelligence Estimate on this issue is here. The Bushies and"anonymous senior officials" vowed that the NIE would not be allowed to enter the national debate on this issue and that they would ignore it and go on insisting that Iran has a weapons program. Since they lost, can't we lose the alarmist rhetoric on all this? Some of the information in the NIE was based on information brought out of Iran by defectors.
It is legitimate to maintain suspicions of Iranian intentions and activities in this regard. I'm not saying we should be patsies. But let's just talk straight about the issue, based on what real evidence is available.
Also, if the only real reason Iran is accused of supporting international terrorism is its arming of Hizbullah in south Lebanon, that is a pretty problematic charge. The recent agreement among political parties in Lebanon recognized Hizbullah as a kind of Lebanese national guard charged with defending the Lebanese south against Israeli aggression.The cabinet statement refered to"the right of Lebanon's people, army, and resistance to liberate the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, Kafar Shuba Hills, and the Lebanese section of Ghajar village, and defend the country using all legal and possible means." The word"resistance" refers to Hizbullah. The European Union has declined to designate Hizbuallah a terrorist group.
Usually the phrase"supporter of terrorism" conjures up the image of shadowy groups plotting to blow things up in Vienna or something, not a militia defending national territory against foreign incursions. Hizbullah did commit terrorist acts in the 1980s and 1990s, but I'm not sure what it has done that would technically deserve the name in the past 10 years.
It would be nice if Washington would itself foreswear all deployment of terrorist groups to obtain its goals.
Anyway, can't a new administration speak in a more nuanced way about all this?
Obama also said he would respond"appropriately" to the letter recently sent to him by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (the first such missive sent by an Iranian president to an American one on the occasion of the latter's election since the 1979 revolution).
Ahmadinejad wrote to Obama,
'"As you know the opportunities provided by the Almighty God, which can be used for elevation of nations, or God forbid, for their collapse, are transient. I hope you will prefer real public interests and justice to the never ending demands of a selfish minority and seize the opportunity to serve people so that you will be remembered with high esteem.
On the other hand, the Americans who have spiritual tendencies expect the government to spend all its power in line with serving the people, rectify the critical situation facing the US, restore lost reputation as well as their hope and spirit, fully respect human rights and strengthen family foundations.
Other nations also expect war-oriented policies, occupation, bullying, contempt of nations and imposing discriminatory policies on them to be replaced by the ones advocating justice, respect for human rights, friendship and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.
They also want US intervention to be limited to its borders, especially in the Middle East. It is highly expected to reverse the unfair attitude towards restoring the rights of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans.
The great nation of Iran welcomes basic and fair changes in US policies and conducts, especially in the region.'
Reuters shows scenes of Iran and interviews Iranians on the street about their hopes for an Obama administration.
Despite its religious conservatism, Iran has announced a $2.5 bn. stem cell research program that resembles Obama's aspirations far more than it reflects the politics of George W. Bush.
Posted on: Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 18:03
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (11-7-08)
It is true that Obama performed extraordinarily well compared to other northern Democrats–the last three Democratic presidents (LBJ, Carter, and Clinton) have hailed from the South and southerner Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, while northern Democrats (Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry) have failed to make any inroads into the Republican heartlands. And, Obama’s percentage of the vote was higher than any Democrat since LBJ in 1964.
In self-congratulatory mode, commentators have been pointing to the exit polls and the maps, showing that Obama did very well compared to other Democrats across the board–among Latinos, African Americans, and even among whites (he won 43% of the white vote according to the exit polls, compared to John Kerry’s 41%).
But, buried in the results is the fact that while Obama did very well across the country, making almost all areas of the country bluer than they had been in 2004, in some areas he performed worse–much worse–than John Kerry.
The New York Times map on voting shifts (click on voting shifts on the left) shows this bluer America, but look closely and you’ll see that some areas got not only a little redder but a lot redder.
- Bradley (how appropriate a name, yes?) county, Arkansas: Kerry +5% over Bush; Obama lost by 14% (a net of -19% for Obama)
- Cameron parish, Louisiana: Kerry -39%; Obama -65% (-26% net for Obama)
- Humphreys county, Tennessee: Kerry +16%; Obama -3% (-19% for Obama)
- Knott county, Kentucky: Kerry +28; Obama -8% (-36% net for Obama)
- Pushmataha county, Oklahoma: Kerry -19%; Obama -43% (-24% net for Obama)
There are other examples as well where Obama underperformed Kerry, primarily centered from West Virginia southwest, though there were a few pockets in Arizona (to be expected), Idaho, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.
Thus, though Obama improved by about 4 to 5% nationally over Kerry’s total, there are locales where Obama underperformed–badly–versus Kerry.
This is not to say that the country hasn’t made great strides and that Obama’s victory doesn’t represent a great step forward in racial reconciliation, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that race didn’t matter. It did matter–just not everywhere.
Posted on: Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 17:50
SOURCE: http://politicalaffairs.net (Marxist Thought Online) (8-22-08)
1. "We are not in business for our health." A statement attributed to J. P. Morgan, when fellow parishioners in New York's Trinity Church criticized him for "investing" Church funds in lucrative East Side slum property. Capitalists have never been in business for anybody's health and today that is most evident for pharmaceutical firms and insurance companies.
2. "What do I care about the law. Ain't I got the power." A quote from the early great Robber Baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose most recent relatives designed designer clothes and, in the case of Wyatt Cooper of CNN, have become TV news people. Vanderbilt's statement gives us insight into the capitalist class view of legality, namely that it is something to manipulate and enforce to increase capitalist wealth and power and to undermine and where possible ignore when it seeks to regulate or limit capitalist wealth and power.
3. "The Public be damned!" A quote attributed to Cornelius Vanderbilt's son, William, in response to popular criticism of his creation of a private monopoly in New York Street transit and his subsequent doubling of the fares. Today capitalists have PR firms to make sure that they are never caught saying the public be damned but their policies in most areas continue in that vein.
William by the way, was very badly treated by his father until, he won dad over by cheating (according to anti-monopoly scholars) union army cavalry stationed on Staten Island during the Civil War on the price of hay that he was selling them from a farm. Then his father finally respected him and took him into the business.
4. "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." A very famous quote attributed to Robber Baron Jay Gould, whose fellow big capitalists called the "Mephistopheles of Wall Street." Actually, the struggle to unite the working class, to fight against all forms of racist and other prejudices, is an attempt to prevent Gould's boast from being carried forward in policy, which capitalists in their use of scabs, immigrants and minorities to break strikes, along with police and militia drawn from the working class, have done many times in the past, especially before the enactment of federal labor laws in the 1930s.
5. "In a Republican district I was a Republican. In a Democratic district, I was a Democrat. But I was always for Erie." Another quote from Jay Gould explaining his and most capitalists approach to politics. The Erie Railroad was a company he both controlled and used in a number of wildly corrupt activities in the 1870s. The quote shows the capitalist class conception of representative government and its approach to non Communist, non socialist political parties. At one point, Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt were bribing New York state legislators hand over fist in a battle to obtain railroad franchises. The cost of bribes got so high that they actually held a meeting in Albany to fix the price of bribes(a sort of bribe cap) to protect both of their interests.
6. "God gave me my money." A quote attributed to a frustrated John D. Rockefeller in response to critical inquiries about how he had attained his wealth. Rockefeller was a religious man, but the quote gives us insight into the capitalist view of religion, as a justification for inequality and exploitation. Rockefeller endowed religious and secular charities, practicing what Andrew Carnegie, a fellow great capitalist called the "gospel of wealth," that is, charity from the rich as a substitute for public social programs. Tax reform led by political progressives also led Rockefeller and other like minded big capitalists to set up foundations which enabled them to spend monies for charitable purposes that they would in large part have to turn over to the government and also provide them with good PR.
7. "Character." The response that J.P. Morgan near the end of his life gave to a congressional committee in 1911 investigating his enormous finance capitalist empire. Morgan probably believed it. Like the great capitalists who called themselves "captains of industry" and "industrial statesmen," he saw himself as superior not only to workers but to small businessmen, professionals, politicians in the great market struggle of life and the corporations he create. For the great capitalists, the wealth they garnered was proof of their moral superiority. When Morgan died in 1913, the syndicate of industrial/bank capital that was the Morgan interests controlled an estimated 13% of the investment capital of the world. Today, corporate leaders and even many of their small imitators have adopted the military term CEO to replace the nineteenth century "captain of industry."
8. "What good is ten million if you can't have real money." A statement from Jesse Livermore explaining his suicide in the 1930s. Livermore was a famous Wall Street speculator of the 1920s who lost most of his wealth in the depression. At the time of his suicide, creditors were closing in but he still possessed 10 million. This shows in effect the difference between what capitalists and workers (including those who call themselves middle class) think about money. I don't know what Livermore would have said when he heard that John McCain defined being rich today as having a $5 million annual income, although McCain (who didn't deal with total assets of course) would probably see men like Livermore as the kind of "entrepreneur" on whom American progress and prosperity was based(the way men like Livermore were seen in mass media before the great depression). Certainly he would do what he could to keep Livermore's taxes as low as possible and to bail him out financially. regardless of what that meant for taxpayers,
9. "There are no social classes in America. Only the middle class." A wildly irrational statement, proclaiming in effect a capitalist "classless society" attributed to Herbert Hoover in the 1920s(as President, Hoover found out the hard way that there was a working class which would not passively accept his platitudes that "the economy is fundamentally sound" and federal relief "would rot the moral fiber of the people" as the depression deepened). While Hoover was not in the same league as Rockefeller, Morgan, or the Vanderbilts, he was a very wealthy and successful capitalist who hung unto his wealth even as he lost the presidency. Unfortunately, capitalists, in the U.S. particularly continue to use the term "middle class" in the sense that Hoover did to spread a false consciousness among workers that their interests lie with their employers and that government taxation, minorities, undocumented workers, and the poor are the result of their economic problems
10. "Take the money and run." A term that was the title of a Woody Allen movie which connects many dots over the centuries of the capitalist mode of production. In pursuit of greater markets and cheaper natural resources and labor, capitalists have always taken the money and run, explaining that this was the road to progress and prosperity, whether they called it "free trade" as they did in the 19th century or "globalization" and "outsourcing" as they do today. It is as much a truism as the Communist Manifesto's call for the workers of the world to unite because they have nothing to lose but their chains.
