The god that failed

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Last month's midterm elections in the US saw a surge in support for the Republicans, fuelled by the growth of the right wing Tea Party movement. Gary Younge examines the US after two years of unfulfilled expectations.



Photo: Fibonacci Blue

After rereading The God That Failed, a book in which six prominent ex-Marxists expressed their disappointment in communism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said voiced his annoyance at what seemed like a show trial for a straw man. "Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway?" he wrote. "And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early disbelief and later disenchantment were so important?"

It took no great skill to predict the disappointment that would one day befall Barack Obama's presidency. His election literally had people dancing in the street. After eight years of George W Bush the symbolic resonance of Obama's victory - a black Democratic candidate campaigning against one of the most reactionary Republican campaigns in living memory and following one of the most reactionary presidents for decades - was bound to raise hopes.

Shortly before Obama's inauguration two years ago his approval rating was at 83 percent. According to a Gallup poll back then, more than half believed he would reduce healthcare costs, double the production of alternative energy, cut taxes, withdraw troops from Iraq, close Guantanamo and make it easier for unions to organise. Around two thirds thought he would ensure that all children have healthcare, increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, lift government restrictions on stem cell research and boost spending to build the nation's infrastructure. Seventy per cent thought they would be better off by the time he had finished his first term.

What was stunning, however, was the pace and scale of the fall. From what appeared to be a new progressive electoral coalition of youth, black Americans, Latinos and white union workers, the midterm elections returned a Republican House of Representatives with the biggest defeat for a ruling party since 1948. The Democrats also lost several seats in the Senate. It was not just the fact that they lost but who they lost to.

The full-throated opposition to Obama's election that found a vehicle through vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 found an electoral voice that managed, in several parts of the country, to overwhelm the Republican establishment and shift their party even further to the right. In short, where his first term is concerned these last two years are as good as it is going to get for Obama. From now on he will face an even more hostile Congress. Where the Republicans are concerned for the foreseeable future, the period of George Bush Jr will be understood as one of relative moderation.

"Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"

Seeking to capture a snapshot of the national mood, I spent election night in 2008 in the Southside of Chicago in a bar full of black folk singing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" and McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now". Two years later, with the same intention, I spent election night in a plush suite on the 20th floor of the Aria hotel and casino as a guest of the Tea Party Express, listening to wealthy white people talk about deficit reduction. If elections were the sole and most reliable indicator of a political mood you would struggle to imagine you were in the same country.

The reasons for this turnaround are not difficult to fathom. During Obama's first year in office the poverty rate leapt by 1.8 percent to 15 percent - the steepest annual increase since records began. Unemployment is 9.6 percent; when he came to power it was 7.6 percent. The rate of repossessions has also increased. Moreover, he failed to show leadership during the healthcare debate; left much of Bush's torture apparatus intact; extended the occupation in Iraq; failed to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" in the military; and reneged on his pledge for a mortgage moratorium. What conclusions one may draw from these past two years, however, demands a more involved analysis.

For all Obama's failures domestically at least he has been the most progressive president since Lyndon Johnson. He has passed a healthcare reform bill, a stimulus bill, a financial regulation bill, drawn down troops in Iraq significantly, expanded the availability of student loans for low income students, and appointed two women Supreme Court judges, including one Latina.

The trouble is that in nearly every case these victories, such as they were, proved too timid to deliver any lasting - or even significant preliminary - results to his base. At the time of the most enduring recession in more than 60 years, people did not want healthcare reform, they needed healthcare; they didn't want a stimulus package, they needed jobs; they didn't want a leaner occupation in Iraq, but an end to it. The extra student loans went to pay for higher university fees.

Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that many have become cynical and disillusioned. When it came to voting day there was no mass defection from Democrat to Republican. The Democrat hold on the black and Latino vote fell by 10 percent and the youth vote by 12 percent compared to 2008. But these were all from historic highs. The Democrats lost because their base was simply too disgusted or demoralised to show up, giving them a smaller share of a smaller pie. The youth (aged 18 to 24) share of the vote shrank by 40 percent, the black vote was down by 15 percent and the Latino vote was down by 11 percent. Turnout among the poor held steady by Democrats once again fell by 10 percent.

The sense of betrayal among many liberals - not least those who had campaigned hard for him - was palpable. This was most articulately voiced at a televised town hall meeting in September by a black woman - the demographic bedrock of his 2008 election base - called Velma Hart. "I'm exhausted," she said. "I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

But while such disappointment was understandable it was also somewhat misplaced. Not because it failed to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. He's the president of the United States. He has enough benefits already.

But because this progressive disenchantment was rooted, in no small part, in the right wing assumption, made famous by Thomas Carlyle, that history is made by "great men" rather than the far more complex interaction of people, time, place and power.

Obama's best defence of his presidency so far can be summed up thus: things were terrible when I came to power, are much better than they would have been were I not in power, and are more likely to improve faster because I am in power. These assertions are basically true. But it's not about him.

Nonetheless, some people literally took it personally. The notion was that if he were better things would be different. If he tried harder, he could succeed. Such charges betray a devotion to a man and reverence for an office that is indecent in a democracy and incompatible with left politics. A few weeks after her intervention Velma Hart was asked whether she felt she had been realistic. She answered, "Absolutely. It took decades to get here. He's only been in office for two years. But I guess I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand."

