With the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, America has undergone a revolution. I say this not only for its symbolism, undeniable though it is. The entry of a black man into the White House is a powerful symbol – something that has taken nearly two-and-a-half centuries since the American revolution of 1776 and almost a-hundred-and-fifty years since slavery was abolished under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Progress of this magnitude is the end result of a monumental struggle, often by people whose names will not receive the limelight they deserve.
A revolution must go beyond such boundaries. It must be a wider response to critical problems in society, an acknowledgement by the masses that things have got to change, or there will be a greater calamity. Above all, a revolution is not a coup d’état which involves seizure of power by a small group of people. It is a wider phenomenon that happens when the time has come. The 2008 election in America reflects all of this and much more. The last eight years of the presidency of George W Bush illustrate what damage can be done when the world’s most powerful nation goes rogue, squandering its capacity to do good.
I belong to a generation born just after the Second World War. As someone who has lived and worked in America, travelled from coast to coast and one who has kept a keen eye on its politics, my interest in the country is abiding. With sadness, I say that I cannot recall a more repressive period in America’s domestic and foreign affairs in my lifetime than the era that will soon be behind us. It may sound uncomfortable to some, but the facts speak aloud.
At home, a mismanaged economy, driven down by hugely expensive foreign wars, crushing the middle-class America. The numbers of Americans struggling to stay above the poverty line are growing. In real terms, their plight invites comparisons with the basket cases in the Third World: lack of food, nourishment, health care, education and job opportunities, security. Abroad, profound alienation from the United States, caused by the use of devastating military power by America and discredited client regimes. The scale of this repression has affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Such behavior loses friends and inflames armed opposition, leading to stronger retaliation. And the cycle goes on. The importance of prudence in the employment of power has never been greater.
The ‘war on terror’, the project of the Bush presidency, has often made me think about something said by Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” Gandhi said, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?” Those who associate revolutions with the old-fashioned armed struggle in Russia or China in the first half of the 20th century actually miss the point.
A revolution is not necessarily a violent event. It is a definite and an overwhelming response against the existing order by people who feel they have had enough. This is what happened in America in 1776 – independence from Britain that Americans celebrate on July 4 every year. The abolition of slavery in 1865 was also a revolutionary event. So was the introduction of civil rights laws in the 1960s. In Europe, a number of Soviet bloc countries underwent ‘velvet revolutions’ peacefully in the 1980s and 1990s.
The scenes all across America on November 4, 2008 were part of a phenomenon of profound magnitude. The turnout of over a-hundred-and-twenty million people was unprecedented. An ocean of humanity pouring out, determined to vote, will be remembered for a long time. The margin of popular votes for Barack Obama was 52-46 percent – less than some recent opinion surveys had predicted, but substantial. Obama’s majority in the Electoral College, which actually elects the president, was 2-1. And the Democrats strengthened their hold by sizeable margins in both chambers of the US Congress. The verdict was overwhelming.
Writing in Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs made the point that this victory was not achieved because of the color of Obama’s skin, nor in spite of it. “He won because at a very dangerous moment in the life of a still young country,” she said, “more people than have ever spoken before came together to try to save it.” Her comments are all-encompassing. They tell the story of a superpower falling on hard times, nearly twenty years after it had defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War and thought the capitalist system had won for good.
The scale of the Democratic victory in the 2008 election is a truly revolutionary event. But in the euphoria that prevails in America and, in many cases, beyond its shores, it would be prudent to introduce a note of caution. I know of no revolution fulfilling all that it promised. Americans have given their final verdict on the neo-conservative order of the last eight years. It was an order which promoted a deregulated, free-for-all, corporate system and severe state controls on ordinary citizens at home and thoughtless militarism abroad; a form of state capitalism that made the Bush-Cheney administration the most unpopular in US history. As a result, the economy is in turmoil, there is a crisis of faith in America and the country has suffered a loss of friendship and goodwill in the world.
The initial phase of the revolution is over. The old order has been rejected and the arduous task of fixing the broken system lies ahead. America has a total debt of ten trillion dollars. Its budget deficit is likely to be more than 750 billion dollars when Obama takes over as president on January 20, 2009. As the recession deepens, hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs every month, while Europe and the rest of the world are dragged down. The Bush administration had chosen to fight three wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq and a global ‘war on terror’. Dealing with these wars in the short run with a view to ending them eventually, hopefully before too long, is going to be a mammoth job. Fractured relationships abroad have to be rebuilt and engagement with international organizations must be revived. The most profound lesson of unilateralism of recent years is that the loss of international support for America weakens its leadership and makes it less effective in the world.
The most urgent task is economic revival, beginning with the restoration of the financial system. In the longer term, an enlightened approach to medical care, security and social welfare will be required to ensure the renaissance promised by the president America has just elected. The number of people incarcerated in American prisons exceeds two million. At least five million more are on probation or parole – the vast majority of them from black and other ethnic minority groups. China, with four times the population of the United States, has fewer inmates in jail – around one-and-a-half million.
What is the total cost of all this and can anything be done? Consider the failure of the justice system which relies heavily on plea bargaining to secure convictions. The system convicts some of the most disadvantaged citizens, with little or no chance of proper legal representation. Consider, too, the lax gun laws and the violent incidents that lead to avoidable deaths and injuries and massive hospital bills. Two-thirds of Americans with insufficient medical cover or none at all. How many of the sick and the incarcerated die prematurely or spend their long years in prison, failing to contribute their best to America? These issues must be taken seriously in Washington. For without it, America is a failing state.
The above commentary appeared in the History News Network (George Mason University, Virginia) on November 8, 2008.