Posted on: Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 15:16
SOURCE: ProgressiveHistorians (11-8-08)
I really can't understand people who look at Sarah Palin, who listen to her obvious incompetence, and see an inspiring leader and future President. Or people who felt the same way about George W. Bush in 2000. Or people who not only hate gay marriage, but honestly believe that it's the greatest threat that faces America today. It's not a matter of disagreeing with those people, as I do with, say, libertarians; their opinions and views simply feel alien to me. How can people in my country look at the same events I'm looking at and see them so differently? Are they wrong, or stupid, or something else?
A book I read last week, Alain Corbin's The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (translated by ProgressiveHistorians blogfriend Arthur Goldhammer), suggests an answer. Corbin's book concerns a similarly head-scratching event: in a remote village in industrializing France in 1870, a group of townspeople suddenly turned on a local noble, convinced themselves against all evidence that he was a Prussian and a Republican enemy of the French Emperor, and proceeded to torture him to death over a period of two hours and then burn his corpse in the public square. (They did not, as rumor had it, actually eat him.) Setting aside the stark brutality of the act, how could these upstanding townspeople ignore mountains of evidence and eyewitnesses who insisted they had seen the man many times and that he lived two towns away, and remain convinced that he was in fact a Prussian spy? And in what universe were the monarchical Prussians and French Republicans the same thing, or in any way related?
Corbin's answer to these questions is very interesting. I'm simplifying his argument a bit, but in brief, he suggests that there are two types of people: those who have access to a steady stream of reliable information about the wider world (in this case, city-dwellers, bourgeois, and the rich) and those who don't. People with little direct knowledge of events, like the peasant murderers in The Village of Cannibals, continue to get indirect knowledge, but it comes in the form of rumor, of bits and pieces of truth intermingled with scraps of various lies. Contrary to what some of us blue-state folks imagine, these people aren't stupid or irrational. Instead, they do the same things the rest of us do with the information they have: take it in, try to make sense of competing data, construct a coherent mental narrative, and interpret observed events in light of that narrative. What's more, they don't do this in isolation, but in near-constant communication with one another -- forming what can perhaps best be described as a" community of rumor." Certainly some people in that community have a better understanding of the wider world than do others, but it's very hard to tell which is which when everybody believes something different. Eventually a consensus is reached, and that becomes"truth." It's a process very familiar to us in the"reality-based community," except that the raw material -- actual, comprehensive knowledge of situations and events -- is missing. There's nothing wrong with the way these people think -- the problem is with the information they have to start with.
In the case of Corbin's villagers, a lot of their reasoning was sound given the information they had to go on. A lot of their confusion centered on the issue of taxation. The Orleanist monarchy, which ruled from 1830-1848, had imposed a crushing tax on the already-poor peasants. When the Republicans came to power, they had promised to repeal the tax but hadn't followed through, leading the peasants to view them as double-crossers probably in league with the monarchy. The Emperor (Napoleon III), on the other hand, repealed the tax immediately when he first took office in 1849; obviously he was on the side of the peasants and cared about their welfare. In 1870, when the Empire collapsed, the peasants were terrified about what would happen to them without their beloved Emperor. Meanwhile, wild rumors spread about the Prussians, a known militaristic power with expansionist designs. They wanted to attack the Emperor, which meant they must be in league with the monarchists and the Republicans (and also the Catholic clergy, who had also opposed the Emperor for seizing their property). Perhaps the Prussians had spies even now among the French peasantry! Maybe they were members of the old aristocracy, the strongest supporters of the monarchy (and therefore Republicans and Prussian sympathizers). It turned out that the cousin of the murder victim had been in the village advocating for the Republic. When the victim was told about this, he was surprised that his cousin would do such a thing and responded that he didn't think it was likely. There was the evidence! He was sticking up for a known Republican; therefore, he must be a Prussian spy. And so the villagers murdered him, expecting that the Emperor would award them medals for their action. (Instead, four of them were guillotined.)
There's certainly an element of mob hysteria in all this, but what's surprising is how many of the connections make sense if certain important information is omitted or not known (for instance, that many monarchist politicians were actually friendly with Napoleon III, or that the Republicans were opposed to all forms of undemocratic power, or that nobody in France actually supported a foreign invasion by the hated Prussians). The same forces are clearly at work in the"American heartland" where"hockey moms" and"Joe the plumber" live. It's easy to dismiss as stupid people who believe that, say, Obama is a secret Muslim or that gays are out to take over the world -- but such a view is both untrue and unfair. How can we expect someone to listen to our truth that Obama is a Christian when their co-worker is sending them an e-mail forward saying he's a Muslim, and their father-in-law is convinced he's a terrorist? Why are we more right than those people are? How do they know who to trust? And if they're not sure, should they vote for someone who might secretly be a terrorist?
These people are suffering from what Dan Cohen diagnosed at his recent IU lecture as the biggest problem of the information age: abundance. There's simply too much information out there, and so much of it is contradictory, that people who don't have a lot of time on their hands can't really make sense of it. But they still try, and what they do is turn to others in their communities of rumor who seem to have more information or a clearer sense of what's going on. For many people, ministers and church leaders seem like the obvious choices. For others, it's friends or co-workers who seem up on the news and send out e-mail forwards with their findings. It's often the loudest people, or the most prominent people, that ordinary Americans trust. And the Republicans have become experts in exacerbating this problem by feeding wild rumors about Democrats and liberals through this network of authority, often targeting the most trusted locations, like churches and e-mail. Get people started forwarding around e-mails about Obama being a secret Muslim, and it becomes true and real. Once these ideas have taken root in communities of rumor all over America, reasonable people in those communities will refuse to consider even abundant evidence to the contrary. What Corbin shows us is that it's not because they're somehow alien, but because they are in fact just like the rest of us: resistant to ideas that contradict what they know to be true.
How to fix this problem? There's no easy answer, but Corbin's work suggests that the remedy involves getting more information more reliably to more people. How can this be done? Al Gore argued in his book that the internet was the answer, because it put all the knowledge in the world at the fingertips of every American. But the internet is chiefly responsible for the problem of abundance. It doesn't fix the problem so much as it exacerbates it, adding a huge flood of new information to the already overstrained mind of the average busy American. People are always going to turn, for the most part, to"information filters" they feel they can trust. (Tina Brown's new website, The Daly Beast, is a perfect example of a product designed expressly as such a filter.) Perhaps the challenge for liberals is to make sure those filters themselves are well-informed and present that information to those who trust them.
Posted on: Saturday, November 8, 2008 - 14:46
SOURCE: http://www.historiae.org (11-7-08)
With Barack Obama’s victory in the American presidential elections there are expectations of changes in US policy in Iraq, involving a substantial reduction of force levels. In the so-called Obama–Biden plan for Iraq, this is expressed as follows:
“The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months… Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism…
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no military solution to Iraq’s political differences, but the Bush Administration’s blank check approach has failed to press Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future or to substantially spend their oil revenues on their own reconstruction… As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society—in and out of government—to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.”
So, the US forces will withdraw in large numbers, but beyond that, and of interest to those who care for Iraq itself, can Obama realistically hope to achieve anything other than a unilateral withdrawal, such as the ambitious reconciliation aims outlined above? Much of the answer to this question has to do with the issue of leverage. In this regard, the Obama–Biden plan embodies several basic assumptions about the motives of the Iraqi leadership that were set forward more comprehensively in a report by the Center for a New American Security in June this year, authored by Colin Kahl, Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, and titled Shaping the Iraq Inheritance. Put briefly, the Democratic view is that Nuri al-Maliki has a strong desire to keep US forces a little longer in Iraq so that they can help him strengthen his position (by “rebuilding” the Iraqi army); accordingly the US should be in a position to offer an extended stay (or a “residual force”/more training and advisers) as some kind of bonus to Maliki. This theory is described in the report by Kahl et al. as “conditional engagement”.
What appears to be missing in these assumptions is an appreciation of some of what happened in Iraq in 2007. This is not to suggest that “the surge” was such a wonderful success. So far, no significant political institutional reform has materialised as a result of the decline in violence; without this kind of political reform “the surge” in itself is worthless because it is based on temporary stop-gap measures like an infusion of US troops and the bribing of armed militants. However, Nuri al-Maliki the person has been enormously strengthened by the surge. A year and a half ago, any suggestion that Maliki would be the next strongman of Iraq would be met by ridicule. Today, his emergence as a powerful figure with an increasingly independent position vis-à-vis his political coalition partners is an undeniable fact. The Iraqi army is stronger than at any point since 2003 and is becoming a potential tool of repression that many other authoritarian rulers in the region are envious of. And Maliki has rediscovered an ideological superstructure that is making him increasingly immune against criticism at home: using the language of centralism, Iraqi nationalism and at times anti-federalism, he has become independent enough to challenge even some of his longstanding coalition partners such as the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
When it comes to the leverage of the next US administration in Iraq the question is not so much about the “objective” strength of the Iraqi army but rather about what Nuri al-Maliki perceives to be his room for manoeuvre. In that regard, he seems increasingly tied to a nationalist discourse of Iraqi sovereignty that takes a critical line with regard to foreign interference. Hence, it seems more and more likely that if faced with an Obama offer of “conditional engagement” Maliki's most likely response would be essentially that Iraq is an independent country which is not willing to be bullied into constitutional reforms at the behest of foreigners. He would be thankful to the Americans for their support their support so far in making him a strong ruler, but he would feel strong enough to decline the offer of extended support if this comes with too many strings attached: a SOFA, maybe, but no more than that. He might hope to see his electoral base boosted in local and parliamentary elections, or he could turn to the army and other security forces where he has an increasing number of friends. Failing that, he could always turn to Iran – it may be symptomatic in this regard that the pro-Iranian Daawa/Tanzim al-Iraq is part of Maliki’s new coalition for the local elections even if ISCI apparently plans to run separately.
