Leave aside the factoid that the cover of this week’s Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsweekly, features an inspirational photo of U.S. Senator Barack Obama and the headline: “The Messiah Factor.” Fact is, the reason that progressives in Canada, Europe and sizeable chunks of the rest of the world care about the outcome of the still-months-away American presidential election of November 2008 is not because they’re looking for saviours. Rather, they’re simply looking for (to stick with the spiritual metaphor for a moment) some “good news,” just a bit of that New Testament injunction about loving one’s neighbour.
By the way, it was Sen. Hillary Clinton who, early on in the Democratic Party nomination campaign, tried out the term “progressive,” harking back to the use of that word in the 1920s, as an alternative to being labeled a “liberal,” which is almost a dirty word in the born-again American dictionary. So far, it hasn’t caught on, and whether Clinton or Obama become the Democratic nominee, either one will be tagged a “tax and spend liberal” by their Republican Party opponent.
Progressive Canadians think it matters quite a lot whether the next president of the U.S. is Republican nominee John McCain, or a Democrat (either Obama or Clinton). Are they right to care? I think so.
The Economy, Stoopid
What are the differences one might reasonably expect between liberal and conservative presidencies in the next four years? Although “the economy” has emerged as the “No. 1 issue” in the media’s simplified version of what-it’s-all-about; the reality is that American presidents and congresses (including Democratic ones) have limited power to affect U.S. and international capitalism, and no sensible progressive is expecting the glorious socialist revolution.
Currently, the U.S.—and by extension, the global economy—is caught in an economic crisis caused by the bursting of a housing “bubble” created by crooked, predatory lenders, and equally unsavoury financial institutions around the world who traded in what are known as “sub-prime” mortgages (meaning, mortgages whose ultimate interest rates the impoverished borrowers couldn’t possibly afford).
The prospect of recession and worse has quickly spilled over to other sectors of the economy, and the direness of the situation has produced the unusual spectacle of a right-wing, “anti-government” government calling for a state-sponsored “stimulus package” that will send tax rebate cheques to American consumers in a desperate effort to goose the economy from the consumption end. The money for the stimulus package will be borrowed, possibly from Chinese and other investors, who are currently shoring up the U.S.’s $9 trillion debt and its annual $400 billion-plus deficits.
As Paul Krugman, the New York Times’ economics columnist points out, the current crisis combines the different crises of the last two American recessions: the one that came in the wake of the “dot.com” bubble-burst, and the earlier one that was initiated by the scandal of crooked “savings and loan” institutions. The lethal mix of bursting bubbles and big-scale thievery is why Krugman and others think this crisis is particularly worrisome. For a good account of how some of this works that even us economics-for-dummies types can understand, John Lancaster’s “Cityphilia” in the London Review of Books (Jan. 3, 2008) is the place to go.
What Can Be Done
A Democratic president, whether Obama or Clinton, can not and will not significantly alter capitalism. But President Obama or President Clinton, supported by a Democratic-majority congress, can do some things. For one, Democrats can create a universal health care system in the U.S. that covers everyone and that will have most of the good effects of the Canadian and European systems. Republicans will not create such a system, but will tinker with the current private health corporation system.
Second, Democrats can create some jobs through an infrastructure program. The collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis last year, and the Katrina hurricane disaster that swamped New Orleans have by now fallen into the amnesia that afflicts most North American citizens these days, but nonetheless, it’s worth paying attention to the grim state of U.S. public facilities (transportation, roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, etc.). It’s a sector of the economy where the disappearing U.S. state still has some legitimacy and where the economy can be more usefully primed than encouraging consumers to buy more baubles along with their beer and popcorn, as we say in this country. A Republican presidency—especially a McCain presidency which would be particularly spending-phobic, as the Arizona senator has made clear—would be far less likely to intervene in even sectors where it’s still possible to make a difference.
The list of significant differences between the two parties on daycare, education, and just about every other public good may not be messiah- or saviour-sized, but it’s appreciable. Even the now disgraced sub-prime mortgage scam contains an odd nugget of good sense. That is, it makes sense for people to have houses; what doesn’t make sense is to turn it into an international profits lottery. Governments could sponsor programs whereby relatively poor people get to buy homes (with attendant benefits to the housing construction sector), although the likelihood of doing so is probably minimal, given the realities of capitalist ideology. Nonetheless, it is possible, in the name of compassion, biblical or otherwise, to freeze the piteous foreclosure scenes being played out across the country.
