Friday, November 07, 2008

Election Thoughts

So I've been slacking off about posting to the blog, but I wasn't alone -- Websnark's Eric Burns-White hadn't posted much either (as in anything) in three months leading up to the election, so I figured I was in good company.

Then Burns-White posted a retrospective based on his reaction to the historic Obama election, and it again reminded me of how similar we are.

On the morning of November 4, 1992, I walked out of the front door of my apartment and into a bright, sunshiny Yuma morning, feeling better than I had in years. After three terms of Republican executive rule, dating back to my earliest political memories, a Democrat was finally going to be occupying the White House again, and I knew, just knew things were going to work. That's not to say the Republicans didn't do everything in their power to try to throw the train off the track, but by the time Bill Clinton's second term was over, the United States had helped stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia without losing even a single American combat death, had turned a seemingly intractable budget deficit into a projected budget surplus, and had successfully prosecuted America's enemies both foreign (those who executed the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center) and domestic (the Oklahoma City bomber and his associate).

I was certain that Al Gore would beat George W Bush in 2000, and still believe it was Bush's political connections to the Supreme Court that ultimately won him the election. I also was confident that John Kerry would defeat Bush after his disastrous first term, where Bush basically ran on the platform, 'sure, we screwed up, but if you give us another chance we'll do better'. Well, we didn't do better, as the housing crisis, the credit crisis, the War in Iraq, etc., all seem to demonstrate.

Now, finally, a Democrat is back in the White House, and not just any Democrat but one of historic proportions -- Obama is the first African-American (or 'minority' of any stripe) to occupy the White House in American history. Yet on the morning of November 5, I did not feel the same sense of overwhelming relief and confidence I felt in 1992.

One reason, pretty clearly, is my own age -- sixteen years ago I still had a pretty sizable share of my idealism, and while it's not all gone, experience, particularly when it comes to the political game played at the highest levels in this country, has shown me that idealism doesn't really count for all that much. You can't wish yourself out of a recession or clap your way home from an ill-conceived war.

But there are two other concrete reasons why Obama's election doesn't fill me with the same sense of optimism and expectation that Clinton's did:

1. The state of the country and the world is different and worse as Obama prepares to take office than it was when Clinton took office.

Though Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential campaign on the strength of his advisor James Carville's now-famous, 'It's the economy, stupid', the primary economic indicators weren't nearly as sour as they are today -- in 1992, the country was accepted to be in a recession, but there wasn't any indication that the recession was going to end in disaster. Largely, the recession was seen as the natural aftereffects of Reagan's profligate economic policies of the 1980s coming home to roost.

In 2008, many economic indicators are as bad as they've been since the Great Depression, and though some economists still staunchly insist that the country isn't even in a recession, others wonder if this will prove to be the start of a new Great Depression -- certainly, the billions (and soon to be trillions) of dollars both Democrats and Republicans are agreeing to throw down the maw of the economic crisis suggests that folks in-the-know are desperate to do something, anything to at least slow down the tide of economic meltdown.

In 1992, the US was part of a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force that entered Somalia in December (as much as conservatives like to blame Clinton for Somalia, the entire set-up was Bush Sr's baby), but no other U.S. troops were in an active combat zone or stationed in a location where they'd be likely to be directly in harm's way. Most of the troops committed as part of the UN mission to Somalia had come home by May of 2003, leaving only a few 'advisors' to assist in the operation.

In 2008, U.S. troops are directly in harm's way on two fronts: in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Some are reluctant to say we should withdraw from Iraq for fear of leaving it in the same state that Reagan left Lebanon after his withdrawal of U.S. troops following the infamous barracks bombing (though given Iraq's far greater resources, it's unlikely that Iraq's neighbors would simply sit back and watch it descend into 'failed state' status -- they'd run in to grab the oil for themselves). Others are reluctant to withdraw from Afghanistan since, after all, that's where the masterminds of the 9/11 terror attack still hide from justice. Both conflicts are expensive in terms of troops and resources, and both conflicts are engagments that the U.S. has, as a result of the Bush Doctrine, basically chosen to prosecute alone -- withdrawing U.S. troops from either front, to any appreciable degree, would be tantamount to removing all pretense of interest in prosecuting action on that front.