What are the alternatives to “conditional engagement” in the Democratic camp? What if Maliki feels stronger than US politicians think he is? The Biden scheme of a grand compromise on federalism has few supporters in Iraq south of Kurdistan, although Iran might be interested in the regional aspect of a “Dayton-style” settlement where it might exploit the desire of Obama to mark a contrast to the Bush administration’s tough line. If Obama goes to the opposite extreme in terms of offering Iran a regional role, Iran would emerge stronger than ever and could use its influence with the Maliki government to effectively control oil reserves similar in scale to those of Saudi Arabia. However, other pro-Obama groups have worked out policy suggestions that are far better grounded in Iraqi realities than the schemes of Biden, for example the report Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge by Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch and Peter Juul. But they, too, stake their entire argument on an assumption about the Maliki government’s perception that may turn out to be incorrect. Their thesis is quite the opposite of that of Kahl et al.: only the prospect of an early US withdrawal can focus minds on the Iraqi side and will force them to make compromises – not out of any altruistic motives, but because those in power supposedly will feel they need such compromises in order to survive in their current positions. Again, it seems likely that Maliki, who as early as in 2007 spoke of national reconciliation as something that had already been accomplished, may not see the need for any wide-ranging reform.
There are two other Iraq alternatives that have received only limited attention by Democratic policy-makers. The first one is exceedingly straightforward and would consist of singling out the 2009 parliamentary elections as the key to reform and Iraq’s last chance to repair itself (the new parliament would then appoint a more representative constitutional revision committee than the current one). The United States could focus all its energies on making those elections as inclusive and free and fair as possible, and in doing so would be quite immune against accusations of meddling in Iraqi affairs. The second alternative is more radical, and builds on the idea of an externally induced shock as well as exploiting US leverage where it still exists: Kurdistan. Political scientist Liam Anderson has earlier proposed an internationally guaranteed “autonomy plus” status for Kurdistan along the lines of the Åland Islands in Finland; by building on this idea one might also create a corollary involving Kurdish withdrawal from the constitutional process in the rest of Iraq, where much of the problem has been artificial alliances between the two biggest Kurdish parties and pro-federal Shiite politicians that enjoy only limited backing in the constituencies they purport to represent, and where what is needed is radical recalibration and constitutional reform directed by Iraqis who are more representative and who can offer resistance to the attempt by the Kurds to impose a pro-federal agenda on all of Iraq. Both these approaches come with the advantage that they are much more difficult for Nuri al-Maliki to simply reject and therefore also involve a greater degree of real US leverage.
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 13:04
SOURCE: Salon (11-7-08)
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.
In the past generation Bruce Ackerman, Theodore Lowi and I, in different ways, have used the idea of "republics" to understand American history. Since the French Revolution, France has been governed by five republics (plus two empires, a directory and a fascist dictatorship). Since the American Revolution, we Americans have been governed by several republics as well. But because we, like the British, pay lip service to formal continuity more than do the French, we pretend that we have been living under the same government since the federal Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1787-88. Our successive American republics from the 18th century to the 21st have been informal and unofficial.
As I see it, to date there have been three American republics, each lasting 72 years (give or take a few years). The First Republic of the United States, assembled following the American Revolution, lasted from 1788 to 1860. The Second Republic, assembled following the Civil War and Reconstruction (that is, the Second American Revolution) lasted from 1860 to 1932. And the Third American Republic, assembled during the New Deal and the civil rights eras (the Third American Revolution), lasted from 1932 until 2004.
Yes, you read that correctly -- 2004, not 2008. A case can be made that the new era actually began four years ago. True, Bush, a relic of the waning years of the previous era, was reelected. But immediately after his reelection, the American people repudiated his foreign policy and his domestic policy, including Social Security privatization. In 2006 the Democrats swept the Republicans out of Congress, and in 2008 they have recaptured the White House.
To be sure, every shift in partisan control of government does not amount to the founding of a new republic. Obama did not win a landslide or have long coattails. His coalition is a slightly larger version of the Democratic Party that was forged in the partisan realignment of 1968-72. And the public is still divided among liberals, moderates and conservatives much as it has been for a decade or two. But my scenario does not depend on Obama's election or even on Democratic control of Congress. The Fourth Republic might have gotten off to a start -- a bad start, but a start -- under Republican auspices.
Policy shifts, more than public opinion polls or election results, suggest that a truly transformative moment may be upon us. The first three American republics display a remarkably similar pattern. Their 72-year life span is divided into two 36-year periods (again, give or take a year -- this is not astrology). During the first 36-year period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small government, small business and an older way of life. During the backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.
We see this pattern of Hamiltonian nation-building and Jeffersonian backlash in the First, Second and Third Republics of the United States. Between 1788 and 1824, the ideas of the centralizing, nation-building Federalist Party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton succeeded. Although Jefferson and his small-government allies controlled the White House and Congress for much of this period, in practice they implemented a streamlined, cheaper version of the Federalist plan for America. Jefferson's Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, for example, supported a program of infrastructure and industrialization not all that different from Alexander Hamilton's. And Jefferson himself, contradicting his small-government philosophy, exercised sweeping powers as president, purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France on his own initiative and promoting a federal embargo on U.S. exports to Britain and France. The first Jeffersonian backlash came later, under Andrew Jackson and his allies between 1824 and 1860...
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 10:07
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (11-7-08)
So by mid-morning in the capital there were no papers to be had: no Washington Post, no New York Times, no Chicago Tribune. By the time I was back in Union Station, all the vendors had to offer lying forlornly in their bins were copies of Investors' News and, believe me, no one was buying that item.
America wanted to freeze-frame its moment of rebirth; wanted to have that headline shouting, like the Boston Globe "O-BABY" fixed in memory. This was the day when well-nigh everyone you talked to – and this included Republicans – said it made them proud to be an American. On this one day they – million upon million of voters – had done something a nation seldom gets to do: vindicated their democracy; taken back their country from the manipulators of power; returned to the ideals around which the republic was founded. No wonder heads were held high. At the diner strangers lifted palms for a high five and you slammed yours back.
By the Lincoln Memorial a tourist pointed to the sky and shouted: "There's a bald eagle!" It was, of course, one of Washington's overgrown gulls wheeling by the Washington Monument, but the patriotic birder could be forgiven his myopic excitement since heady symbolism was in the air. A young woman slowly mounted the steps of the beautiful memorial from where Martin Luther King told the immense throng, stretching as far as the eye could see, about his revelatory dream and that though he might not live to see it realised, he knew it would one day come about. The woman set a single white rose at the foot of Lincoln's statue. It joined a crowd of flowers. People had been coming to the memorial through the night as Obama delivered his victory speech in Chicago, wanting somewhere to pay homage to the transforming moment; to set, as the President-Elect said, with his unerring feel for the right words, "their hand on the arc of history".
Obama has something of a pardonable obsession with his fellow Illinois citizen – so much so that his speech on Tuesday night in Chicago quoted Lincoln's first inaugural address in 1861 without at first identifying him – as if the whole watching political nation would automatically know who he was talking about, especially since Lincoln's words spoke achingly of a national reconciliation even on the very threshold of civil war.
It's easy enough to guess what Lincoln, the 16th president, would make of Obama, the 44th. But what about the third? It was from Jefferson's hand that so much of the tragic atrocity, as well as the ennobling idealism of the American experiment, followed. For unlike Washington, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who proclaimed to the world as a truism that all men were created equal, could never bring himself to free his 100 or so slaves. And although Jefferson professed to believe in the universal fraternity of mankind, he thought black people intellectually inferior to those of European descent and patronised appallingly the most gifted of their race – like the scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker.
In August 1791, Banneker presumed to write to Jefferson in Paris asking him, as a man of enlightened ideas, to "eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us" since "your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that the Universal Father hath given being to us all and that he hath made us all of one flesh but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties".
This was all very nice. But then Banneker took a step too far, adding his dismay at finding that Jefferson himself was one of those who detained "by fraud and violence a part of my brethren groaning under captivity and cruel oppression" and that "you should at the same time be guilty of that which you professedly detested in others". Jefferson wrote back crisply from Paris that "no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men". But then he added, with fatal condescension, that "the appearance of the want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America".
Jefferson insisted that no one "wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be". But his ardour apparently stopped well short of emancipation.
And there, in a historical nutshell, you have the entirety of the American race tragedy; the raw contradiction between profession and deed; a contradiction that endured from the Civil War to the battle to end segregation and the first unequivocal commitment of the government to enforce voting rights made by Lyndon B Johnson in both speech and statute in 1965. As he signed that Voting Rights Act – the law that made Barack Obama's victory possible, via the astounding registration drive his campaign mounted – LBJ is said to have declared that one of its results would be that the South would now be lost to the Democratic Party.
For all his sins and tragic flaws, Johnson was in this respect at least a brave and righteous prophet who did the right thing. So how he would have relished the exhilarating irony of this week when his own state, Texas, stayed deepest red-Republican, but the Old Dominion, Virginia, the home of the founding fathers and four of the first five Presidents of the United States, went Democratic for the first time since his own sweep in 1964, so that an African-American could be elected president and the original sin of the republic finally wiped clean.
There is another respect, too, in which American ideals, to which custodians like Lincoln clung in the face of bitter reality, have at long last been vindicated. Government "of the people, for the people, by the people" now has indeed a better chance of not perishing from the earth. For the election embodied the victory of democratic optimism over cynical manipulation...
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 07:58
SOURCE: http://www.dissentmagazine.org (11-5-08)
Gone, suddenly, were all those campaign-trail arguments and analyses about which we spent untold hours typing out tortured email messages, half-baked blog posts, and bickering rejoinders. The swiftness with which this grand symbolic victory over race prejudice displaced once-consuming controversies was bracing because it underscored how ready most Americans were, in the end, to evaluate the candidates and the campaign without an overweening regard for race.
When the big day came, the much-awaited Bradley Effect was a no-show; it disappeared like the Halloween phantoms of last week. The allegedly racist blue-collar whites who preferred Hillary Clinton to Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania, it turned out, had all along favored her because of their interests—not their values: She had spoken in a language of practical economic populism, not airy reform. But this week, when these voters stuck with the Democratic Party, as they had in the 1990s, they silently rebuked the prior disparagements of liberal nabobs. For most of them, after all, the issue had consistently been the economy—a reality underscored by the temporal coincidence of Wall Street’s implosion and Obama’s breakaway from McCain in the polls. Of 94 surveys taken since September 26, not one had McCain winning.
Surely, in some pockets, racism persisted and will persist; but like the racist townspeople in Blazing Saddles, who rallied behind Cleavon Little’s dandy black sheriff to fend off the evil governor’s dark designs, they put self-interest ahead of bigotry. I don’t know about Kansas, but nothing seems to be the matter with Pennsylvania—thank you very much, Mr. Frank.