Will a U.S. president, Democratic or Republican, be able to reverse the decline of manufacturing jobs in what are now spreading “rust belts” in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other parts of America? I doubt it. Will ex-auto workers be transformed into “green collar” workers manufacturing devices to save the world from environmental collapse? Hmm… I’m one of those people still puzzled about why Americans can’t make their own t-shirts or Christmas toys (coated or uncoated in lethal Chinese lead), but apparently they can’t. It’s one of those Mysteries of Capitalism, despite the soothing nostrums of so-called “flat world” economic mavens who tell us that making motherboards in Malaysia, and running call centres out of Bangalore, India is really good for us. The point is: some things can be done for the economy by a U.S. government, and yes, there are limits, and no, there probably isn’t a Santa Claus.
When it comes to where the money will come from for even modest measures, again there’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans. The would-be Republican president promises to make permanent the tax breaks for the rich that were introduced by the George Bush administration; to drastically curtail public spending; but to continue spending $2 billion a week for the war in Iraq. President Obama or Clinton pledge to tax the wealthy, and wind down the war and its costs, thus freeing up money for public expenditure. It may not seem like much of a choice to the cynics, but for the rest of us progressives and maybe-not-so-progressives, it matters.
It’s the World, Stupid
Hopefully, we’re starting to get the idea of why it matters who gets elected. I will refrain from entering into a lengthy diatribe on American wars. Suffice it to say that it’s easier to imagine a humbler U.S. international policy being enunciated by President Obama rather than President McCain. The same can be said about the restoration of civil rights in the U.S., the treatment of “illegal” immigrants, participation in international environmental programs, observance of international laws on torture and other violence, and much else. Why elect someone like McCain, even though he has the virtues of opposing torture and opposes driving “illegal” Mexicans across the border, but is regarded as a “maverick” and “heretic” by his own party? One can elect an opponent of torture and a supporter of immigration sanity, such as Obama or Clinton, and rest assured that their views are supported by their party.
There are some self-identified progressives who think that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Democrat or Republican who gains the American presidency and congress next November. After all, they say, an American is an American, and Americans believe in America’s manifest destiny. This is not only etching with children’s crayons, it’s simpleminded nonsense. The don’t-vote-it-only-encourages-them attitude is a kind of anarcho-despair. Nothing will ever change. Hope is hopeless. Nanna-na-nanna. Of course, it makes sense to say, Don’t get your hopes up too high. But the restraint on hope (to echo the title of Obama’s Audacity of Hope) is not a function of the limits of the Democratic would-be nominee, but a function of the limiting power of international capitalism in a relatively democratic society.
I’ve said almost nothing about the respective merits of Obama and Clinton as contenders for the Democratic nomination. There’s not much to say. Both are enthusiastically supported by U.S. Democratic Party members, in striking contrast to the sharp divisions among Republicans and the lukewarm enthusiasm for the elderly warrior they’ll be running next fall. Clinton backers will support Obama if he becomes the nominee; Obama supporters (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, since his supporters include a lot of independents and young people) will back Clinton if she becomes the nominee. The so-far-so-good sign is that participants in the Democratic primaries and caucuses have outnumbered Republican participants by a striking 2-1 margin. It’s a good sign, but not an absolute (something similar happened in 1988, but Michael Dukakis lost to the father of George W. Bush).
In terms of who might be the more effective candidate against the Republican nominee, I suspect it’s Obama. His strengths are his ability to win votes from among independents and young people, and he does not suffer from the significant, irrational “negative” factor that Clinton faces. Insofar as polling nine months before an election tells us anything, the suggestion is that Obama runs better against McCain than Clinton does, though she perhaps has a firmer grasp on policy than Obama does. But all of that is a matter for American progressives to decide rather than us international progressives.
As for unfashionable hope, in true Canadian fashion and in the same way as we tend to define ourselves: As hopeful (as Canadian) as possible under the circumstances.
Vancouver, Feb. 15, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C., and is a veteran political commentator.