On Saviours and the American Presidential Election

By Max Fawcett | March 28, 2008



Max Fawcett: It seems that we disagree on the possibilities the United States Presidential contest presents for progressive Canadians. I do want to clear something up before we begin, and that is that I'm not opposed to hope in politics. I think hope is an incredibly important value for politicians to pursue, and it's one that I think we've been sorely lacking here in Canada over the past few years. Obama has built his campaign around that emotion, and it's clearly working well for him.

But I do think that there's a danger in false hope, and that's what I see happening to a lot of Canadians when they look at the race down south. I think it's important to understand that the American political system is designed to prevent, or at the very least stifle, the kind of transformative change that Obama's running on and international progressive observers have pinned their hopes to. It's unlikely that Obama will carry both houses of Congress, although it's certainly possible if he campaigns well or McCain campaigns badly. But even if he does, we only have to look back at the first Clinton presidency, from 1992-1994, to see that even control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House is not a blank cheque for transformative change.

Healthcare, for example, isn't simply a matter of the President waving his pen and passing law, as it is in Canada. The President merely has the power to sign or veto legislation, not create it. The very nature of the American Congress, and particularly the Senate, ensures that well-funded special interest groups are heard, and there are few special interest groups that are better funded that the insurance industry. There's no question that progressives want to see more Americans with healthcare coverage, but it's not clear that an Obama presidency would produce that outcome, and that's just one example.

Stan Persky: My first concern is establishing that there really is a difference (a difference that makes a difference) at this moment between Democrats and Republicans, and it's a difference that matters, notwithstanding the fact that government institutions tend to be conservative (in the sense of wanting to conserve values upon which they're predicated), that capitalism produces particularly limiting effects on any government, and that the U.S. represents a particular cultural complex that offers further restraints on action, transformative or otherwise. One (counterfactual) example will do: if Gore had been elected president in 2000, if 9/11 had occurred exactly as it did, if Gore had initiated military action in Afghanistan (just as Bush did), there would not have been a U.S. war in Iraq, a war that's lasted 5 years, killed uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians and 4,000 U.S. soldiers, and cost the U.S. some $3 trillion, according to the estimate provided by economist Joseph Stiglitz in his latest book. There would not have been a U.S. war in Iraq. That's a difference, one that makes a difference. If we can agree that there are significant differences between Democrats and Republicans, there's a basis for dialogue. There is, I'm aware, a counter-argument, one mostly made by anarchists and self-identified leftists, that there isn't a difference, that they're all the same, etc. I think it's crucial in this kind of conversation to establish whether or not we're in the midst of this sort of counter-argument, or whether we have a consensus that there's some kind of significant difference. If the latter, then we can debate the possibilities and/or limits of what that difference is likely to produce.

I read Obama's rhetoric of hope as simply persuading people (mostly under 35) of the possibility and need for a public realm. The replacement of the notion of a public realm (and the corresponding notion of citizen) by an ideology of consumerism, an ideology that allows almost absolute freedom of action to capitalist private production, like the replacement of art by a concept of (capitalist) entertainment, is the most disastrous effect on political life of the past half-century in North America. Insofar as Obama's "inspirational" performances have had the effect of persuading younger people of the possibility of a public realm in which they can be citizens, that's a progressive step. I think it's important to keep in mind how few people (in the U.S. or Canada) have a notion that there's a public space in which they're participants (or could be participants). My students generally don't have such an idea, and assume that affairs are mysteriously choreographed by a mysterious "them," and that all our information about what's going on is distorted and biased by the "media." Anything that begins to counter those conceptions strikes me as an improvement.

Given that institutional conservatism is a normal feature, the question of what can be done in such a context must proceed on a case by case basis. The broad aim is to encourage a regulated rather than an unregulated market, and to establish, as far as possible, a notion of public goods. Short of a catastrophic economic collapse, there's not a foreseeable possibility of overcoming capitalist markets. The most that can be done is to regulate them in favour of a public realm. All of this is pretty standard social democratic ideology. Having lived through a period of proto-revolutionary illusion, I tend to be biased in favour of the restraints on capitalism made possible by social democratic / liberal nostrums.

