The Patient Has To Want To Change


As the media waits anxiously for the incoming Obama Administration to divvy up the White House access cards, Democrat strategists are revelling in the possibility of a magical Senate majority.

Michelle Obama is spruiking herself as a reforming force on higher education and Joe Biden is just biding his time, happy to have avoided another off-the-cuff embarrassment over the weekend (hasn’t the man seen State of Play?).

McCain’s minders, bewildered by his running mate’s descent into diva-dom, must be wondering whether it’s better to put the Straight Talk Express out of its misery.

One week out, the Dems look like the natural party of 21st century American power, led by an unflappable mixed-race phenomenon in flip flops. The President Obama pipedream, born just four years ago on the Democratic Convention floor, is on the verge of becoming very, very real.

For the effete liberals of New York’s Upper West Side everything is illuminated, while the rabble they define their sophistry against, "southern rednecks", prepare to take up arms against the idea of a black man in power.

But how long can this soft-left nirvana last?

If you believe the experts, about two weeks. Financial hard heads say the global financial crisis has at least another year to run — after the briefest of honeymoons economic depravity will tighten its grip on ordinary Americans. Temporary accommodation will become commonplace, social inequality will go beserk and at Democratic HQ people will be claiming credit for starting the current mutterings about 2008 being a "good election to lose".

So is there any prospect that lasting social change will actually occur under Obama? Not if the campaign to date is anything to go by. In fact, as one commentator suggested last week, it’s social movements, not an Obama administration, that hold the key to cutting through the gloom enveloping the middle class. The problem is, it doesn’t look like the country has any left.

Earlier eras are illustrative: under FDR, the labour movement effectively cut a deal with the White House that gave birth to far-reaching reform in social security (and some curious outfit called Fannie Mae). While Obama has spruiked his own "new New Deal", its content is more like an amalgam of piecemeal responses designed to stave off the recession’s worst excesses.

There’s another crucial stumbling block: the US labour movement has been reduced to a rump. Aside from the novel tactics pioneered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with private sector membership languishing at 3 per cent its future is by no means assured. Despite the energetic noises being made by the well-meaning John Sweeney, president of union peak body AFL-CIO, irresistable pressure for more far-reaching reforms is unlikely to emanate from labour.

What of the "new social movements" that arose in the late 60s and initially included luminaries like Bill Ayres and the Upper West Side’s own Todd Gitlin? They congealed into the insufferable "identity" groups of the 1980s, that ended up defending singular traits rather than the complex hybrids which constituted their members’ actual identities.

While these groups won an expansionary range of anti-discrimination rights, they failed to achieve anything like the kind of social mobility required for the US to call itself a functioning democracy.

The "anti-globalisation" movement of the late 1990s (Seattle etc.) appeared to be going swimmingly, winning concessions on NAFTA and generally serving as a bit of an inspiration. September 11 changed all that.

In fact, as Jeff Sparrow argued recently, the most visible social movements in the US today are anti-Government libertarians and militias with heroes like Timothy McVeigh. These post-X Files quacks all own a DVD copy of Loose Change and many believe the country would be more efficiently run by a more radical Ron Paul.

But an Obama triumph will mark the beginnings of a new era, the optimists say. According to them, the change we can believe in will happen slowly, befitting Obama’s gradualism and over-thought through solutions. Socialism through the institutions is a long way off, but there is still some oxygen being given to reformism.

There are, of course, real policy differences between McCain and Obama. An upper echelon of CEOs and trust-fundees will get slugged by Obama’s tax plan and some greedy health insurers could go to the wall. But a structural fix to the desperation and displacement ripping the country apart remains firmly off the agenda.

For the corporate media, the "we told you so" headlines are already written, the printing presses hovering like the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of trouble.

And as things turn from bad to worse, President Obama will feel its full force, as a fractured nation wakes up, both to its declining influence in the world, and the reality that its founding fathers’ dream of self-sufficiency is receding further and further from view.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.