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.