Ironically, Obama benefited as he never could have imagined by ABC News’s discovery back in the spring of the Reverend Wright tapes. He was able to dazzle the commentariat all over again with his Niebuhrian speech on race—and then, when Wright made clear that he was having none of it, Obama was able to stay afloat by cutting loose his surrogate father like the newly crowned King Henry IV regarding Falstaff. (“I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;/How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!...Presume not that I am the thing I was;/For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,/That I have turn’d away my former self.”)By the time the fall rolled around, the old man was old news, and besides, John McCain had pledged not to go there—his aspiration to high-mindedness happily converged with the shrewd calculation that revisiting the Wright mess would only boomerang back to him.
It helped, too, that for the campaign’s crucial October weeks Obama assumed a more workaday idiom, at least until the election was in the bag. On Election Night, he forgivably returned to his favored cadences and sometimes cloying allusiveness (“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin…”). But in the end Obama’s messianism seemed, for once, utterly beside the point, given the euphoric reactions of Americans in plazas and living rooms from coast to coast.
Henry Louis Gates wrote: “Nothing could have prepared any of us for the eruption (and, yes, that is the word) of spontaneous celebration that manifested itself in black homes, gathering places and the streets of our communities when Sen. Barack Obama was declared President-elect Obama. . . . My father waited 95 years to see this day happen, and when he called as results came in, I silently thanked God for allowing him to live long enough to cast his vote for the first black man to become president. And even he still can’t quite believe it!”
For months throughout the summer and fall—with the exception of the short-lived Sarah Palin boom—Obama’s election felt ploddingly inevitable. It took his actual victory this Tuesday at the polls to make it seem so mind-bogglingly unreal.
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:59
SOURCE: TheDailyBeast.com (11-5-08)
The advent of America’s first black president inexorably calls forth the word historic. Uttered so frequently last evening, as it will be in the days ahead, the adjective would have been drained of meaning but for the palpable momentousness of Barack Obama’s election. Gone was the pretense of post-racialism; revealed was liberal America’s pride in the often-unsung progress toward equality and toleration achieved in the civil rights movement’s aftermath.
Yet equally historic in its own way, albeit less widely noted, was the decisive victory of party. November 4 marked a resounding win for the Democrats just one election cycle after some panjandrums, seduced by Karl Rove’s Nixonian talk of a permanent Republican majority, prepared to consign the party of liberalism to an eon of darkness. Not since the early 1950s had one party seized control of the House, Senate, and White House in the space of two years—Eisenhower and the Republicans did it overnight in November 1952—but even after that trifecta, the incoming Republicans’ congressional margins (eight seats in the House, one in the Senate) had been too slender to give Ike a true mandate. To find another turnover as stark as the shift of 2006-08 requires spooling back to 1932.
But while 2008 represents an unmistakable repudiation of contemporary conservatism—not just of George W. Bush but also of the right’s chosen leaders in the Congress, the courts, and the media—this is not 1932 redux (financial crisis notwithstanding).
Landslide, another word bruited about in giddy Democratic circles as the returns came in, does not, alas, apply. Franklin D. Roosevelt painted virtually the whole electoral map in a single color; so did Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. Obama, though he improved impressively on the performances of Al Gore and John Kerry, didn’t redraw the electoral map. On the contrary, the crude red state/blue state shorthand that came into journalistic favor after 2000 had always been a misnomer, one that obscured the memory of Bill Clinton’s geographically far-reaching victories, which netted 370 electoral votes in 1992 and 379 in 1996. Obama’s pick-up of “red” states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico in fact merely returned them to the Democratic column.
It was Clinton’s election in 1992, in fact, that dethroned Reaganism. But Bush v. Gore allowed the Republicans to believe that their ideology still reigned supreme; then the rally-round-the-flag effects of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq let the new president sustain popular support in the face of foreign threats. Throughout the Bush years, however, America remained a 50/50 nation—a fact George W. Bush forgot, or ignored, at his peril.
Ironically, then, Obama is poised to continue, not to overturn, the Clinton legacy. In his hard-fought primary battle against Hillary Clinton, Obama galvanized the party’s leftist factions, as well as independents, by painting the Clinton and Bush years as an undifferentiated period of Washington decadence. But at the Denver convention he started citing, as Clinton used to, the statistics about job growth and poverty reduction in the 1990s that spoke to the efficacy, and not just the good intentions, of liberal economics and social policy.
That apparent peacemaking gesture to the former president soon became an important argument for the nominee’s election. When McCain surged in the late summer, even taking the lead for a spell in the polls, Obama realized he had to find a language to speak to blue-collar Democrats who, voting their interests more than their values, had flocked to Hillary in the spring. What he arrived at scarcely resembled the soaring oratory of the early primaries: a plainspoken version of Clinton’s “putting people first” rhetoric. If the language didn’t come naturally to Obama, it faithfully reflected his party’s ideology and usable legacy. Equally important, in the wake of the financial crisis, it proved vastly more reassuring than McCain’s erratic, incoherence on a subject that had always been his self-confessed Achilles’ heel. It was appropriate, then, that it was Bill Clinton who called the election outcome. “I predict that Senator Obama will win and will win pretty handily,” Clinton said with confidence in mid-September, after he received Obama at his Harlem office. “That’s what I think is going to happen.”
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:55
SOURCE: History & Policy (11-6-08)
The so-called 'credit crunch' which began in the summer of 2007 has now evolved into something altogether more significant and disturbing. A climax of sorts was reached on 7 September 2008, when Hank Paulson, Secretary to the US Treasury, announced that the Federal government would be guaranteeing the debts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two institutions which provided the financial backing for some 80% of recent US mortgages. A right-wing Republican administration, champion of the free market, had in effect nationalised the largest financial institution in the country; there could be no clearer indication that this is the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s. There swiftly followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the greatest corporate bankruptcy in history, the forced take-over of Merrill Lynch and the emergency rescue of the world's largest insurance company, AIG. Therewith three of the top five US investment banks went under (Bear Stearns, a third, having already sunk in March). Meanwhile, the UK's largest mortgage lender, Halifax Bank of Scotland, was taken over by Lloyds TSP to prevent its collapse.
Stock markets have plunged. In the USA and UK, and in other European countries, banks and building societies have accumulated unknown amounts of 'toxic debt', deriving from subprime mortgage deals. So far they have written off some $500 billion of debt, and they are still counting. As a result they are reluctant to lend money to one another or to potential house-buyers, since they can no longer be sure who can pay back whom and when. They even find it difficult to realise the assets in their portfolios, since selling them drives down the price and degrades those assets. House prices decline, and with them owners' confidence in their own wealth, and their ability to raise loans quoting their homes as collateral. Builders, retailers and manufacturers are all facing tighter markets and laying off some of their employees.
Much of this was foreseen in a book published six months before 'black September'. In The New Paradigm for Financial Markets George Soros asserted that what has happened is the bursting of a 'super-bubble', climax of the successive booms and busts that have disrupted financial markets at various junctures in the last quarter of a century: Latin American debt after 1982, the Savings and Loan Association crash in 1986, the Asian and Russian crises of 1997-8 and the dotcom bubble of 2000. In each case except the last the IMF and/or national central banks have had to step in to restore a stability that the market was incapable of recreating unaided. Soros argued that under the influence of market fundamentalism - the misguided belief that markets should be given free rein because they are self-correcting and tend towards equilibrium - credit had expanded to the point where it was dangerously unsustainable. He believed the time had come for the super-bubble to burst, provoking a crash which would be as serious as the slump of the early 1930s, though it would take different forms and would be tackled in different ways.
Soros explained the fallibility of the market through what he called 'reflexivity'. Participants in any activity, including finance, cannot simply stand back and study their situation with entire rationality and with full information at their disposal; they are bound up in the process, and they have to use what information they have before them - inevitably always inadequate and imperfect - to take decisions. They are therefore bound to make mistakes, and in finance those mistakes will tend towards self-reinforcing over-optimism about what credit can achieve. Furthermore, their actions change the reality they are assessing. Selling the shares of a poorly-performing company is not only a rational response to reality; it also changes that reality by helping to drive the price yet further down. Self-reinforcement thus works in both directions.
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The importance of trust
I believe Soros is right, but has not fully identified the force driving financial markets, which is trust. Trust is one of the most pervasive, but also least noticed, features of social life. We all exercise it unthinkingly every day. For forty-one years I have been trustingly paying substantial sums each month into a pension scheme, without getting a penny in return. Fortunately my trust was justified: when I retired a few months ago, I started to see the benefit.
Life is full of these more or less routine exercises of trust. As Soros remarked, seldom if ever can we obtain all the information we would need in order to take decisions in a fully rational manner. Even when we ponder decisions carefully, at a certain point we have to stop seeking further information, say 'enough is enough' and take a decision based on what we know and how we feel. The way in which we do this is strongly influenced by the society in which we live, its customs and its culture. Furthermore, trust has its own dynamic: it is usually self-reinforcing. We go on trusting beyond the point at which evidence suggests distrust would be more appropriate. Trust is not infinitely elastic, though: eventually counter-evidence has its effect and we turn to distrust, which is equally cumulative and self-reinforcing. This is exactly what has been happening in financial markets.
The paramount symbol of trust in modern society is money. It enables us in normal times to obtain goods and services from people we do not know, have no other grounds for trusting, and are never likely to meet again. Anyone who lived through German hyperinflation in the 1920s or Russian hyperinflation in the 1990s can tell you what absurd and cumbersome devices people have to adopt, if money cannot be trusted, to obtain daily requirements that we take for granted.
But money is complex and many-layered. Much of the money most of us possess takes the form of an entry in electronic account records. Behind that is paper money, which many people think of as 'real money', even though no bank keeps enough of it to satisfy its customers, should they all turn up together to withdraw their funds. But that money is not really 'real' either. Each note bears a statement that the Bank of England 'Promises to pay on demand the sum of' - ten pounds, let us say. That promise refers to reserves of gold that the Bank of England holds - except that the Bank does not hold anything like enough of it to cover all the banknotes in circulation, and anyway it long ago cancelled its obligation to offer gold in return for notes. Even if it still did, what can you do with gold? You can't eat it, or wear it, or warm yourself with it. So money is not a real 'good' or benefit, just a symbol of entitlement to a benefit, a symbol which society trusts, even though it is at least one stage removed from that benefit. The current voracious demand for gold shows that in uncertain times we feel safer descending several storeys in what begins to look like a rickety structure....
