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This week’s front page editor

Clare Sambrook

Clare Sambrook, investigative journalist, co-edits Shine a Light.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Global development: Barack Obama’s agenda

The new United States president inherits major challenges of climate change, poverty, global governance and aid policy reform. The responsibility to help meet them is on development professionals too, says Simon Maxwell.

Rejuvenating public service in the Obama era

Among the many challenges awaiting the new Obama administration is the feeble state of US public service, which is failing to attract the best new talent

The missing element of Obama's economic plan

Investing in physical infrastructure is not enough if an opportunity to build real "social infrastructure" in the country is squandered

Three regular guys

Where will the Republican Party go in the age of Barack Obama? The political swamps of Louisiana offer a clue, says Jim Gabour.

Obama’s Perestroika Challenge: US & Russia

Obama's promise of transformation must apply to relations with Russia. Since the fall of communism, bad faith has dogged US policies towards Russia, followed by the return of Cold War stereotypes

Chicago: tale of two cities

Obama's success and Blagojevich's shame flow from the two wrestling motifs of Chicago's history.

Now everyone can monitor the Mexican border

Texans are taking their cues from Londoners these days with the establishment of a CCTV-based surveillance program for monitoring the US-Mexico border. A public-private initiative between the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition and the digital surveillance program Blue Servo, the program has erected cameras in areas along the Rio Grande known for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Explaining the need for the cameras to France 24, Donald L. Reay, the executive director of the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program, noted, “We have a pretty open border with our neighbors to the south and bad people could take advantage of that.” Internet users are the eyes of the program. When a user logs on Blue Servo as a “Virtual Texas Deputy” they may select from 11 cameras at various stations along the Rio Grande. At this point they may sit back and let their civic duty take over. When they notice bad people, they can file a report at Blue Servo which will alert the local authorities.

"If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press"

It appears that MSNBC may have finally made their much-anticipated decision as to who will succeed the late Tim Russert as the next host of Meet the Press: the most watched Sunday talk show in America and the longest-running television show in broadcast history. In an article posted Monday, The Huffington Post is reporting with some confidence that David Gregory has seen off stiff competition to land the coveted anchor role when Tom Brokaw's run as interim host wraps up in January.

While widely respected within the media world, and viewed by many as a rising star, the prospect of Gregory being handed the keys to arguably NBC's most prized broadcasting possession has actually appeared increasingly slim in recent months. Unable to carve out a slot for himself amongst MSNBC's stellar cast of polemicists, Gregory found himself saddled with Race for the White House in March of this year: a bland panel show covering the American presidential race that clearly lacked a creative direction and suffered from its tendency to recycle talking heads chosen largely from MSNBC's own in-house pool of talent. The decision to renew the show into the New Year--under the revised and equally uninspiring moniker 1600 Pennsylvania Drive--only cast further doubt as to whether Gregory would ultimately be handed an opportunity by the network to truly shine.

However, the decision to choose Gregory over flashier and more high profile candidates such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is a huge vote of confidence for the Los Angeles native--and one that is justly deserved. Having engaged in a number of fiery exchanges with members of the Bush administration--the President himself included--while a member of the White House press corps, Gregory has quickly carved out a reputation for possessing excellent journalistic instincts, a rare ability to clearly identify "the story behind the story," and a tenacious and unrelenting style of interrogative pursuit: assets that would all mesh perfectly with the format of the highly decorated Sunday talk show.

Moreover, by choosing Gregory over Matthews and company--the pioneers of MSNBC's newfound strategy of jettisoning objectivity for opinion, which has seen the network mimic Fox News's rating success at the cost of drawing strong criticism during the presidential campaign season--MSNBC executives would ensure that the reputation of one of the few last great bastion's of balanced objectivity within the American third estate remains intact. Anyone who questions whether such an edifying description is truly merited need only look at Colin Powell's decision to announce his endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy on the show a few weeks ago--and the almost country-wide outpouring of grief following Russert's death in June of this year

Change?

The transition process is casting a shadow over hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency. But the bedraggled reputation of some appointees is the symptom of a deeper issue, says Godfrey Hodgson

American perceptions of the Mumbai attacks

Until it hit the headlines after the Mumbai attacks, India did not tend to receive much attention in the international press - at least not as much attention as China, Asia's other major rising power. Even with the Olympics over, China has been the subject of innumerable recent news stories and feature pieces. In noting this, I am not trying to suggest that China gets too much attention; my point is only that India could use a little more. (To this end, openDemocracy has just launched a new editorial section on India, which had been planned for some time.) In the absence of detailed reporting on India, three images of the country have tended to coexist (somewhat uneasily) in Westerners' imaginations.

