America’s change election: reality or mirage?

Godfrey Hodgson
11 February 2008

The cumbersome calendar and complex arithmetic of the race for the party nominations in the United States presidential election - particularly on the Democratic side - present two fascinating questions to analysts attempting to make sense of it all. The first is, clearly, who will be the Democratic candidate: Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? The second will come to the fore only after their absorbing contest is settled, but is worth posing now: is 2008 set to be a year of "realignment" in American politics - and if so, of what kind?

The much-heralded "super-duper Tuesday", 5 February 2008, did much to clarify matters on the Republican side (where it is now all but certain that John McCain will be the nominee) but left the Democratic race finely poised between the aspirant "first woman" and "first African-American" president. The decisive victory of Obama in the four caucuses (Washington state, Nebraska, Virgin Islands, Maine) and one primary (Louisiana) on the weekend of 9-10 February confirmed his ownership of the precious "momentum", but left both the delegate count and the balance of advantage almost exactly even.

The identity of the Democratic candidate is now likely to be settled only after the Pennsylvania primary on 22 April, and perhaps even later than that (the emerging pattern of the delegate count has even led to suggestions that the Democrats' gathering in Denver on 25-28 August will become a rare "brokered convention"). As a result, the direct campaign between the presidential candidates will be far from the grinding and expensive gestation of nine months that had in late 2007 been widely anticipated (if still far from the usual intense two month-campaign from Labour Day in early September to polling day in early November).

An American election, however, is not only a device for choosing the chief magistrate, his (or her) vice-president and some thousands of senators, congressmen and other officials (see Laurie L Putnam, "Employment opportunity: President, United States of America", 4 February 2008). It is also rightly taken as a measure of the national mood, a testing of the state of the union. In 2008, many subordinate questions and one paramount question about the national mood will be decided.

What kind of "change"? Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:

Laurie L Putnam, "Employment opportunity: President, United States of America"
(4 February 2008)

Anthony Barnett, "Taking Obama seriously"
(6 February 2008)

It is palpable that the country has had enough of George W Bush. In vain he claims that the military "surge" in Iraq - the sending of monthly deployments of a few thousand additional American troops to Baghdad and environs - has shifted the course of the war in Washington's favour. The events on the ground don't support this view and a majority of Americans don't believe it. The damage done by the Iraq adventure is irreversible. Even less does anyone believe that a muddled meeting in Annapolis and an eight-day yet almost furtive tour of the middle east mean that the United States can bring peace where it has allowed war. The man with "Commander-in-Chief" embroidered on his jacket is now reduced to desperate bargaining with the Democrats in Congress over how to preserve the country from the recession that has in great part resulted from his party's selfish and short-sighted economic policies.

The great question is whether, in rejecting George W Bush, the American electorate will also reject the conservative ascendancy in American politics. That dominance has lasted at least since Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Some indeed would say that the tide turned earlier: in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson, in response to the Selma crisis, introduced the Voting Rights Bill (saying, as he signed it into law in August - so a credible legend has it - "There goes the south!"); or in 1964, when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater and sent the eastern patricians packing. Others would say that it turned only in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency at his third attempt. But whenever it can be said to have started, the conservative ascendancy has been real enough.

Now there is a good deal of evidence that many American voters want the election to bring "change". Most of the candidates, and conspicuously the two Democrats now left in the race, believe that change, whatever precisely that means, is the key to the door of the White House.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).

But what kind of change do the voters want? And what kind of change to Senator Clinton and Senator Obama think they want?

I have noted before in openDemocracy that a respectable tradition in American political science advances the theory that roughly every generation - for example, in 1876, in 1896 or 1912, in 1932 and in 1968 - a "critical election" has taken place that ended in a "realignment" of the parties and of the ideological kaleidoscope of United States politics (see "America in 2008: the next realignment", 6 November 2007).

So one way of rephrasing the great issue of 2008 might be: is 2008 a critical election", and if so what is the realignment it will bring?