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:50
SOURCE: Real Clear Politics (11-6-08)
Festina lente. Make haste slowly. That was the motto of the revolutionary minded young Augustus who soon grasped that he needed to build upon Rome's past, rather than dismantle it.
Amid the celebration of the historic victory of Barack Obama, the country should now quit the bickering, appreciate a fair and peaceful transference of power, and unite behind its new commander-in-chief.
But in turn our new President Obama would do well to heed that ancient Roman wisdom, appreciating that the real world after Nov. 4 is not exactly the same as its frequent caricature during the hard-fought campaign.
John McCain promised to cut taxes on all. Sen. Obama promised to raise them on some. But neither plan fully appreciated that we are now buried deep under trillions of dollars of debt -- and need both more revenue and less expenditure.
An Obama administration, like it or not, must cede to the laws of physics: America will have to pay down debt while not raising taxes too high at a time of recession. That balancing act will make it hard to borrow additional billions for more promised federal spending.
"Hope and change" may have implied an easy transition to our clean, cool solar and wind future. But for a while longer, America's envisioned new electric cars will still require old-fashioned natural gas, coal and nuclear power to generate electricity to charge them.
Economic slowdown, conservation and public promises to drill more oil and natural gas have already helped to collapse world oil prices and saved us billions. And before we talk of ending the coal industry, we should thank our lucky stars that America has the world's most plentiful supply of coal to transition us to alternate sources of energy.
We need more regulation of both Wall Street and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which all went feral and turned on us during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Yet European leaders are faced with far worse financial meltdowns than we are -- and their problems have nothing to do with American excess or George Bush.
The dollar is climbing against the Euro because market analysts realize that for all our sins, American financial institutions are still far less exposed than those elsewhere in the world, and our free-market system far more flexible to recover from excess and grow the economy....
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:41
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (11-6-08)
Just after midnight on election day the good folks in Dixville Notch, NH gave 15 votes for Barack Obama, while John McCain garnered only 6. Their first-in-the-nation vote told us what we needed to know and offered a portent for shifts across the country. George W. Bush won there decisively in 2004. Indeed, for the first time since 1968 - when they rejected Nixon (perhaps they really knew something) - the good townsfolk voted Democratic. Dixville Notch had a statement to make, one which the nation endorsed. George Bush and his policies had to be repudiated.
To do so, Obama had to re-shape "blue" and "red" America. Four years earlier, he called upon us to reject that dreary, paralyzing division. Obama's campaign doggedly ventured deep into formidable "red "territory, and cracked it wide open. Lacking the Bush-Rove well-practiced manipulation of the politics of fear, the lines could not hold.
Let us make no mistake: Barack Obama is an exceptionally inspired, articulate, intelligent candidate - the likes of which has been unseen far too long. He assembled a formidable force of campaign foot soldiers that demonstrated the ongoing utility of retail politics. In a truly exceptional way, again as few before him - and never in the day of mass media - he commanded the respect and admiration of a global audience.
But the election was all about the sitting president, bless him. He was the focal point for Obama's message for more than a year that we must change from his ruinous policies, in both foreign and domestic matters. We recognized that we must rid ourselves of a man who had conned us since 2000. Of course, the 22nd Amendment assured us that Bush would go, but the electoral expression of rejection was a bonus.
"I am a unifier, not a divider," Bush said then, with apparent sincerity. "I am not a nation-builder," he added in a rare statement of specificity. Maybe for some he offered an alternative to the sordid political spectacles of the Clinton years. He became President only after the Supreme Court selected him. Bush eventually found, as Mark Twain said, that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. His father fell from grace following Gulf War in 1991; so, too, the son whose approval ratings dropped precipitously in his second term.
So, change the nation wanted. But give the electorate its due - it wanted more than a new president. Obama's election signifies nothing less than a clear repudiation of George W. Bush's failures.
Change? We know we must repudiate a war fraudulently imposed upon us; we know we must not torture our suspected enemies, after all we are not the Gestapo; we know we do not want preemptive wars we once condemned as "sneak attacks"; we know we do not want such Supreme Court Justices as Scalia, Thomas, Alioto, and Roberts; we know we must reject the excesses of an Administration that irresponsibility pursued the chimera of deregulation, squandering the benefits of necessary components to an economy that brought decades of steady prosperity; we know we do not want the President to wage war against the Constitution and impair our liberties and freedoms, all in the name of a so-called War on Terror; we know we must have a President who knows his constitutional law and will respect the actions of separate, coordinate branches of government; we know we do not need a Co-President, with an utter lack of accountability; we know we need a Congress with the will to exercise its proper authority to check and balance executive misconduct; and we know that we do not have a unitary executive, a presumptive theory articulated in a deservedly obscure doctoral dissertation, and nowhere supported in either our Constitution or our history.
Unlike the Ancient Mariner who rid himself of an albatross by shooting an arrow through it, and bringing down bad luck on his ship, we, more mindful of our history, chose our traditional, peaceful path to change. Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking on the sixth anniversary of his first inaugural, probably said it best about our elections: "With the . . . free choosing of public servants by a free electorate, the Constitution has proved that this type of government cannot long remain in the hands of those who seek personal aggrandizement for selfish ends. . . . [O]ur elections are positive in their mandate, rather than passive in their acquiescence."
We have said we wanted "to change" - but to what lies in our unknown future. But we wisely have chosen to face the unknown rather than be hobbled with a past, crippling of our energy, ability, and above all, our spirit.
FDR recognized that "all our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." Twenty-three days after our new president takes office, he will inaugurate the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial. How appropriate! There are many connections between the two, none more obvious than emancipation and its fruits. But both also have spoken so eloquently on the meaning of America; both have been eloquent messengers for hope - and change.
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:06
SOURCE: http://www.religiondispatches.org (11-6-08)
Millions of Americans believe they have found a savior. President-Elect Obama and Democrats in Congress will rally the economy; they will end wars; they will set the captives free. But what happens when messiahs fail? What happens when promises of hope are met by realities of despair? What happens if prosperity eludes us? What happens if violence and terrorism abound? What happens if change results in more of the same in Washington and the world? Americans must be ready for this. Otherwise, we may be preparing ourselves for a fall of edenic proportions.
After the election was called for Senator Obama (thank goodness it didn’t go into the next day or weeks), it felt like the biblical “day of Jubilee” was upon us. Pro-Obama crowds were euphoric as the revolution was seemingly televised. There was dancing and singing. Tears flowed. Everyone commented on the “historic” moment. Senator McCain sought to wash the historic story as one for African Americans, but he was only partly right. The entire campaign—for both Democrats and Republicans—was an historic event. It was an emblem of how far the United States has changed, and we should all be proud of that. One hundred years ago, an African American man was lynched in the United States every five days. National votes for women were still a dozen years away. One hundred years ago W. E. B. Du Bois had to defend the “souls” of black folks against claims that African Americans were soulless beasts. One hundred years ago, divorce laws made it next-to-impossible for women to divorce their husbands.
Without downplaying these historical changes, we should be wary. In many ways, Senator Obama has been transformed into a symbol. He has become a totem, representing hope, change, and even salvation. During my interview with NPR, one caller exulted as he referred to Obama as a “sublime mystery.” The caller was right. Mysteries can be wonderful. They can be exciting. They can be comforting. “The body and the blood” of Christ have led billions to feel connected to God and to other Christians; Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired (and continues to inspire) Christian faith for so many. The narrative of the deathless state of Guatama Buddha has led countless to seek enlightenment. I do not believe President-Elect Obama is a mystery, but I am certainly frightened by those who do and those who want a mystery to have control over the United States army and have access to nuclear weapons.
Mysteries can be dangerous and days of Jubilee do not always end with eras of sublimity. In the United States, there have been alleged days of Jubilee before. On January 1, 1863, African Americans throughout the nation and many northern whites celebrated the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Nighttime vigils were held as southern blacks celebrated the day of the coming of the Lord. African Americans in South Carolina sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and talked about how it was the first time they felt proud to be Americans (recall that Frederick Douglass had lectured in the 1850s that the Fourth of July was a day for whites and not for blacks).
Let’s ignore for a moment that the Emancipation Proclamation freed very few slaves. Let’s ignore Harry Stout’s argument in Upon the Altar of the Nation that the proclamation provided a moral rationale for immoral total war. Let’s look forward thirty-five years from 1865 and be struck with a sobering thought. Within one generation, hope had turned to despair. Since the 1950s, African American scholars have referred to the 1890s and early twentieth century as “the nadir.” Thirty-five years after the day of jubilee, women and men of color now experienced a low point defined by segregation, lynching, and fear.
Obama is neither the Antichrist, nor a new Christ. I cannot write this as a prophet or theologian, for I am neither of those. I cannot write it as a historian for the tools of my trade provide no evidence for either. Instead, I write it as a citizen of this nation and the world. To attack Obama as the end of the world seems silly, but to vest in him the hopes for a national and world transformation seem equally troubling.
Perhaps these days we would be better off considering the “solemnity of this day.” One hundred years ago, another African American graduate of Harvard and Senate-candidate W. E. B. Du Bois prayed with his students at Atlanta University:
“Give us this night, O God, Peace in our land and the long silence that comes after strain and upheaval. Let us sense the solemnity of this day – its mighty meaning, its deep duty. Save this government. Cherish its great ideals – give strength and honesty and unbending courage to him whom the people today have named Chief Magistrate of these United States and make our country in truth a land where all men are free and equal in the pursuit of happiness. Amen.”
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008 - 00:02
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (11-6-08)
The last time Americans danced and cheered in the streets was in 1945, when the nation finally defeated its enemies in the Second World War. I have no memories of those exuberant days. But I'm an historian and I've seen plenty of pictures and read many descriptions of the joy and happiness that swept over the country.
Obama's stunning victory is the first time in 63 years that Americans once again danced and cheered in the street. Here on the Left Coast, thousands of Berkeley students danced in the city, wildly cheering his victory. In Oakland's Jack London Square and in San Francisco's Castro District, tens of thousands more gathered for joyous street parties, dancing in the street. It was a bittersweet victory because of the success of those who sought to ban same-sex marriage. That day, too, will come. Of this I'm sure.
