Elections, International, Politics and Governance

Mid-term elections: Why Obama Lost the House?

Photo courtesy Critical Narrative

What defeated the Democrats in the mid-term elections was not a failure of Obama’s leadership, but the result of six unchanging realities of American society, some of which are prevalent in many societies around the world.

Here is the first reality: once elected, American politicians are turned into Beltway insiders, reshaped by the very forces that contributed to the ousting of their predecessors.  This ensures that virtually all of them will act in a fashion contrary to the interests of those who voted for them.

Second reality: the periodic switching of political actors does not indicate a shift in ideas, values or people’s expectations. People still have the same goals and dreams, and by changing their leadership they are simply attempting to come closer to realizing them.

Third reality: Many Americans still believe that either by empowering or constraining the government, society can realize its aspirations.  But the government in Washington is not an autonomous entity with powers of its own, and neither attempting to strip, nor to advocate the expansion of those powers will change the fact that government is a reflection of society, and not separate from society.

Fourth reality: Americans maintain a blind faith in capitalism because they believe it offers unlimited opportunity to bring prosperity and stability forever.  The vast majority of Americans have no idea how capitalism actually works, or about its inherent instability, and so there is no pressure to explore radical alternatives to capitalism.

Fifth reality: Economic crises are often confused and conflated with political crises. When that happens, state power is wrongly targeted as the party mainly responsible for the crisis. The urge to “fix” an economic crisis by voting out the party in power when the crisis occurred is understandable, but not effective as a solution.

Sixth reality: Majority of Americans continue to suffer from deep seated historical amnesia, seek short term solutions, and lack patience to advocate for change over the long term.  Of course there is plenty of room for freedom of expression.  But such freedom is not politically potent enough to counter the hegemonic views or the popular consensus manufactured by those controlling state power.

If we acknowledge these realities, we can see the flawed logic of the Tea Party’s industrious “fear government” campaign, and the failure of even self-avowed liberals to ponder the possibility of expanding basic human freedoms within the context of a social welfare state where the state frees people from struggling to meet their basic human needs and provides them with time to pursue productive and leisure activities.

The lost promise of Obama’s presidency lay in his potential to generate a broad social movement in favor of creating a new American reality. His promise never lay in the powers he enjoys as President or Commander-In-Chief, and was never going to be solved by embracing Washington business-as-usual.  Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated that he could spark a wave of idealism and activism among American voters, but so far he has not passed the real test of courage, willpower and resolve to take risks, especially when such risks include sacrificing the possibility of re-election.

One must conclude that the majority who elected Obama in 2004 thought that he could help them realize the traditional American Dream, particularly its material benefits that had so diminished under the Bush administration.  Americans clearly did not intend to adopt a less consumerist lifestyle, use more public transportation, oppose the redistribution of wealth from the middle- to the upper-class, embrace environmentally friendly live styles, or relinquish military adventurism.  The ideology of progress and dominance remained intact, and a new President was simply another attempt to achieve the same ends. As the great educator Paulo Freire once noted, most oppressed people simply want to live like their oppressors, not to change the whole system so that no one is oppressed.   All classes of Americans are driven by the same ideology of progress, and the idea of American freedom is rooted in the highly individualistic and ever-expanding desire for material consumption.

People vote for candidates who promise to address their grievances, but the average voter’s engagement stops after the elected official heads to Washington.  People voted for Obama because he promised affordable, single-provider health care, a reform of the banking system, equal rights for gays and lesbians, a withdrawal from Iraq (not an escalation in Afghanistan), and so on.  But once he went to Washington, the voting public fell silent and Obama was surrounded by the loud and persuasive voices of corporate lobbyists and their political representatives, at the same time he gathered into his staff a bevy of Wall Street insiders.  As usual, corporate interests exerted pressure towards the right, and insisted their needs be the primary concern of government.  Alone, Obama cannot stand against these pressures because corporations are major players in the economy and have the power to effect GDP, employment and financial markets.  Obama is not above the system — in order to transform the health care system, he had to rely on the same economic forces that caused the crisis in healthcare.

Popular American belief that “big government in Washington DC” is somehow endowed with autonomous powers really limits the public’s ability to enact meaningful change. The truth is that the power of the government is diffused throughout society and is controlled by the same forces that influence society.  To change society we need to change the power structure.  Blaming “the government” won’t change anything, but — as the Republicans understand very well — it will distract Americans.  And, once again, the crises and inequalities that arise from unequal power relations within society are reconfigured exclusively as a political crisis, so that the public never turns its attention to the sphere of economic critique. The result is that the formal equalities granted in the sphere of politics (“one American, one vote”) are undermined by the inherent inequalities in the sphere of economics (as, for example, in the case where unequal crack vs. powder cocaine laws result in more blacks being disfranchised than whites, despite possessing the same effective amount of the substance).

