This post originally appeared on Lenin’s Tomb.
I’m going to give up on predictions. Not that one didn’t expect Obama’s win, and I think the win was in the bag before Hurricane Sandy, but I thought it would be a much weaker mandate with a weakened Democratic presence in Congress and a low turnout. The signals since 2010 seemed to support the thesis of a crisis of expectations, with a demoralised Democratic vote staying at home, and an energised right-wing base making something of a Republican comeback possible. Obamamania was finished.
The fact is that Obama’s margin of victory is only about 1.5-2%, which has (as of now) translated into a 4% lead in college votes. From what I hear, this reduced lead is because turnout was depressed for the Democrats in certain core states, but shot up for the Republicans in certain of their target states like Indiana, which went back to the GOP after going for Obama in 2008. Romney also took North Carolina back for the Republicans. And he gained the support of about 60% of white voters (we’ll have to wait for the breakdown by class, but it will probably just show the obvious – a heavy preponderance of middle class and wealthier white voters going for the GOP). There was unquestionably a degree of racist backlash here, which has been registered by the polls. But it would be a mistake to ignore the disappointment and contempt that ensured at least forty percent of voters, the majority of them Democrat supporters, just stayed home.
But there the story must change. Because the Republicans fought for this campaign, and fought hard. They spent a lot of money. One had thought, with the primary debacles, that they were going to throw this fight. They didn’t. Their candidate may have been an establishment moron, but he was the least suicidal pick of a repellent bunch, and they spent a lot of money on him. And they mustered their base. Yet, Obama kept Virginia, reclaimed Colorado, and seems to have kept Florida. The complaint of the day among Republicans is that Romney couldn’t win his home state, his second home state, or his vacation home state. Notwithstanding a racist reaction, Obama assembled the same multi-racial coalition of largely working class voters – black, white, Latino – that backed him in 2008. And this in an election where the overall turnout seems to have been relatively high.
On balance, I think some of the popular energies from the Occupy movement and the general ideological shift this signalled helped Obama despite his thorough imbrication with the 1%. In addition, most voters still blame Bush and the Republicans for the ongoing economic crisis, and thus give Obama the benefit of the doubt over their worsening conditions, the decreasing share of national income going to workers, the decline in the fortunes of black America, and so on. Moreover, the material concessions the administration offered its base may look like pitiful in comparison with past eras of Democratic reform – the New Deal and LBJ’s anti-poverty programmes – but when you’ve been recently lived with the Bush administration for eight years and its consequences for longer, you can be grateful for even a mild palliation. No wonder the American Right are beginning to look like a collection of well smacked arses. Trump is howling gales of stupidity into his Twitter feed. Sarah Palin is uncharacteristically declaring perplexity. Bill O’Reilly senses a profound change coming over America, as black people, Latinos and women “want stuff”. The Right’s sense that ‘America is changing’, that it is becoming a socialist-minded melting pot of people who aren’t bourgeois white men is, of course, tragic, deluded stuff. (How I wish it wasn’t.) But it’s also quite funny to see them boxed in by their own paranoia and stupidity.
Whatever one thinks of Obama – and it is a welcome sign that there has been more debate on the Left about the Democrats than I recall in previous campaigns – there’s a lot to be cheerful about with these results. The two rape apologist Republican senators were defeated. It looks like Michelle Bachmann has been knocked out. [Sadly, she seems to have hung on by a narrow margin]. Support for same sex marriage was registered in several local ballots. In a number of local ballots, voters supported the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis: an encouraging beachhead against prohibition. Probably, the defeat of the Republicans will give the left a bit more space to organise than if Romney and his Randian sidekick had won. At the very least, the most aggressive reactionaries have endured a serious kicking, and that is always welcome.
But there is still a profound problem. For all that there was a healthy debate in parts of the Left, none of the third party challengers had much to show for their efforts. The Green Party, as the most likely challenger from the left of the Democrats, got a fraction of a percent. There was no serious momentum for the Greens or any other left candidate, although some long established activists like Joanne Landy backed the campaign. Most left liberals, people like Michael Moore, rallied behind Obama rather than risking a repeat of 2000 and the ensuing Bush presidency. Lesser-evilism won the day. This means that much of the left’s energy has gone into producing this result rather than organising to force a popular agenda on the White House whoever its inhabitant might be. This means that the Democrats’ political control of the working class isn’t going to be challenged in the near future. This means that the dominance of the 1% isn’t going to be challenged in electoral terms. This means that the reconstruction of the US empire continues, with Obama’s supporters thus far largely not taking to the streets. And it’s a vicious circle. The longer the Democrats’ monopoly on the left-of-centre vote continues, the more the idea is perpetuated that any attempt to break this monopoly is a pointless indulgence, a propagandistic idea that will at best waste time and at worst let the Republicans in.
The rational kernel in this harangue is that a third party alternative can’t just be declared; the election results show this. Electoral realignment is invariably a product of a profound politicisation in the base of society, generalising from a number of concrete struggles and antagonisms, whereby people learn in practice that they need to break from their dominant party. There have been several high profile struggles in the US in recent years, but these have either tended to reinforce the dominance of the Democratic Party in the working class, or they have been defeated (often both, as in Wisconsin). So, absent the outbreak of a series of unpredictable social conflicts, popular fights over repossessions, racism, reconstruction after Sandy, jobs, public sector ‘reform’ and so on, any third party challenge is unlikely to get very far. This rational kernel is, of course, what gives a respectable sheen to what is otherwise reflex loyalty and bullying.
One can only hope that the customary election and post-election interval, during which the majority of the US Left shuts down its activities and campaigns in order to get Democrats elected, will be mercifully brief on this occasion.