Elsewhere, people also danced in the streets. In Chicago, a friend describes the thousands of young people who poured out of trains to join the tens of thousands already celebrating in Grant Park. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the largely African American and Caribbean population celebrated in the streets, dancing and setting off fireworks.
All across America, in these blue enclaves, celebration and joy was in the air. The morning after the election, I received emails from friends all over the world who described how the election would transform not just the United States, but the rest of the world. On the Berkeley campus, colleagues, as well as strangers, hugged each other. Smiles sprouted on students' faces. It was as though everyone were awakening from an eight year low-grade depression.
At an election night party with people of my 60s generation, a mixed-race crowd couldn't believe what we saw on television--and on our computers. As we listened to John Lewis, tears poured down our faces. None of us thought we'd lived to see this historic election. All of our adult lives we have protested racial and sexual discrimination, unnecessary wars, and fought for social and economic justice. None of us could remember wanting to dance in the streets. To feel joy, to feel pride in our new leader,and those who elected him, was a new experience.
All my life I've heard the phrase "dancing in the streets" but I've never witnessed it after a political event. May the future give us more historic reasons to rejoice and dance in the streets.
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 15:43
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (11-6-08)
Paul Krugman, among my favorite political commentators, has spoken forthrightly of how during the past few years we have had"monsters" in office, naming Tom Delay, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. He complains that until recently, if an observer simply called them what they are, he or she was termed"shrill." (h/t Daily Kos).
I could not agree more. But I'd like to take this discussion out of the realm of commentary and into that of action.
It is unacceptable that television news brings Tom Delay and Karl Rove on as bona fide political commentators, when both are criminals. The same thing goes for Oliver North. Delay has been indicted on corruption charges and had to step down from his seat in Congress. Rove led a campaign to have the press out a covert CIA operative who was attempting to stop Iranian nuclear proliferation, essentially blowing her cover and that of her contacts to Tehran (i.e. he is a traitor).
There was a time when individuals so tainted with crime made themselves unacceptable in polite society, including on television.
Instead, these monsters are being given air time. CNN brought Delay on to accuse Barack Obama of being a"Marxist." To have that shameless embezzler given a platform to smear an honorable man just made my blood boil.
Folks, we need an organization that can blanket the corporate media with emails of complaint every time they bring on a criminal and parade him as a legitimate commentator. If they blow us off, it would be time to get up some advertiser boycotts.
This rehabilitation-by-media of criminals is one way the country keeps being shifted to the right every time the people find their voice. The Right gives a comfy perch on television to looney embezzlers and burglars and then wages campaigns with big money behind them to discredit even centrist leaders not in their back pockets.
I do not advocate criminalizing politics. I am not saying anything glib, such that all Bush administration figures are ipso facto criminals and should be denied a public voice. The United States government is a large bureaucracy and lots of civil servants and military have to serve whatever administration the public votes in. There are and were people on Bush's National Security Council, e.g., who are honorable and trying to do their best by the United States.
All that I am saying is that where someone has to resign in disgrace and is actually indicted on serious corruption charges, like Delay, that should make that individual poison to television news! The Rove case is a little trickier, since he has not been indicted. But the Fitzgerald investigation showed that he tried to do something that was technically illegal. Presidential pardons also muddy these waters. Elliot Abrams lied to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair, but was pardoned by Bush senior and then actually let onto the National Security Council by W.! But a responsible citizen watchdog group could surely come up with a fair gauge of gross criminal or ethics violations that should put the individual out of the business of commenting on daily politics to millions of viewers.
Note that corporate media is much more careful about sexual scandal than it is about other kinds of crime. A politician or public figure so much as accused of sexual impropriety is often considered off limits (CNN's Aaron Brown once sidelined Scott Ritter that way, over a date gone bad). Presumably this caution derives in part from fear of the emails they would get, and threats of advertiser boycotts, from the relgious Right.
Liberals have let themselves be walked all over by the Right, which is mostly much better funded and organized than the American Left, for too long. In part, it is because we are tolerant of a wide range of speech in a way that the Right is not. But I am not arguing for restricting the range of speech. People with Delay's or Rove's views deserve a hearing in the public sphere. It is just that we have no obligation to give a soapbox to monsters and criminals.
So the next time you see CNN or ABC, e.g., interview Tom Delay with a straight face, send a protest email and scream bloody murder and notice which corporation paid for Delay to be on the public airwaves. But better yet, can't we form a facebook page for this with alerts, and get organized about it?
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 15:35
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (11-6-08)
To join that ebullient crowd in front of the White House shortly after midnight on Tuesday November 4 2008 was to dance with history. "Bush out now!" and "Goodbye, na na na na", they chanted, to the sound of drums. "Obama! Obama!" Car horns honked. A saxophone blared from the passenger window of a bright red pick-up truck. A young man beat a saucepan with a metal spoon. "This is the biggest housewarming party I've ever been to," an African-American woman with a stars-and-stripes headscarf dreamily confided, as she shimmied across 16th Street. And, this being our time, everyone both yapped and photo-snapped on their mobile phones.
Most of all, though, these mainly young revellers chanted the slogan that Obama had just made the leitmotif of his acceptance speech in Chicago: "Yes We Can! Yes We Can!" Even the car horns took up the three-stroke rhythm: beep-beep-beep. When I went to bed, well after two in the morning, I could still hear the chants reverberating up to my hotel window. Yes-We-Can! Yes-We-Can!
But can they? Can he? Can we?
To say that he is the first black president in American history is more to write the last lines of the last chapter than the start of a new one. That chapter of pain is both remarkably ancient and shockingly recent. I observed people voting in a downtown polling station located in a church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which, a sign records, was established to protest against segregated worship in 1787. Across the Anacostia river, in a poor neighbourhood where mine was almost the only white face, an election supervisor - a Baptist preacher in everyday life - told me how African-Americans, often voting for the first time, had brought their children to witness the moment of which Dr King had dreamed. Only by listening to their voices can you fully appreciate what will be the impact of the mere sight of a black family occupying that white house.
But Obama is much more than just black American. Like a growing number of citizens of our mixed-up world he is, as the columnist Michael Kinsley nicely puts it, "a one-man ethnic stew". This qualifies him to represent all those Americans, of every hue and mix, that I saw in the long queues of people waiting to vote in downtown Washington, and in that crowd before the White House. "Where are you from?" I asked a man who I guessed might be of North African origin. He stopped dancing for a moment, looked at me and said: "From my mother." A wonderful answer, also a rebuke, and minted for the age of Obama.
For Obama is simultaneously the first post-ethnic president. To reduce this story to the black-white dichotomy is as useful as a black and white photograph of a colourful scene. John McCain may have singled out Joe the plumber to represent an old-fashioned, putative "silent majority" of white working-class Americans, but actually they now constitute a (not so) silent minority. And José the plumber voted for Obama. In fact, Obama's vote benefited from almost every aspect of America's growing demographic diversity. Introducing him in Florida during the campaign, Bill Clinton highlighted this new diversity, saying that both Florida and Obama represent "the world's present and America's future". That seems to me the wrong way round: it's America's present and the world's future. Where once America lagged, it now leads...
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 13:18
SOURCE: Slate (11-5-08)
In the weeks before Election Day, we heard regularly that John McCain was running the sleaziest campaign in a generation, if not in American history. That claim might strike some as another case of journalistic weakness for hyperbole. After all, we've also heard claims that this was the most important election of our lifetimes (as if the outcome of the 2000 race hadn't altered history), assertions that the Internet changed everything this year (though Obama surely would have won without it), and effusions about young people's unprecedented engagement (an echo of 1992, when youth turnout actually spiked—as it did not this year).
But unlike those exaggerations, the line about McCain threatens to stain a man's name for history. And when viewed without partisan blinders or presentist lenses, the charge doesn't hold up. Indeed, it says more about today's political culture, which has grown unusually high-minded, and the emotions that Americans invest in presidential elections, which are unfailingly intense, than it does about McCain himself.
A cursory familiarity with 19th-century history dispels any illusions that today's campaigns, or candidates, are nastier than they used to be. As historian Gil Troy wrote in See How They Ran, the first presidential races—those of 1796 and 1800, which pitted John Adams against Thomas Jefferson—generated slanders on both sides worse than we hear today. Jefferson's surrogates painted Adams as a monarchist, warning that he was going to create a dynasty by marrying his son to King George's daughter. Adams's advocates called the author of the Declaration of Independence a traitor and agent of the French Revolution, and accused him of raping his slave mistress. (Jefferson's liaisons with Sally Hemings have since been accepted by most historians). Abigail Adams despaired that all the "abuse and scandal" would "ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world."
During the age of democracy in the 1830s, politics got only uglier. Newspapers, making no secret of their partisan allegiances, happily vilified the opposition in personal terms. Rivals branded Andrew Jackson an adulterer, his wife a bigamist, and his mother a prostitute. The most infamous contest of the century might have been the mud fight of 1884, when a well-known minister, sharing a stage with Republican nominee James Blaine, labeled the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion"—a slur on immigrants, Catholics, and Southerners that Democrats forced Blaine to repudiate. The Republicans also attacked the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, for fathering an illegitimate child—a charge immortalized in the taunt, "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"
The push for Blaine to disavow his supporter's well-publicized slur bespoke a growing concern with cleaning up politics. Late in the 19th century, middle-class reformers tried to purge democracy of its seamy underside, introducing voting reforms like the secret ballot and striving to elevate the tone of campaigns. "To elect their own rulers is, indeed, a great privilege," wrote the New York Evening Post in 1872. "But the principles and methods by which they have come to select them for election are execrable."
The political reformers of the Progressive Era muted the crude personal invective that had once been commonplace, to say nothing of the formerly widespread practice of buying and stealing votes. But politics and human nature being what they are, no one devised a way to eliminate meanness. The 20th century saw plenty of below-the-belt campaigning, including many races much uglier than this year's. A quick rundown of the lowlights would have to include the Republicans' 1928 slurs against Al Smith, the first Catholic major-party nominee, pilloried as an agent of the pope; the Democrats' 1964 campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater, to whom neo-Nazi ties were imputed; Jimmy Carter's 1980 insinuations that Ronald Reagan was a reckless warmonger; George Bush Sr.'s use of the Pledge of Allegiance and prison-furlough issues against Michael Dukakis in 1988; Bush's claims in 1992 that Bill Clinton committed near-traitorous acts by protesting the Vietnam War while in England; and—how soon we forget—the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004.