Now some might argue (as Michael Tomasky has done in the Guardian) that the mere fact that the Democrats are now choosing between a woman and an African-American for president constitutes a dramatic realignment in itself. It is certainly true that as late as the 1960s, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama could conceivably have reached the White House; but at this stage of the argument it is surely time to contemplate a possible scenario that offers a different take on this double breakthrough.

There are many, and they are by means all either reactionary or stupid, who believe that a significant proportion of the electorate is not in fact ready to vote for a woman or a black man for president. Perhaps - this theory goes - those people will tell pollsters that they are for Clinton or Obama. But when the moment comes to cast their ballot - in the instant when (as President Kennedy's political lieutenant Larry O'Brien liked to say, "they reach down in their gut and pull that lever" - they will vote instead for McCain.

At this stage of the campaign I do not believe it possible to say with any confidence how much truth there is in that rather depressing theory. It should be said, though, that to vote for McCain is already in a certain sense to vote for change. For if McCain's "Tory" values - old-fashioned patriotism, economic caution and respect for traditional norms of decent political behaviour - make him at least as much an authentic conservative as George W Bush, Karl Rove or Grover Norquist, a McCain presidency would still mark a sharp break with what American conservatism has come to mean.

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)

"The United States election: time for ‘change'"
(10 January 2008

One scenario for 2008 that cannot be dismissed - notwithstanding the Illinois senator's clear wins in the five contests of 9-10 February, and his expectation of victory in the next round of voting (Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland) on 12 February - is that Obama and Clinton will fight one another to a standstill, discrediting one another in the process, leaving McCain to come through on the rails to a surprise victory. However, that presupposes that the Republicans will reunite and forget their differences, as they have traditionally (though not infallibly) done in the past. Yet many influential and activist Republicans have still not forgiven Senator McCain for what they consider serious straying from the true conservative path, reflected in his disloyalty to President Bush but more particularly in his stance on immigration. Will fanatical conservatives be able to rally to a man they see as a traitor, while two brands of moderate Democrats continue to tear their party apart?

The great unknown

The great unknown of 2008, therefore, seems to me to boil down to these five linked conundrums:

First, how radical is Barack Obama? Does he agree with the Clintons that as a matter of historical inevitability "the era of big government is over", and that what Edmund Burke called the "reign of sophisters, calculators and economists" - or in modern jargon the age of corporate public-relations men, think-tank pundits and hedge-fund acrobats - has succeeded? Or will he, and can he, reassert the authority of democratically elected government over corporate and other special interests?

Second, if Obama does want to see a rejuvenation of social democracy (on the lines of Roosevelt's "new deal" and Lyndon Johnson's "great society", adjusted for the 21st century), how boldly will he distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton in this respect? After all, Bill Clinton "triangulated" with the Republicans over welfare reform. Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan failed, not because it was too radical, but because it was not radical enough, so that it could be blown away by the clever but crass Harry and Louise campaign. "They choose", said Harry. "We lose", said Louise.

Third, if Obama does frame the policy issues in this way (though not necessarily in this language), will a majority of Democrats back him?

Fourth, if he does present himself as the candidate of substantial change in bold but at the same time practical terms, can he beat John McCain in November?

In other words - the fifth and biggest condundrum of all - does all the talk of change amount to the serious intention to end to the conservative ascendancy - a moment of realignment? What precise groups of voters, what interests, tendencies or tribes, will shift from voting for Republicans to voting for a relatively unknown and untried Democratic candidate with a distinctly exotic political profile and Hussein as his middle name?

At the moment, my instinct, or what Larry O'Brien called my "gut", tells me that there will be no such realignment in 2008. Voters have been so deeply marinaded in the complacent half-truths of conservative ideology and exceptionalist rhetoric, that they are not yet ready for realignment.

I hope I am wrong.

I fear, amid signs that a real recession may be on the way, that I am right.

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