The more that corporations can keep your eye focused on the political sphere, and away from the economic sphere, the more they are able to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions and to avail themselves of government subsidies and tax breaks.  It is, for example, in the best interest of energy corporations to call global warming a “hoax,” just as it was in the interest of tobacco companies to conceal or fabricate research on the safety of smoking.  And now corporations can dump unlimited money into political campaigns without revealing their identities — a situation that has resulted in ballot propositions that have names and publicity campaigns that frame them as exactly opposite to their intent. Using conservative-owned media outlets like Fox News, corporations now have the ability to control access to information and invent their own “facts.”

Corporations like to claim that limited government and deregulation are “good for America,” but it is clear to anyone who has done the research that access to affordable or subsidized education, health care, housing and unemployment benefits not only expands human freedoms, but also create conditions for improved economic performance.   Freedom from material want expands other types of freedoms. Most Americans do not realize that privatized consumption actually constrains their freedom by making them subject to the whims of the market when they’re trying to meet their basic needs.  When Americans cry out for “small government!” and when they fear administration that guarantee a higher degree of equality through income redistribution, they only hurt themselves.  They certainly don’t hurt the big corporations who happy accept government welfare and the shield that the government provides.

Americans voters have short memories.  They have completely forgotten their history, the BO (Before Obama) years.  They also want immediate gratification: their problems solved in two years.   But the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the recession predate Obama’s presidency, and without a broad social movement he is empowered to do little to challenge the forces that shaped them.  The monetary and fiscal policies of the Obama administration have failed to immediately produce the desired results because those policies are not implemented in a vacuum — they were first watered down by Republican obstructionism, and they were further hampered by a global economy very different than the one they enjoyed during American hegemony.  The intensity of global competition is such that monetary and fiscal policy incentives do not easily make the cost of production in America cheaper than the other emerging economies.  Technology displaces labor and has made geographical relocation feasible for corporations, which makes it tough to protect American jobs.  Though the US may accuse China currency devaluation, American companies that produce in China benefit from that devaluation and so do American consumers. Recently, Federal Reserve declared its interest rate in purchasing bonds in order to reduce the interest rates to boost the investments.   Such expansion of the government is a response to the crises generated by the Obama’s predecessors.

The Tea Partiers would have Americans blame Obama and “big government” for all economic crises, not corporate America.   They are less concerned about the increasing power of corporations over the government, or corporate control of Americans’ minds, lifestyles and freedoms.  Corporatist mechanisms are far greater than the state, and, ironically, corporations are also the main beneficiaries of the government’s stimulus packages.  The manufactured fear of big government diverts social dissent away from corporations at the same time it increases the share of governmental resources allocated to corporations.

At this point in time they need less fear and more critical self-reflection. Terrorism must not be tolerated, but in many countries the “War Against Terror” is too often used to foster the conditions that create terrorism.  Illegal immigrants are blamed for unemployment. China gets the blame for driving the world economy, while the American companies who collaborate with China go unremarked. These are not issues specific to American, but internal to the capitalist development.  Each state is competing with each other to serve the interests of the dominant class that often masquerade as the interests of the society or national interests.  At the root of the fear of big government is the reluctance for redistribution of wealth and exploitation of national interests for the service of dominant classes: legitimacy of the manufactured fear of big government is derived by appealing to the ‘national interests.’ Change of the Presidents does not indicate radical changes in the national interests.

America wants to lead the world, and I think it could if it were able to regain its credibility and resolve the inconsistencies and contradictions of its policies. In the name of “national interest” America refuses to ratify many treaties already accepted by the majority of world states, and it fails to honor the very rules of free trade that it adamantly imposes on other nations. Its policies are invoked by the heads of repressive regimes, who oppress their own populations in the name of Anti-Americanism; a situation that is counter-productive to American interests and results in security threats to American society and could easily destabilize the international order.

If Obama moves further to the right, and continue to court conservatives by watering down the policies he was elected to enact, it will cost him the second term of his presidency.  Only if he demonstrates the political will to force through the platform on which he was elected, and only if the economy bounces back with increased employment, will he garner a second term, as Reagan did in 1982, Truman in 1948, Eisenhower in 1956, and Bill Clinton in 1996.

But Americans must remember that Obama’s America and its place in the current world order are very different from the time of Truman or Reagan.  If Obama fails, then American will slides deeper into right-wing nationalism and attempts to increase its military might, which will likely deepen the economic crisis and isolate America from the international community.   In the end, Obama’s success or failure depends on the willingness of Americans to make radical changes in the American Dream. For that to happen Obama needs to generate a social force far more powerful that the one that brought him to power in 2009.