If those examples don't put McCain's in perspective, consider that they were all rhetorical attacks. Even worse were Nixon's dirty tricks-filled efforts of 1968 and 1972 and George W. Bush's resort to mob violence to stop the 2000 Florida recount. Indeed, McCain's campaign probably wasn't even the dirtiest of 2008—a prize that belongs, arguably, to Obama himself for ascribing racism to Bill and Hillary Clinton in the days between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
Compared with the foregoing, McCain's slaps at Obama seemed more pathetic and desperate than vicious. His atavistic broadsides against "socialism" rang hollow. Ads about Obama's loose links to a Palestinian-American scholar and to a domestic terrorist whose name few Americans knew fell flat. Cheeky digs at Obama's celebrity status provoked more mirth than ire. McCain's ugliest tactic was to revive an old slur that Obama backed sex education for kindergarteners, but it met with such ferocious rebuke that it was rapidly withdrawn and forgotten. Against these negative themes, too, must be counterbalanced McCain's admirable stands, as when he fired staffers who stoked racism or anti-Muslim sentiments and rebuked his own hate-spewing supporters at rallies.
The claims about McCain's supposedly unprecedented negativity, then, don't signify any deep truth about his character. Rather, they reveal important aspects of American politics today. The efforts to purify politics at the turn of the last century may not have succeeded in eliminating negativity, but they did erect new norms that stigmatized ungentlemanly campaign tactics—norms that remain powerful. When candidates go negative, they almost always draw scorn from the news media and often hurt their own campaigns more than they help. When McCain went after his opponent, this powerful disdain for negative campaigning kicked in, bringing out all our censoriousness.
The scorn for going negative, moreover, has been especially acute among reformist high-minded liberals in the tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Eugene McCarthy to Obama—men whose successes rested on their supporters' wish for a politics free of the compromises and rough-and-tumble inherent in democracy. By introducing his campaign in a Stevensonian vein, Obama fashioned an image as one who would never initiate attacks. Remarkably, and much to his credit, Obama sustained that image throughout the campaign, even during those moments in August when, flagging in the polls, he acceded to his supporters' calls to hit harder against McCain or, the previous fall, against Hillary Clinton.
The hyperbole about McCain's tone also stems from the human tendency to try to explain away electoral losses. In any election, the defeated are naturally loath to concede that the other side's platform or candidate was more appealing. Instead, we tend to ascribe to the other side an extreme skill in black arts—whether dangerously persuasive rhetoric, election stealing, or the evil genius of a Lee Atwater or a Karl Rove. Although Obama was in little danger of losing the election following the mid-September financial meltdown, his supporters, having seen two presidential victories slip through their grasp, couldn't quite shake the notion that the Democrats were vulnerable, and they grabbed onto these time-honored rationalizations.
Finally, the protectiveness that Obama elicited from others also explains why McCain's fall campaigning was reviewed so harshly. Throughout the year, Obama was often spared the task of defending himself because others with prominent media platforms did it for him. As the campaign progressed, a whole slate of possible criticisms—including legitimate concerns about his record or his foreign-policy chops—were deemed, as if by cultural consensus, beyond the pale. Indeed, it's worth recalling that October's hyperbolic claims about McCain's negativity echo similar (and similarly unfounded) claims about Clinton's campaigning back in the spring. Does Obama somehow invite historically unprecedented negativity? Or are his enthusiasts just unusually quick to perceive it? In any event, Obama benefited more from labeling his rivals as uniquely sleazy than he suffered from whatever sleaziness they displayed.
Obama fully deserved to defeat McCain on Tuesday. But he deserved to win because his party and his program presented the better hope for a better America, and not because he is purer of heart than other politicians—or any less able to throw a punch when his political future demands it. Like all good politicians, Obama appears to understand this important distinction. The rest of us should, too.
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 02:15
SOURCE: Montreal Gazette (11-5-08)
A voter fills out ballot at poll in Columbus, Ohio yesterday: The campaign might seem like a cakewalk compared with governing.
Campaigns are social stress tests. U.S. presidential campaigns are regularly scheduled exercises highlighting the country’s social, cultural and political strengths and weaknesses. This year’s campaign - to the world’s sorrow - also demonstrated devastating economic weaknesses. Still, campaigns also breed optimism, as candidates invite their fellow citizens to remember the past and assess the present, then invest one mortal with the future dreams of 300 million people.
For all the foolishness and frustrations of the two-year, $4.3-billion presidential quest, Americans should enter the 21/2-month transition to Inauguration Day proud of the peaceful, thorough, and open process that selected their next president.
In this campaign, tens of millions participated and shaped the historic outcome. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead during the general campaign switched at least three times.
From the “invisible primary” seeing who could raise the most money that began after the 2006 mid-term congressional campaigns through the first votes cast in the Iowa caucus in January, 2008, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed liked the Democrats’ inevitable choice. Simultaneously, John McCain’s quest for the Republican nomination faltered. Only once the voting started did Barack Obama soar. Only after he won the caucuses of the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa did most people start believing that this young, first-term senator, who often described himself as the skinny guy with the funny name, just might win it all.
In this rollicking, gruelling, unpredictable 2008 campaign marathon, America’s voters - and politicians - found themselves particularly shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judged, but also partially tried to replicate, the 1980s revolution.
Both nominees embody America’s tremendous progress since the 1960s. John McCain represents the sea-change in attitudes toward Vietnam veterans which he helped trigger. During the war, many returning soldiers felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in U.S. culture, symbolizing patriotism, selflessness and sacrifice, helped heal many of that war’s national wounds.
Obama, who spent much of the campaign emphasizing how young he was during the 1960s, is a child of that decade, born in 1961. The civil-rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than most dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s audacity was in dreaming that his children would be treated as equals by whites; even he did not believe Americans would consider a black president so soon. And despite Hillary Clinton’s loss, her campaign - along with Sarah Palin’s - advanced the women’s revolution of the 1960s to the upper reaches of national politics.
As the 1960s cast its shadow, the 1980s’ Reagan Revolution loomed large, too. When John McCain was not channeling Theodore Roosevelt, he invoked Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offered the muscular, nationalist, patriotic leadership that McCain admires.
Obama admires that leadership style, too. Interviewed in Nevada in January, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that … Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Responding to the inevitable Democratic - and Clintonesque - onslaught, Obama explained he was not embracing Reagan’s policies, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.”
At his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama demonstrated a similar ambition and potential. Obama did not run to be a caretaker. Having matured during the Reagan Revolution, Obama wants to redefine liberalism as more community-oriented and more sensitive to tradition than the liberalism the 1960s produced; balancing rights and responsibilities, government power and individual prerogative.
Of course, the financial meltdown directly challenged the 1980s’ legacy. During the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made pundits predict 2008 would be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption explains Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. That hedge - and so many others - diminished in value with the stock market’s collapse.
Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic on economic issues. That is what tends to happen during campaigns.
Today, America’s new president-elect has to start preparing to govern. The 11-week transition to Jan. 20 is a gift, an opportunity for a healing honeymoon but also a test. And come Inauguration Day, the economy must be revived, the Iraq mess must be fixed, the challenges of a potentially nuclear Iran must be faced, the continuing threat of Islamic terror must be countered. Perhaps most important, the U.S. people need reassuring and reuniting after the anger and alienation of the George W. Bush years.
This campaign showed that Americans hunger for change and inspiration. Inspiring while making hard decisions that might entail sacrifice is an Herculean task. In the inevitably rough days ahead, the new president might start yearning for the clarity and simplicity of the campaign trail, where oratory could substitute for policy and soundbites could trump substance, even if the accommodations were less plush than those the White House offers.
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 01:43
SOURCE: CNN (11-5-08)
Many Americans are expecting big things from President Barack Obama.
The president-elect ran as the candidate of change, promising to transform the status quo in Washington and to empower citizens to take back their government.
During his speeches in the final week of the campaign, Obama said to his supporters that together, "we will change this country. We will change the world."
Those are some pretty big promises. Unfortunately for Obama, most presidents since WWII have suffered from the freshmen blues in their first year in the White House.
Expectations are usually high and the ability of a president to deliver much of what he promised on the campaign trail is rather low. Without a national crisis like 9/11, presidents have struggled in their first year with a general decline in approval ratings.
The reasons are not difficult to understand. International and domestic crises force the White House to focus on unexpected issues, many of which are not in their best political interest. The bitter partisan and intra-party tensions that had caused gridlock for the previous administration remain. Budgetary limits constrain how much tax-cutting or spending increases can take place.
When a president takes office with expectations as high as those for Obama, the chances for avoiding a post-election letdown are virtually nil.
Under these conditions, the challenge for the new president is to somehow keep the factions of his winning coalition in the tent even as he can't accomplish much of what he promised to do.
While some presidents, such as Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter, never really recovered from the post-election letdown and watched as their coalitions crumbled, other presidents have figured out ways to retain the loyalty of their supporters....
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 01:19
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (11-5-08)
The following email came in from my friend Wendy, very early Tuesday morning:"At 6:22, I am standing in a block long line on w. 65th. In 33 years I have never stood behind more than ten people for a prez election…"
Keep in mind that we're talking about New York City, where the election result was never in doubt. At about the same time, at our neighborhood polling place, my wife found a more than hour-long line winding around the block, and my son, on his way to work, had a similar traffic-jam experience. For a friend downtown, it was two-and-a-half hours. Again, this wasn't contested Ohio, it was New York City.
So don't think I wasn't excited -- even thrilled, even filled with hope -- when, at 11:30 that morning I hit my polling place and still found a sizeable, if swiftly moving, line of voters of every age, size, and color, and in the sunniest of moods. Normally, on voting day, I just waltz in. But it was a pleasure to wait and imagine. Even then I knew, as Jonathan Freedland wrote recently of Tom Friedman's new book, that the plural of"anecdote" is not"data." But believe me, that didn't stop me from thinking about what the turnout might be like in states where it mattered, or what that might mean. And it didn't stop me from remembering another moment, more than four years earlier.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was walking the floor of a packed Democratic Convention in Boston, interviewing dutiful delegates. They were intent on nominating John Kerry as the Party's candidate because they were convinced he was the man who could"win." Despite no less dutiful cheering as speakers rattled on, there was a low hum of conversation, a sense of distraction in the air -- until, that is, a politician I had never heard of, a young man from Illinois named Barack Obama, was introduced as the keynote speaker.