Obama did not have a magic wand, but he did have a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for the first year he was in office and more than a 30-seat majority in the House. Democrats could have passed any legislation they wanted.

So if the disappointment in Obama was misplaced, the question as to whether people set their hopes too high or Obama raised them unreasonably was also misstated. The problem was far deeper and corrosive than that. Obama's campaign had done such a good job of simulating the energy and vision of a movement, and then superimposing it onto a tightly run, top-down presidential campaign bid, that many felt they were voting for the kind of change that is simply not possible through an electoral system that is as corrupt and confining as in the US.

A winner takes all voting system in which both main parties are sustained by corporate financing (after a Supreme Court decision unleashed corporate donations, this was the most expensive election ever), the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40 percent of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for progressive change. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the Second World War has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond or through the courts.

This came through in exit polls that revealed that people had little more confidence in the Republicans than the Democrats, even as they handed them congressional power. Indeed, if Obama's victory had led to an overemphasis on the role of the individual then Republican wins overemphasised the power of movements.

Tea Party

The Republican victory was credited to the insurgent populism of what has become known as the Tea Party. At first sight this makes sense. The past two years have seen a few large demonstrations in Washington as well as several local ones all around the country by anti-tax campaigners claiming to be heirs of the 18th century Boston Tea Party. Throughout the country, in states as varied as Utah, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky and Colorado, Tea Party candidates ousted Republican establishment favourites. Accounts of a grassroots, conservative insurgency were valid up to a point, although as time has gone by it has become clear that they can also be exaggerated.

Research conducted over several months by the Washington Post to contact every Tea Party group in the country found that many did not exist. Seventy percent said they had not been involved in a political event in a year - the very year the Tea Party made its most dramatic gains. Ten days before the election I went to see Tea Party Patriots do some "grassroots" work in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, where there was a close race - their term not mine. I sat for 45 minutes outside the foyer of a housing complex where one of the members had left placards and leaflets for the faithful. No one came.

"When a group lists themselves on our website, that's a group," Mark Meckler, a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Post. "That group could be one person, it could be ten people, it could come in and out of existence - we don't know."

The Post described the Tea Party as "not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process". To be fair, that is the way that movements begin - they are uneven. Elsewhere in the country I have seen sizeable gatherings of conservatives who identify with the Tea Party. Indeed, 60 miles north of Vegas, in a small town called Parrumph, around 50 old conservative men meet every Friday morning, calling themselves the Old Farts Club. The meeting before the election they discussed everything, from ferrying voters to the polls to arguing about when would be the most propitious moment to form an armed insurrection to defend their constitutional rights against "Obama and his socialist buddies".

What is difficult to square is the description of the Tea Party as a nationally vibrant, resurgent, hegemonic force capable of taking over first the Republican Party and then the country. In truth there are two Tea Party phenomena and, with the election now over, it is important to understand which one you are referring to.

The first, at the base, is little more than a very loosely affiliated group of like-minded people, most of whom have been active for a long time. The Old Farts Club has been meeting for five years. Most would call themselves Tea Partiers, but beyond that identification there is nothing much that makes them so. There is no organisational structure, leader, membership or programme. It is really a new name for what is little more than a realignment of the US right wing that has been in existence for more than a generation.

In 1977 the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote, "There is a great social upheaval at the heart of America that now finds expression in a new constellation of traditionalist, individualist and fundamentalist movements. It feeds the established politicians and practitioners of the right, and it is well fed by them. But to disregard its authentic roots in hometown America is to misread the new national mood, and to become its more vulnerable victim."

Amplification

The second is a litany of well-funded organisations that claim to speak for the base and represent the Tea Party but in fact have no organisational or organic relationship to it beyond partial email lists. It is these organisations, with the help of uncritical and unending coverage by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, that are able to amplify the inchoate, incoherent and often dormant swathes who identify with the Tea Party into what looks like a cohesive, formidable electoral force.

In that regard claims of "astroturfing" (fake grassroots) have some credibility but woefully miss the point. When the Tea Party gain traction they do so by extending their focus from imagined and confected grievances (such as the building of an Islamic centre in Manhattan, and Obama's religion and birthplace) to real ones: the bank bailout, jobs and repossessions.

Two weeks before the election Newt Gingrich, who led the 1994 Republican revolution that thwarted Clinton's midterms, was in Las Vegas speaking on a "jobs tour". The faithful carried placards calling for "jobs here, jobs now". From the podium they railed not against welfare cheats and immigrants (though that did come later) but bank bailouts and government spending in particular and government in general.

Many of the anxieties are real, even if the proposed solutions are bogus. Now that the Republicans hold office they will share some of the responsibility for the mess, even as they make it worse. If the economy picks up none of this will matter much. But given the deflationary impulses of the Republican right, if it does it will have little to do with government. Whether this helps Obama or not depends on the degree to which he can outperform them, in posing as the aggrieved party in trying to do the people's business.

What is clear is that, whoever wins that public relations battle, the people will suffer.

Gary Younge's latest book, Who Are We - and Should it Matter in the 21st Century?, is published by Viking (£14.99) and available from Bookmarks.


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