American politics is a game of blatant lies and distortions. It makes little difference to the life of Americans whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House.
In a few weeks’ time (November 6), people in the US will vote on whether to retain Barack Obama as president for the next four years, or to replace him with Mitt Romney. The contest has dominated the US political agenda for months already, with every government statement, position or decision being taken with an eye on its implications for Obama’s re-election. Indeed, as this contest approaches its climax, many American political commentators are already looking ahead to 2016, speculating on who the candidates might be, and how the result of this year’s contest might influence that one. Which being the case, this might be a good time to think back to four years ago, when candidate Obama was rising high in the last months of the George W. Bush administration, and remember some of the things being said at that time.
In the run-up to the 2008 elections, much was made of the fact that Obama would, if successful, be the first African-American president. The Democrats’ selection of him as their candidate was presented as a radical and courageous decision, and an opportunity for America to show how far it had come in fighting racism and realising the dream of an equal and fair society. In more specific terms too, his candidature was presented as providing an intellectual, liberal alternative to the crude ideological neo-conservatism, which had been thoroughly discredited by the George W. Bush regime and which was again on offer by the Republican John McCain as candidate. Although most commentators maintained the pretence of a contest, the fact was that Bush’s incompetence had made the Republicans unelectable, and Obama had to offer little more than pious generalities, being all things to all people. It was this fact that made the contest for the Democratic nomination, between Obama and Hillary Clinton so important. Although there were other considerations as well, not least the contrast between Clinton as a Washington insider and Obama as a perceived new brush, for many Democrats the result reflected a feeling that having the US’s first black president would be a more romantically appealing outcome than having the US’s first woman president. The result was that Obama swept to power on a wave of euphoric expectation that engulfed the world as much as it did America. Even many Muslims were taken in by the soaring rhetoric.
Although most commentators maintained the pretence of a contest, the fact was that Bush’s incompetence had made the Republicans unelectable, and Obama had to offer little more than pious generalities, being all things to all people.
Four years later, there are both parallels and differences. One of the parallels is that Obama came into the election period looking almost as much of a lame duck as Bush had eight years’ earlier seeking a second term, with the economy stagnant, unemployment constantly over 8%, and his popularity ratings consistently at less than 50%. In foreign policy terms he has proved himself as ruthless and bloodthirsty as Bush, as witnessed by the drone wars and assassinations of overseas political enemies, while his pursuit of those policies is seen as being as incompetent as Bush’s, hence the fiasco of the Iraq pull-out and the continuing problems in Afghanistan. Little wonder then that 18–24 months ago, he was being widely written off as a one-term president, and as the contest for the Republican candidacy began, many felt as confident of success as Obama had four years earlier. As a result, Romney’s camp evidently thought they could win the election with vague generalities rather than any concrete policy commitments, much as Obama had. That situation has subsequently been reversed despite none of the major political realities or indicators changing, with the result that the televised debates between Obama and Romney are now being described as Romney’s last chance to avoid his campaign collapsing altogether.
There are too many contributory factors for this remarkable turn-around for us to discuss here; and in any case, many of them are being discussed to death by commentators all over the media. These include such things as the impact of the Tea Party and the ultra-right in the Republican Party; changes in people’s political priorities brought as a result of the economic climate; the perception of the Republicans as the party of the rich, emphasised by such episodes as Romney’s “47%” gaffe; and Romney’s own inability to perform the everyman (and everything to all people) role required of an American politician. But there is a greater, over-arching factor that is getting less attention, perhaps because it cuts to the very heart of American political culture: that the experiences of the political lies of the Bush administration, the disappointment with the failures of Obama administration to fulfil even a few of its promises, and the harsh realities of the economic crisis have combined to dent people’s faith in the American Dream, the foundation of the social-political contract between the American people and their leaders.
This idea, that everybody in America can, through good honest hard work, aim for and achieve the good life enjoyed by the wealthiest in society, or at least move themselves up the social ladder, has been the key myth of American politics for decades. It is this that is now in tatters, and as a result, people are that much less willing to be fooled in terms of political rhetoric, nationalist politics and ideas of freedom, democracy and equality.
The fact that Romney finds himself unable to fool voters with vague promises of doing better than the incumbent, as Obama did four years ago, is largely because he (and the Republican party) are too closely associated with the elites who have long benefitted from the myth of the American Dream and who pocketed the profits of selling it. American voters are desperate for a change, just as they were four years ago, a position that Obama has brought them to in only half the time that it took Bush. But the Republicans are incapable of presenting themselves as the alternative they want, as Obama managed to do four years ago. If, as now seems likely, Obama manages to hold on for another term in office, it won’t be any credit to himself; it will simply be that, for all the rhetoric of freedom and political choice, the American voters, desperate for change, were given an alternative even more unpalatable than the status quo. It will be interesting to see voter turnout this year; it may well be significantly down compared to previous elections.
Perhaps of greater interest will be to see how American politics responds to the increasing inability of the established two-party structure to accommodate the political desires of so many people. The failure of the politics of lies may well represent a significant challenge to the American political status quo that will result, over coming years, in changes that we can only begin to imagine at this time.