‘Yes we can.’ But what if it takes a while?

I don’t want to be a cynic.  I really don’t.  I’ve pointed out before that cynicism, as far as I’m concerned, is a terrible, debilitating thing, and in a political context it’s positively toxic.  It leads to a “Well, they’re all the same, so it doesn’t matter who’s in power, or what they do” mentality that can be hugely damaging.  I also don’t want to underestimate or belittle the stunning significance of an African-American being elected to the US Presidency for the first time.  That said, I think there’s a difference between cynicism on the one hand, and refusing to get caught up in an unsustainable optimism on the other.  In fact, I think it’s the people who do allow themselves to get caught up in it that are most likely to end up disappointed and cynical in a few years time.

There seem to be literally millions of people in America right now who genuinely believe that a new political messiah has arrived, and that he’ll sweep injustice and inequality from the face of the United States, and maybe even the whole world.  He won’t.  He can’t.  It’s an impossible task for a single person with at worst four, at best eight, years in power.  All anyone can hope for is that he will make most things a little better.  The danger is that those people who’ve been President-Elect Obama’s keenest supporters will be the most disappointed.

I know danger is a strong word, but I think it’s the right one.

This week’s election in the US reminds me very strongly of the 1997 Labour victory in the UK.  Lots of people then thought that a new messiah had arrived.  Tony Blair’s strongest support was among the young, and people who’d never voted before, and for the most part they had wildly unreasonable expectations.  Like Obama has done in the US, Blair allowed the expectations to build and grow, and rode the resulting wave of optimism all the way to the door of No. 10, Downing Street.

And then, almost immediately, the hangover kicked in.  Low-paid workers had been led to expect a generous minimum wage, and significantly improved working conditions, to be legislated across the board.  The entire population had been led to believe that the NHS would be suddenly, magically, transformed.  Neither of those expectations were met, because they couldn’t be.  It was an impossible task.  There was a big improvement in employment conditions for the most desperately exploited, but the hopes of the wider population were pretty much dashed.  There were improvements in the NHS, particularly in the area of waiting times, but there was always something new to complain about.  Disappointment started to set in, and when it was revealed that some hospitals had been massaging the figures, outright cynicism came to the fore.

The fact remains that Labour, in their early years in power, made a small-scale, limited improvement in pretty much every area they promised to tackle.  Most of the ‘new voters’ who voted Labour in 1997 saw minor improvements in most of the things they were concerned about.  But because their initial expectations had been so high, because their optimism had been allowed to surge to such unsustainable heights, because Tony Blair had encouraged them to believe that he would right every wrong and make Britain great once again, those limited improvements felt like nothing at all.  People felt betrayed, and the ‘new voters’ were turned off politics all over again, which meant that Labour had now to look to established voters with different priorities for support, and that meant that, by turning away from politics in cynical disgust, the disappointed voters ended up contributing to their own misery and exploitation.

I am almost certain the same thing will happen in America.  In four or eight years’ time, huge numbers of African-American voters who turned out for the first time to elect Barack Obama will look around, and they’ll notice that they still tend to have worse-paid jobs than their white counterparts, and that their children still go to worse schools, and that their standard of healthcare is still worse, and that their neighbourhoods still have worse crime figures, and they’ll decide that President Obama has betrayed them.

I am certain there will have been improvements.  I don’t doubt the sincerity of Obama’s motives and intentions.  In an objective analysis I’m sure it will be demonstrable that he has made things, in a limited way, better, and that the people feeling betrayed will be wrong to feel that way.  But, precisely because expectations and optimism have surged so high, anything short of perfection will seem like a disappointment.  Since President Obama will have – inevitably, unavoidably – fallen short of perfection, the feelings of betrayal will be real, however misplaced they might be.

It’s at this point that the danger I mentioned crops up.  The ‘new voters’ will almost certainly turn away in disgust from politics and politicians.  Traditional floating voters will float back the other way (they tend to anyway – it’s why American politics is so predictably cyclical), and the Republicans will come surging back into power.  America (and the world) might get lucky.  A period of time out of office, and so clear a shift to the Democrats amongst the electorate, might mean the end of the Atwater ascendancy within the Republican party.  The new-found inability of christian conservatives to dominate the Republican presidential nominations might continue.

But it’s highly unlikely that any flavour of Republican will continue the progressive agenda President-Elect Obama seems likely to pursue.  Almost certainly, most of the progress that will have been made will be rolled back.  Previously  disenfranchised African-American voters will be disenfranchised all over again, and their priorities and concerns will be neglected by both major parties (although both will continue to pay lip-service to them, as they did before the 2008 campaign).  The immediate cause of this will be clear – what party could realistically be expected to campaign on the concerns of a section of the electorate who are unlikely to vote in big enough numbers to affect the result?  The long-term cause, though, will be the unrealistic expectations and unsustainable optimism that was encouraged by the Obama campaign.

I don’t really know what the alternative is.  It’s hard to imagine any party or candidate campaigning on a platform of making things, at best, just a little bit better.  It would be hard to imagine them having any kind of success if they did, especially in America.  But I also don’t think there’s any escaping from the fact that by promising ‘we can change America’, not ‘we can change America, a little bit at a time’, there’s a real danger that Barack Obama has set in place the conditions for a crushing disappointment for himself, his supporters, and his country.