Just to take the present example of health care in the U.S. I'd claim that the situation is quite different from 1992-93 when Hillary Clinton attempted to implement a universal system during her husband's administration. Leaving aside the enormous strategic and tactical mistakes she made in that campaign (especially the underestimation of the power of capitalist healthcare corporations), I'd say the situation is significantly different in 2008. The notion of healthcare as a public good (which is dependent on the notion of a public realm) is better established than it was 15 years ago. The example of for-profit health corporations is criticizable on the basis of experience with them, and the resulting non-insured 50 or so million Americans. If a Democratic nominee wins the 2008 presidential election, it's likely there'll be a significant Democratic majority in both houses, a consensus on health care reform, and less likelihood that capitalist healthcare and insurance firms will be able to resist it as they did in the early 1990s. If there is a Republican president, any Democratic inspired congressional plan will be substantially hindered and most likely vetoed. Differences between Democrats and Republicans on this issue will be replicated in a large range of other areas, including the environment, public works, U.S. macro-politics, etc.


Max Fawcett: I think that there are two discussions taking place here, one beside the other, and I want to isolate them and treat them independently. With respect to the difference that makes a difference between Republicans and Democrats, and the impact that a Democratic President, be it Clinton or Obama, would have on domestic politics in the United States, I am in complete agreement with you. As well, you make an interesting point about the difference between the healthcare debate in 1992-93 and today, and it's one that I hadn't fully considered. Should either Clinton or Obama win, win big, and implement a more comprehensive form of publicly funded healthcare for Americans, that's a big win for progressives. I'm always nervous about the role of private interests, lobbyists, and big money when it comes to American Congressional politics, since key decision makers are so relatively unconstrained by party loyalty and so easily available for manipulation or pressure, but I think that if the situation you describe unfolds it very well might happen in spite of these pitfalls of American democracy.

Likewise, with respect to the war in Iraq, I think that you're absolutely correct. Had Al Gore been awarded the result that he in fact earned in 2000, it's highly unlikely that Iraq would be the same kind of nightmare that it is today. I say highly unlikely, as opposed to impossible, because Gore was the vice-President during the period in which the United States's program of sanctions against Iraq led directly to the deaths of half a million children as well as the overall degradation of Iraqi civil society. He wasn't, in other words, any more positively disposed towards Iraq than George W. Bush. It's unlikely that he would have acted on the evidence, such as it was, that Bush used as a justification for war, but it's not as though he would have automatically steered American foreign policy in an entirely different direction.

That said, the purpose of the article that started off this debate was to temper the exuberance of Canadians watching the US Presidential race with the realities of the relationship between Canada and the United States. While the interests of progressive/left-wing Canadians and progressive/Democratic Americans obviously aren't always at cross purposes, they also aren't always compatible. Progressive Canadians would surely be happy to see a Democratic President enact healthcare legislation that brought the deplorable situation in the United States to an end, or closer to one. Progressive Canadians would be happy to see an end to the divisiveness many of the Bush White House's domestic policies, including tax cuts aimed directly at the rich, the erosion of the separation of church and state, and the substantial subsidization of the 21st century military-industrial complex (one that is the subject of the most interesting portion of Naomi Klein's latest book). But would/will those same Canadians be happy when a new Democratic White House adopts the hawkish stance on Iran and Middle East that both major candidates currently feature? Would/will they be happy if that new White House tries to force a renegotiation of NAFTA, one that would be at least as detrimental to Ontario's industrial economy as the softwood lumber tariffs were on BC's?