All I can say is that I've never been in a crowd so electrified. It was visceral, as if the auditorium itself had suddenly come alive. I felt it as a pure shot of energy coursing through my body. Like others in that vast arena, I simply didn't know what hit me. When it was over -- and it took a long time for that surging din to ebb -- when I could finally shout into a cell phone, I called my daughter, who, by an odd coincidence, was in the nosebleed section of the same arena with a camera crew. What I said to her (and then repeated to a friend in another call soon after) was:"I know this is going to sound ridiculous but I think I just heard a future president of the United States." (And then, in my report from the convention, I actually wrote it down:"He was a knock-out. Call me starry-eyed, or simply punchy as a day inside the Fleet Center ended, but there's always something about genuine enthusiasts that just does get to you. I thought to myself when Obama was finished and the place was truly rocking, maybe, just maybe, I listened to a speech by a future president of the United States.")
Soon after, a friend commented that people had said the same thing of Julian Bond back in the 1960s. And I promptly forgot all about it until my daughter reminded me of it this spring.
Last night, that electric moment came to mind again -- as a journey of unbelievable improbability reached its provisional, slightly miraculous endpoint. And, while the results poured in, I had another visit from the past. I remembered a day in 1950. I was six and my mother had taken me to one of those magnificent old movie palaces then still on Broadway in New York City to see a cowboy flick. At its climax, with the hero and villain locked in primordial struggle on a mountainside, the bad guy went over the cliff. As it happened, my father had mentioned this dramatic plot development the previous evening and so, as the villain dropped into the void, I yelled out into that darkened theater in sheer delight at being in the know,"My Dad told me it was going to happen this way!"
It's one of those typical kid stories -- embarrassing and yet with a certain charm -- that families tend to hang onto. And 58 years later, it came to mind as Barack Obama and the Democrats were storming through the electoral landscape. With various friends gathered at my house for a party meant to wipe out the misery and memory of a similar party four years earlier, I had the same primordial if irrational urge to shout out:"My friend Steve told me it was going to happen this way!"
I'm talking about Steve Fraser, my partner at our book publishing enterprise, the American Empire Project. Back in February 2007 at TomDispatch, he explored the possibility that this would be a"turning-point election," and not so long after became convinced that it would be. Maybe it was that 2004 electoral "hangover," but I couldn't convince myself of the same and so, increasingly, obsessionally, began checking out daily polling information on the campaign and trolling the Internet for endless commentary on the same.
When I'd call Steve to discuss the odds of a turning-point election actually happening, though, he would have none of it. Such a result was, for him, a given, and he had better things to do. He never wavered.
I can't claim the same. These last few months, I developed the Internet equivalent of a series of physical tics. The Daily Kos poll at 7:30; Rasmussen at 9:30; Gallup after 1; those repeated visits to Nate Silver's superb FiveThirtyEight.com, to TPM Election Central, to RealClearPolitics.com, and, of course, to Pollster.com to stare, and then stare again, at the prospective electoral map, to run the cursor over state polling averages that often changed not a whit from week to week. If this wasn't addiction, what was?
And so this morning, I woke up to a unique headline in my hometown paper -- just OBAMA in inch-high letters -- to genuine relief, but also to a kind of weird emptiness. It was over and it was, I realized, several things at once, including, of course, the Bush era, which should have ended in 2004 (or never begun), and which has been the nightmare of my adult life. Of course, you need to add in, as well, the end of a nearly thirty-year cycle of triumphant Republicanism (with that sorry Clintonista interlude) that left the country flat on its proverbial back.
It was also Barack Obama's remarkable victory, the turning-point election of all time -- at least in the sense of ending what Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln began, what could not have happened without a great and brave movement in the 1950s and 1960s that demanded of America what its founding documents, its most basic ideology, insisted should already be so.
A black president of the United States. A black first lady. In my younger days, no one could have convinced me this would happen in my lifetime. A massive movement of millions of young people on the ground, committed to, not alienated from, a future government – yes, that, too, was something we hadn't seen in quite a while, except perhaps on the evangelical right.
Today, it's clear enough that Obama's electoral juggernaut has swept a landscape already devastated and devalued by the Bush administration -- and that's no small thing. But there was another it as well, one that's harder to put a name to, another kind of juggernaut that managed to make its way under my skin and into my life -- into the lives, I suspect, of so many Americans over the last two years, and that I hold responsible both for those tics and that emptiness. It's what left me asking this morning: What hit me? What in the world was that?
And, really, what was it? We persist in calling it an"election," or an"electoral campaign." But you could catch something of what else it was in the journalistic bravado, combined with awe (or, perhaps, if such a word existed, I mean"self-awe"), as the TV news people made their Monday-night pitches for election eve viewers. They spoke with a kind of pride of"the longest campaign in U.S. history,""the most exciting presidential election in our lifetime,""the most closely followed election campaign in recent years,""the most expensive election in…," and so on, while my hometown paper front-paged it Monday as:"A Sea Change for Politics as We Know It."
A sea change. A tsunami of entertainment, or was it distraction? An eternal election campaign. Two years of the most everything -- the most money, the most small contributors, the most large contributors, the most ads, the most polls, the most lobbyists, the most extensive ground game, the most places (Internet, email, YouTube, Facebook, bloggers, text messaging, cell phones), the most jokes, the most appearances by candidates on late-night talk shows or TV satirical programs involving themselves, and, of course, the most talking (or babbling) heads and media pundits, always predicting, assessing, sizing-up, telling us what the candidates"must" do, and do, and do, 24/7. Whole programs, whole cable stations, whole news cycles, whole websites devoted to nothing but the constant discussion of… well, what? More spinners, bloviators, and pundits than previously existed on the face of the Earth. The most, the most… but only, naturally, until the next time when, you can be sure -- as Howard Dean's Internet fund-raising experiment was to Barack Obama's -- the most of 2008 will prove but a baseline for future mosts.
So let me just ask again: What was that? What just happened? I don't mean Barack Obama entering the Oval Office on January 20, 2009. I mean to me. I mean to us. I mean, what were all those talking heads on MSNBC, and CNN, and FOX doing? What were those bizarre feedback loops and YouTube videos of"events" you've already long forgotten? What were the gazillion ads and the gazillion discussions of them, and really, what were all those polls, hundreds and hundreds of polls, more polls than humanity has probably ever seen? What were they all about?
Whatever it was, it was supersized, a Big Maclection. It glued eyes to TV sets and the Internet, and, above all else, it -- what we kept insistently calling an"election" -- was bloated beyond belief. Like, say, the Pentagon. It was, in short, imperial.
And it never ended. In fact, we hadn't made it anywhere near November 4, 2008 before you could feel the next round, the next"election," revving up. 2012 was already on the drawing board. Would it be Sara Palin v. Hillary Clinton? Was Mitt Romney still in the race? Would the Republicans roar back, or would they be a rump white party in the wilderness of the deep South and deep West for a generation to come? Think of it as the eternal election.
Millions of people devoted themselves to this election. Knocked on doors. Made phone calls. And yet it -- the thing I'm talking about -- was the very opposite of individual.
The vote last night was surely a crude and belated American judgment on the misrule of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, on the economic catastrophe they had such a hand in bringing down on us, and even on the Iraq War and the President's woebegone Global War on Terror, but despite the commitment of millions, this was not simply an election, not in the old-fashioned sense anyway. Even though perhaps 130 million people ended up in voting booths, following about a trillion"serial elections" that we call"opinion polls," it wasn't primarily for or about us. It was for and about them. It was, above all, an event for, and geared to, the media itself, which fed it, stoked it, and lived off it. All those tics of mine were surely secondary symptoms of a process they controlled (but undoubtedly understood little better than we do).
To me, there's something distinctly human, and small scale, about an election. A single individual casts a single vote. That vote theoretically matters. It helps determine your fate. You are, to use our President's phrase,"the decider." And yes, Americans did finally decide something last night. Yet, when I look at these last two bizarre years of" campaigning," nobody can convince me that we were, in any but the vaguest sense, the deciders in this election, or that, underneath what was indeed human and thrilling, there wasn't something deeper, larger, colder, quite monstrous, and still growing.
The Elecular of 2012
Sometimes, reality simply outruns the words meant to describe it. Historically, when a new Chinese dynasty came to power, the emperor performed a ceremony called"the rectification of names" -- on the theory that the previous dynasty had fallen, in part, because reality and the names for it had gone so out of whack, because words no longer described the world they were meant for.
After the Bush years, we desperately need such a rectification. And perhaps we need a new word -- maybe a whole new vocabulary -- as well for the"election season" that never ends, that seems now something like a grim, eternal American Idol contest. Just to start the discussion, I offer a modest one,"elecular," a combination of"election" and"spectacular," or maybe"electacle." Or using" campaign,"" camptacular" or"spectaculaign." None of which catches the darker side of this strange, overwhelming gauntlet through which"democracy" must pass.
Do I understand this? No. Like the rest of us, like the very talking heads on FOX News or CNN or Charlie Rose, or… well, you name it… I'm immersed in what Todd Gitlin once termed"the torrent," which is our televisual civilization, of which this last campaign was such a part.
I can't help but think, despite the quality of the man who somehow ended up atop our world, that this was indeed an imperial election, far too supersized for any real democracy. Yes, Americans crudely expressed the displeasure of a people who had had enough, and thank heavens for that, but… our will? The People's Will. I doubt greatly that the People's Will is going to make it to Washington with Barack Obama.
On this small, noisy, endangered planet of ours with its almost 7 billion high-end omnivores -- that's us, in case you didn't know -- something historically quite out of the ordinary and wonderful just happened, and something historically quite out of the ordinary and disturbing happened as well. One man changed history. One juggernaut ran over us all.
It's worth keeping in mind that Barack Obama is but a man. One man, living these last years like the rest of us at the heart of a juggernaut -- and I don't mean his campaign -- that none of us really understands.
In the meantime, if things get worse, there's always the elecular of 2012 to look forward to.
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 01:10