The season of party conventions will soon be over and America is poised for two months of hard campaigning to elect the next president. There will be debates between Barack Obama and John McCain and between their running mates. The media blitz will get more fierce. Personal attacks will entertain and appall. For the first time in American history, there is serious contender of mixed race for the White House. It makes the issue of race an integral part of the political debate. Some Americans are going to continue to raise it openly. More could well make their choice, after a long period of reflection, one way or the other, as late as the moment of casting their vote.
In the past, I have seen the American democracy at work from close. As I follow the campaign in 2008 from across the Atlantic in Britain, the distance gives me the opportunity of detachment. I hope it allows me a panoramic view of the political tides that are to sweep across America before polling day on November 4. And it makes it possible to look at the democracy in America alongside the leading democracies in Europe and the place citizens of different races and creeds have in them. My interest in America is abiding – a country where I first arrived as a twenty-two-year-old to work as far back as 1974. My young grandchildren are Americans and live there.
Already, I have seen opposite currents in the campaign. On the one hand, a desperate desire for change after eight years of war, economic hemorrhaging and damage to America’s image under the Bush presidency. On the other, the tentative allegiance of sections of potential Democrat voters, despite powerful pledges of support for Barack Obama from Senator Hillary Clinton and the former President, Bill Clinton.
On the one hand, a show of unity between the two rival camps as the Democratic Convention moved towards conclusion. On the other, the uncertainty among some white Americans across the nation, in particular women supporters of Hillary Clinton, who have threatened to switch to John McCain, the Republican. Questions about race and faith, unfair in my view, are barely concealed. Obama’s advisers realize the need to go beyond his powerful rhetoric, to address middle class concerns and to win over undecided voters to give him the victory. How far does his acceptance speech, on the twin themes of rebuilding the economy and restoring America’s moral leadership abroad, go will be clearer as the campaign moves on.
The United States presidency has been a monopoly of Anglo-American politicians since the founding of the country more than two centuries ago. In a country of immigrants from all over the world, this, in itself, is a paradox. Now, the prospect of a break from history is near, but forces of resistance persist. Political fortunes can change rapidly. There is no better acknowledgement of it than by Harold Wilson, the British prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s, who said that “a week in politics is a long time.” We have seen it in the current campaign in the month of August.
With the battle of the primaries over, and the prospect of an Obama presidency closer, we have seen a shift in the public opinion in August, with McCain running neck-and-neck, or leading. Not all potential voters are convinced that Obama offers something radically different. And there are those who doubt his ability to deliver, saying that promises of reform often become hostages to Congressional battles and resistance from corporate America. Ironically, some of the most radical ideas in America come from smaller parties and activists, like the Greens and the independents, not from the two main parties that have the monopoly of power in the country. Alternative visions are more comfortable in Germany, France and Britain than in America. The ‘tyranny of the majority’, which Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill have written about, and which George W. Bush has exercised during his presidency, is more difficult to prevail on this side of the Atlantic.
The conflict between Georgia and Russia has created an environment suitable for jingoism. Mind not the NATO expansion around Russia under the Bush administration. Not the growing American and Israeli presence in Georgia since Mikheil Saakasvili came to power in 2004. Not even Saakasvili’s decision to bomb the breakaway region of South Ossetia, with a vast majority of Russian citizens, before the Russian military intervened. In a CNN interview, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has directly accused the Bush administration of encouraging Georgia to attack South Ossetia, to help a presidential candidate in the coming election. Americans, said Putin, were present in the conflict zone, ‘doing as they were ordered’. Predictably, the White House and the State Department issued swift denials, calling the Russian accusations ‘ludicrous’ and ‘not rational’.
I am reminded at this point of something John McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black, said in a Fortune Magazine interview last June. With two-thirds of Americans saying the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and growing worries about the economy, Black was asked whether another attack on U.S. soil would help McCain. His reply: “Certainly, it would be a big advantage to him.” Charlie Black later apologized for his comments.
After trailing in opinion polls for weeks, August has been a good month for McCain. Between now and November 4, the Bush administration and the Republican Party will try to keep the focus on national security. Russia is not the power the Soviet Union was. But there will be talk of the menace of Moscow. Declarations on the need for a strong America and a tough stance towards Russia will persist.
We will hear more claims of success in America’s war in Iraq, although hundreds of civilians still die there every month. Contrary to evidence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there will be assertions about progress in the ‘war on terror’. The American military will continue its secret operation to send Guantanamo detainees to countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And claims will be made again and again that only John McCain is fit to be the president of the United States – a veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he endured torture and America lost.
It was the Vietnam War that brought the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to an abrupt end in 1968. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s handpicked successor, President Gerald Ford, gave him a full, unconditional pardon, which contributed to Ford’s defeat to Jimmy Carter two years later. Had there been no American hostage crisis in the wake of the collapse of the pro-U.S. regime in Iran, and the failed attempt to rescue the hostages, Carter might not have been defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. And it was the perceived failure of George Bush Senior to tackle the inner-city problems after the Los Angeles riots which turned the tide against him and gave victory to Bill Clinton in 1992.
We know where the tidal waves took us in the past. Do we know what they are about to do now?
The above commentary appeared in the History News Network, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Virginia, on 2 September 2008.