The real story of Thanksgiving

In November 1863, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day (up till then rather unofficial and only vaguely celebrated) a National Holiday, inviting his "fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

As an American sojourning abroad, Thanksgiving has always been a bit difficult to explain. If asked, most Americans would mention pilgrims and native Americans - because that is what we learned in school. The mythology goes: the pilgrims at Plymouth survived a long and arduous winter in their rather poorly chosen location because the local Wampanoag, among them Squanto, taught them how to grow corn and fish for eels, among other essential survival skills. A feast was had to celebrate this neighbourliness and give thanks to God that everyone made it through. And that was the first Thanksgiving.

As schoolchildren, we commemorated this story by making little pilgrim collars and feathered hats (yes, really) out of construction paper. That all seems a bit trivial now, more about a safe America we fantasise about rather than the complicated America we have - and always have had.

One feast becomes a tradition only over time, and Thanksgiving was celebrated haphazardly throughout the United States up until the Civil War, with different states observing some sort of semi-religious feast at different times.

When Lincoln asked his citizens to take pause, it was only three months after 50,000 people died, on both sides, in a three day period at Gettysburg. Notably, he asked Americans not just to reflect and give thanks for their "singular deliverances and blessings," of the past year but also to have "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." You have much to be thankful for, Lincoln reminded us, but there is much to regret - and much to get done, "to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it ... to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

There is much to regret. There is much to be done. This is Thanksgiving. Its history - like our history - is not something you would find in a storybook (and there are no convenient costumes) but is borne out of the best hopes of our dark, divided heart.

HIV/AIDS: Obama's easy win

Beset by crises, Obama can achieve quick success and set an international standard by reforming the country's HIV/AIDS foreign policy

Change we don't really need

The Obama campaign pioneered the use of 21st century social networking in American electoral politics. Its My.BarackObama.com website was a small miracle of technology and tact, building a platform that at once spread information, enlarged the supporter base, directed energy and, most importantly, raised money. Barack's Twitter feed kept thousands of supporters (and foes) abreast of his latest speeches and rallies. Obama's campaign even deployed text messages on its path to victory, considerably defter and more modern than McCain's much maligned robo-calls.

I got my last "tweet" from Obama on the morning of the 5th: "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks". My.BarackObama.com now offers it services as a blank and vague portal for "local organising"; activity has slowed markedly on the site. Electoral victory put an end to the campaigning purpose of such tools, which in the previous months had been meticulous in their direction. Once the means achieve their desired end, they end themselves.

Yet the President-elect rolled out a new website, Change.gov, aimed at making the process of transition more transparent. A noble intention, of course, but when that intention is bolstered by such saccharine and cringe-worthy blog posts as this, it seems risible at best, propagandist at worst. We don't need the organ of the President-elect to tell us that "Words like 'brilliant,' 'sharp,' 'energetic,' and 'visionary' are coming from across the political spectrum in praise for President-elect Barack Obama's choices to lead his economic team." As a friend pointed out, much of the site reads like official Chinese Communist Party newspapers.

It is disappointing that the energy and dynamism of the previous months seems lost on Change.gov. In the hands of Obama's campaign, the internet was perfectly harnessed to build momentum and galvanise support. His new venture on the internet is on the path to becoming a reminder of the stultifying effect of power.

Uncharacteristically feverish rhetoric from Minnesota

Tempers are flaring in Minnesota, a state that has long prided itself on what its residents call 'Minnesota nice' (for an amusing portrayal of this style of behaviour, look no further than Fargo, perhaps the best film the Coen brothers have made to date). The pyrogen is the still unsettled Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken. As of today, Coleman is only 215 votes in the lead. Yesterday, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com projected - with startlingly confident precision - that Franken would manage to push 27 votes into the lead by the end of the recount.