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10 Responses to ‘Yes we can.’ But what if it takes a while?

  1. la says:

    Have you seen the latest pictures for sad children?

  2. Labour’s support in 1997 didn’t really come from young people, though they did make gains there (they gained 58% of the 18-29 demographic, as compared to 43.2% overall). It was a continued trend of middle-class voters deserting the Conservatives. 1997 wasn’t even a particularly strong year for voter-turnout – by percentage the turnout was lower than any election since WW2. Of course, the following elections have been even worse, but it seems unlikely that this is due to first-time voters not voting again.

    I’ve seen the comparison of Obama to Blair before. It doesn’t ring true to me. It might be because I like Obama, but always thought Blair was a slimy, glad-handing git. But I think it goes beyond that. Politics in the USA just isn’t comparable to politics in the UK. Blair and Labour were never all that different to the Conservatives (indeed, Labour pretty much had to become the tories to gain the support of the middle-classes). But while our political parties have been slowly drawing together in ideology, America’s been splitting apart at the seams.

    Blair was a disappointment (at least to the people who liked him) because he pretended that Labour would be fundamentally different to the tories, while abandoning everything that made them different. The same things would probably have got better in the same ways if the Conservatives had remained in power. But the choice between Obama and McCain was meaningful. The way America would have been governed under a McCain administration is very different to the ways Obama plans to govern.

    The USA is also much more dynamic than Britian (and the rest of Europe) – it’s unreasonable to expect things to change quickly here. That’s less true of the US, where things can and do change comparatively quickly when there’s the political will. Maybe people will eventually be disappointed. I don’t think it’s inevitable at all. But it’ll be interesting to see how things go.

  3. Mariah says:

    It also seems that people don’t realize that all the problems won’t cease to exist when Obama assumes office. It’ll be the same world, and it’s not going to change in a day.

  4. cb says:

    I can definitely see the links with 1997 – it was one of the first things I thought of. And you have a very realistic perspective. Things rarely change quickly but optimism is quite a nice feeling so I’m just enjoying it for as long as I can!

  5. aethelreadtheunread says:

    EDIT: There was a comment from me here. In it I basically restated my opinion as it’s set out in the main post, but in a rather unflexible, dogmatic, and patronising way.

    I’ve deleted the contents of my comment, because I feel some unrelated MH difficulties led to me failing to appreciate that other people can and will have different opinions to me, and so the comment is not one that I feel it is right to keep on public display.

    The comments that appear below this one were, of course, replying to mine, and there is a chance that a reaction to what I said or the way I said it may have led these commenters to express themselves in a different way than they might otherwise have chosen. Personally, I don’t think there is any problem with either of the comments below this one, and i think in particular that experimental chimp showed great restraint, but what is below needs to be understood in this light.

    If you’re the author of any of the comments in this thread and want to make any changes to them (since i’ve chosen to edit my own comment, it’s only reasonable i offer the same opportunity to everyone else) just contact me via email or by leaving a fresh comment, and i will be glad to make the changes.

  6. 2003 saw a massive re-organisation of the US government, folding 22 different bureaucracies into the Department of Homeland Security. It was a huge centralisation of power and, I don’t think there’s ever been anything comparable in the UK. I’d also point to the swift abandonment of the gold standard in 1972, under the Nixon administration, as another of these big US changes. The start of the War on Drugs under Nixon probably qualifies too, being a fast and far-reaching realignment of priorities.

    I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that the Conservative manifesto of 1997 was startlingly right-wing. For example the manifesto didn’t suggest eliminating the state pension, but proposed some changes in the way it was funded. In fact what’s interesting about the manifesto is how close it is to the way that Labour has actually proceeded. For example, Parental Control Orders proposed by the conservatives in 1997 are a weaker version of the ASBO’s that Labour pushed forward in 2003. The manifesto promises about the NHS are pretty much indistinguishable from the way that Labour went with health. Things like minimum wage and employees rights are remarkable because they’re the exception rather than the rule. Actually, had the Conservatives remained in power, we’d probably have got the minimum wage, though possibly a bit later than we did.

    New Labour is Conservativism with a smile. But so is the New Conservativism. Really, there’s incredibly little difference between the two. I don’t accept that Blair was responsible for anything much. Indeed, I think that the details of who gets to be in power is pretty much irrelevant. That’s not the case in America. I’m sure there will be people complaining that change isn’t happening fast enough under Obama. But that’s what happens in a healthy democracy. I don’t think that’s the same thing as the disillusionment with politics that has happened here.

    But we’ll see how things go.

  7. Cellar_Door says:

    Politics depresses me. All the pettiness, backstabbing, bitching and whining, slagging off the other party. It’s like watching kids in the playground listening to PM’s question time. I want to scream at them all to grow up, be sensible and get on with running the fucking country.

    Ok, slightly irrelevent rant over :0)

  8. I think getting rid of 22 bureaucracies is not a bad thing. SHame it had to be Dept of HS. There’s a great tshirt out there of a native american in tribal dress with a rifle that says “Dept of Homeland Security: Protecting you since 1492”. And an American friend of mine was wearing it, which is where I saw it :).

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