I should admit that I'm having a hard time being as cynical as I was even a month ago. Watching Barack Obama in action, defending himself against both the Clinton and Republican machines, has been thoroughly enjoyable. His recent speech on racial politics reminded me how far our – my, at least – expectations of politicians and leaders have fallen, and how much higher they might yet be if he wins. But I have to remind myself that he's running for the presidency of the United States, and that our interests as Canadians are not always in tune with those of Americans, progressive or otherwise.


Stan Persky: The main thing I worry about re this November's American presidential election is that the Republicans will win, whether by fluke, theft (a la 2000) or blighted convictions of the "other" 50 per cent. It's important to recognize, and I reiterate once more, that the George W. Bush period is a "period" not a permanent condition of the U.S., that the U.S. is split electorally (and culturally) almost half and half, and that "regime change" in America (more than in Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, etc.) matters.

Other potential benefits of an Obama or Clinton presidency include a restoration of civil rights, a de-emphasis of hysteria about terrorism, an environmental policy (in the absence of one presently–by the by, we can say ditto for Canada on that issue) and appointments to the Supreme Court that will forestall an attack on abortion access and other rights. It would also mean, I think, a more humble U.S. foreign policy. Clinton and Obama may have given occasional sabre-rattling campaign speeches (mainly, I believe, in an attempt to demonstrate that they can be just as tough Commanders-in-Chief as the next white guy), but Obama's main thrust, and Clinton's to a slightly lesser degree, is direct diplomatic negotiation and recognition of the United Nations and other international bodies. I say this, I hope, in a non-pollyana-ish way: there are of course obvious limits (for instance, I doubt that even a Democratic president would pass the litmus test of recognizing and submitting to the International Court of Justice), but there is also an opportunity for improvement.

When it comes to the Canadian stake in all of this: first, with respect to the NAFTA agreement (a misbegotten arrangement in the first place), both Obama and Clinton have been clear that what they mean by "renegotiation" is enforcement of labour and environmental standards. Those standards are recognized and observed in Canada, but not in Mexico, where the "maquiladora" zone allowed American capitalists to produce things under 19th century labour and environmental conditions (the issue itself may be obsolete, given that American capitalism has since outsourced to even cheaper more environmentally dangerous sites around the globe). I'm more concerned about two matters affecting Canada, namely politics within the country, and global capitalism outside (and inside) the country.

Economist Paul Krugman in a recent New York Times column ("Partying like it's 1929," Mar. 21, 2008) provides a persuasive, concise account arguing that the source of the depression-threatening global fiscal crisis centred in the U.S. is the result of the deregulation of the capitalist market. Major fiscal institutions (aka "the banks") have loophole-by-loophole engineered a devolution of the American New Deal program (including its welfare state provisions) to regulate capitalism in the wake of the 1930s Depression. Again, though I have restrained hopes about even modest reform, Obama and/or Clinton represent more possibilities for capitalist regulation than the present or any future Republican regime.

As for the (minor) mess in this country, I'm more and more struck by the wastage of votes for the NDP and the Greens: some 20-25 per cent of the electorate currently, resulting in a perpetuation of Conservative government in Canada, and that's a bigger problem than U.S.-Canadian relations. As a long-standing social democrat, I don't see anything in the official social democratic party or in the official environmental party programs that we couldn't get from a Liberal Party government in Canada. (The NDP's politically correct kneejerk proposal to call for complete withdrawal from the Afghanistan mission was the broken straw that persuaded me that not only is there no there there, there's no intellect there.) Dion seemed like a fluky good idea at the time, but practically speaking has been a failure. Ignatieff is looking better and better (or, if not better, at least I know that there's a mind there, though I don't always agree with it). For Canadian progressives, the issue is not one of being overly hopeful or suitably "realistic" about a possible Obama or Clinton presidency, but of figuring out how to elect something other than a Conservative government in this country. A Prime Minister Ignatieff-President Obama meeting would be a considerable improvement over Harper-Bush gladhandings.



Toronto-Berlin, March 28, 2008


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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