In 1992, the conservative movement was united behind little more than vague memories of Reagan's 'Morning in America' campaign ads from 1984 and a somewhat outdated jingoism that most moderates rejected. By 1994, conservatism had effectively re-invented itself as the small-government ideology first popularized by William F. Buckley, Jr., and made use of both overtly political (Newt Gingrich) and quasi-political (Rush Limbaugh) figures to organize this renaissance. By the late '90s, the resurgent conservative movement had even made common cause with the evangelical wing of the Republican party, and that alliance allowed for the undoing of the Clinton years.

In 2008, the figures that transformed conservatism are still around, but they're just shadows of their former selves: Gingrich doesn't even hold public office anymore, Limbaugh's show has been in a ratings decline since early 2005, and the once-powerful Fox News Channel has become a collection of whiners and irrelevant talking-heads whose great contribution to political debate is the screaming of Bill O'Reilly. As the philosophical conservatives have declined in influence, the evangelicals have risen, and now Obama faces an opposition that doesn't just believe that his policies are wrong-headed and non-sensical; they actually think Obama's views are anti-religious and blasphemous. Sarah Palin is currently the figurehead for this nihilistic wing of the political right, but just as Gingrich gave way to DeLay, Palin will be replaced by someone at least superficially more competent, and it'll be this person who becomes the greatest enemy liberal democracy has in the 21st century.

I'm only comforted somewhat by a variant of the old saw about women and success -- you've got to be twice as good as a man to get half the credit, but luckily that's not too difficult -- and realize that Obama wouldn't be in this position if he wasn't highly competent. He'll also have smart allies to draw on if he knows where to look -- Minnesota's own Keith Ellison would be an outstanding resource, for one. Still, Obama's road is going to be significantly harder than Clinton's was, so it's harder to get excited about how he'll walk it.

2. For all the talk of how historic Obama's election is, and how it signifies a 'post-racial' America, prejudice is still alive and well, and it could destroy everything progressives are trying to build.

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth over the so-called 'Bradley effect', where voters would tell pollsters they were going to support Obama and then be unable to actually vote for him once they were alone in the voting booth with their prejudices. Though that specific effect didn't seem to materialize, it would be wrong to claim that prejudice thus played no role in the 2008 elections.

For starters, take a gander at the three extremely prejudicial anti-gay propositions that were passed by state voters, including in California, where Obama won by twenty points with 59% of the popular vote. In effect, a sizable number of California voters decided that they could live with a black president, but not with gay men and lesbian women married.

The point of racism isn't race, per se, but prejudice -- prejudice based on skin color or national origin. While it certainly seems true that there's less prejudice against blacks today than there was decades ago, that doesn't mean there's less prejudice overall: those who feel prejudice simply seem to have changed the targets of their prejudice is all. (And before we completely write off racial prejudice, let's at least admit that, had Obama run his real campaign the way Chris Rock ran his fictional campaign in the 2003 movie 'Head of State', he absolutely would not have won.)

And of course, the great power of prejudice is that it can drive small numbers, or even just one person, to do something that changes the world, for good or ill. Sixteen men crashed four airplanes and nearly destroyed the American way of life in the process, just as an example. And presidents providing as much hope as Obama have been killed by those whose prejudices wouldn't let them rest. I'm convinced that there will be at least one attempt on Obama's life during his first term as president; I simply pray that the attempts fail, or the first African-American president to be assassinated might presage an even more precipitous fall from American ideals than we've seen over the past eight years.

So let me be clear -- I'm not at all disappointed or unhappy that Obama was elected. Heck, I voted for him. But based on my older eyes and the knowledge that the world isn't as ready for Obama, in more ways than one, than it was for Clinton, I can't find myself feeling the same sense of giddy optimism that I did back in 1992.

And maybe that'll be for the best. After all, idealism doesn't pay the bills, and there are a lot of bills for America to pay right now.

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