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The United States election: time for “change”

About the author

Forty years ago, in the early weeks of the last "critical election" in the United States, I travelled to California with Robert Kennedy as he tried to assess his chances if he decided to run for president against Senator Eugene McCarthy and vice-president Hubert Humphrey. I wrote a column about the way Californians gathered round the flat-bed truck from which Kennedy would speak, their arms raised in a pyramid of political desire.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffiars, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

"Democracy in America: the money trap" (27 March 2007)

"Queen Elizabeth meets President George" (9 May 2007)

"The politics of justice" (9 July 2007)

"The United States: democracy in trouble" (30 September 2007)

" America in 2008: the next realignment?" (6 November 2007)

" Washington discovers Islamabad" (27 November 2007)

"As a progress", I wrote, "it was more than royal. The abiding memory it left . ...was the sheer intensity of feeling...A slim figure perched on the back of a car, swaying precariously at the apex of a pyramid of reaching hands...whoever could explain what those hands were reaching for, it seemed to me, might be able to understand and perhaps to heal the American malaise."

"But it did not follow", I went on, "that the object of this adoration must be elected President. For the gesture was personal rather than political. It had some of the yearning that was once poured out before the great queens of Hollywood. It was real, but it was also close to hysteria. It seemed to have more to do with psychotherapy than with politics".

I was reminded of that 1968 memory by the sound and the sight of the crowds celebrating the victories, first of Barack Obama in Iowa, and then of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. There was still a note of hysteria, or at least of a yearning for personal redemption that had little to do with politics in the sense of the prosaic process that selects leaders to govern in a democracy.

"Change", was the mantra of those crowds, recruited - it should be understood - mainly from "campaign workers", rather than from the workaday citizens of Iowa or New Hampshire. Those campaign workers are hardly typical Americans. They are selected largely from people who can afford to give up several weeks, for little more than expenses. They do it out of a mixture of political passion, curiosity, and the desire to give meaning to their lives. Most people with jobs and homes cannot easily do that. Many of the ones who can, therefore, are either retired people or students.

Change, however, is undoubtedly what many millions of Americans want in this presidential election year of 2008, even if for most of them it is not a matter of hysteria or psychotherapy. But what exactly does "change" mean? Change in individual lives? Change in the balance of political power, between, for example, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals? Change in national policies and priorities?

One of the important questions that will be decided by the 2008 elections is whether or not it will prove to be one of the "critical elections" or realignments that many political scientists identify as coming along every forty years or so.

If 2008 is to be one of those "epochs" in American political life, I believe it will have to mark something more than a restless desire for some unspecified change. Why then do so many Americans say they want change, and is there more in the wish than meets the eye?

No more promises

The obvious reason is that they are dissatisfied with the administration of George W Bush. That dissatisfaction is certainly widespread. It runs the gamut from a vague feeling that Bush has not been very successful either in his foreign or his domestic policy, to a bitter, furious resentment, a feeling that he has disgraced the United States and forfeited its moral authority.

Presidential elections in the United States, however - and alongside the presidency and the vice-presidency, literally thousands of other offices at the federal state and local levels are up for election - are not just mechanisms for choosing office-holders. They are so widely treated by the media to be readings on the mood of the body politic, that they have also to be understood in that light.

The great majority of voters do want to change George W Bush for almost any alternative president. But to understand the way in which they will vote, the criteria by which they will judge candidates, and therefore the candidates they will ultimately choose, it is necessary to ask: what kind of change do they want?

It is clear enough that most Americans want change in Iraq. But do they want some kind of victory? Or do they want to withdraw? How many of them draw from the experience of Iraq the idea that perhaps the world has not ceded to the United States a right to decide what governments shall rule everywhere? Or how many simply wish that it had been possible to overthrow Saddam Hussein and by that act remake Iraq in the image of the United States?

The unexamined nature of the desire for change is, if anything, even clearer and even more urgent in domestic politics. Many Americans can now see that the Bush administration's stewardship of the American economy has been pathetic.

The United States has become more dependent on imports of energy. Inequality between social classes, specifically between the rich and everyone else, is greater than since the 1920s. The all-powerful financial-services sector, whose lifeblood is credit, is in crisis.

Bush promised "compassionate conservatism". There has been little enough compassion. His educational initiative, "no child left behind", has collapsed. His promises to fix the social-security system and Americans' pensions have been abandoned. The only policy he and his friends have to offer is lower and lower taxes for people much like themselves: that is, for the affluent and under-taxed. But there has been little enough conservatism, either, as most Americans understand it. The Republican party has been taken over by overlapping coteries of extremists: supposedly intellectual neo-conservatives, flat-taxers, business lobbyists, pro-lifers, and anti-immigration xenophobes of various tribes. For most Americans such cults are no more conservative than the opposing factions on the left.

Waiting for a sign

So what are the changes in what Americans demand from their political system that can help to pinpoint the critical elements in the 2008 election, or to say what forces are realigning and in what way?

The most plausible theory is to hypothesise that 2008 will mark the end of the conservative ascendancy that began with the fall of the Lyndon B Johnson administration in 1968, to be replaced by the Nixon administration and, twelve years later, by the "Reagan revolution".

It is comparatively easy to see ways in which the hopes of the conservative revolutionaries have indeed been disappointed. They have certainly succeeded in making "liberal" a dirty word for a majority of Americans. But they have discredited government, and are now surprised that, having been discredited, it is not very effective.

They have substantially reversed the redistribution of wealth. They have made it respectable to turn away from the historic effort to integrate African-Americans into society. A Barack Obama can win a caucus, an Oprah Winfrey can become an influential TV presenter, a Condoleezza Rice or a Colin Powell can be secretaries of state: no need, to the conservative mind, to worry about those "left behind".

The conservatives have made it respectable for the Supreme Court to go about reversing, by stealth, the great milestones of liberal jurisprudence: the Brown decision to abolish segregation in education, and the Roe vs Wade decision to permit abortion in certain circumstances.

The desire for change that Senators Clinton and Obama both hope to use to conduct one or another of them into the White House, certainly reflects an impatience with "politics as usual". There is certainly a widespread sense that what happens in Washington frustrates the wishes and the dreams of the people "beyond the Beltway". One of the most surprising and, for Democrats, depressing aspects of the present situation is that the Democratic majorities installed in both houses of Congress in November 2006, are now - largely as a result of their failure to do anything about Iraq - even more unpopular than President Bush.

There are those who believe that a third-party candidate, most probably Michael Bloomberg - armed with his great fortune and his private news organisation - might step into the ring. If that happens, confusion will be worse confounded. It is almost too late for that, however, By 5 February, half the country will have been consulted in caucuses or primaries. If 2008 is to be a true year of realignment, there will have to be signs, by then - not just of a cult of political change or of personal redemption through political activism - but of solid shifts of opinion.

Where, in 2008, are the equivalent of the massive movements of opinion that built the "Roosevelt coalition" of the 1930s, or of the "Reagan Democrats" and the "sunbelt Republicans" of 1968? Which groups of Americans are serious in their desire for substantial change, in ideology and policy, in 2008?

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