With the margins that small, the one thing we can be sure of is that the eventual victor - whoever he may be - will have a hard time convincing his opponents that he won fair and square. For a taster of what is to come, take a look at politico.com's latest article on the subject. It is an extremely biased piece of work entitled 'Sloppy Dems may spell Franken advantage' (the title alone cries out for the attention of an editor). It relies heavily on the opinions of a "veteran Minnesota election law attorney" named Robert Hentges, who has this to say:

“Democrats are [thought to be] more creative, free-spirited, so the idea is that they’re more likely to make a mistake that the optical scan won’t pick up. But when they recount the hard copy, those votes will be counted for Franken. If you talk to Republicans, they say it will be Franken’s advantage, because Democrats are stupid and will screw up ballots more often.”

Since the Politico reporter seems to take Hentges' suggestions at face value, it's a fair bet that this meme will have legs. Of course, many Minnesota Democrats are poorer than the average citizen, and so often have to deal with longer lines to vote, and less reliable equipment when they do. But that was also true in Florida eight years ago, and didn't stop Republicans from labelling Al Gore's supporters as undereducated African-Americans and senile old fools. The suggestion was, of course, that these voters didn't really deserve their votes in the first place. Expect to hear more of that if Franken manages a victory.

Update: It turns out that the headline of the Politico piece genuinely was in need of some editing. I e-mailed the author, Daniel Libit, with my concerns, and he agreed that the piece's title - which he didn't choose - was inappropriate. It has now changed to 'Franken hopes may turn on absentee issue', which is decidedly more neutral.

Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama

The United States president-to-be should take the initiative to heal three sources of strain in the hemisphere, says Juan Gabriel Tokatlian.

Hillary Clinton: a good Secretary of State?

A picture of Barack Obama's cabinet is starting to emerge, and it is not pleasing his more left-wing supporters. Some of them were already unhappy about the appointment of Clintonites like Rahm Emmanuel. Now, the New York Times is reporting that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly become Secretary of State. That is disturbing for some Obama supporters, who were told during the primaries that her foreign policy views disqualified her from the nomination.How you feel about Clinton's appointment - assuming that it does come to pass - will depend on how legitimate you feel those criticisms were. Central among them was the charge that she showed bad judgement in supporting the Iraq war. That may well be so, but she had a lot of company in this. Many liberals, myself included, thought in 2003 that regime change was the lesser of two evils, only to change our minds when we saw the nature of the regime change we got. I would readily admit that was bad judgement on my part. Clinton refused to say that it was bad judgement on hers - this may, in fact, have been what cost her the Democratic nomination. Perhaps she was privy to special intelligence before the war which added support to Bush's arguments. But I find it hard to believe that she had any such excuse, given that she reportedly failed to thoroughly study the briefings given to her at the time.Nonetheless, that is all in the past. What matters is what sort of Secretary of State she will be over the next four years. It is clear why many on the left are concerned about this. She has been decidedly hawkish on Iran, supporting the controversial Kyl-Lieberman amendment that classified that country's Quds Force as a terrorist organisation. She also has a reputation for pandering to the more extreme elements of the soi-disant 'pro-Israel vote' in the States - and since this voting block's favoured policies would actually harm Israel and the peace process, this is concerning.However, this history may allow her to play the role of Nixon in China on these questions, providing Obama cover against those who would claim that his positions on these issues are too 'soft'. She and her husband have almost unparalleled knowledge and experience of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question in particular. There are already rumours that Obama has charged her with finding a solution to this, and given her substantial autonomy in doing so. If she can accomplish this, few will or should regret her selection.

NYT comes out against electoral college

Following in our footsteps, a New York Times editorial today forcefully argues for the abolition of the electoral college in favour of the popular vote. There are numerous reasons to dispense with the creaking, archaic system: much of the initial rationale of the system lay in slavery; it is unconscionable that the presidency can be awarded to the candidate for whom fewer Americans vote (as happened in 2000); and the electoral college exaggerates the importance of votes in "swing states" like Ohio and Florida, while diminishing their significance in "safe states" like New York and Texas.

But most importantly, in my opinion, the system reduces the diverse political landscape of the country into monochrome blocks. It creates the crippling sense of a "red state" vs "blue state" divide. If a popular vote was in place, this perception would not have room to flourish. As the editorial points out, over 40% of voters in deep red Alabama cast their ballot for Obama, while 4.5 million Californians voted for McCain (equivalent to the number of votes the Republican got in Texas). If Obama is serious about transcending red-blue fissures, he should welcome the burgeoning national movement for the popular vote.

Will Obama govern from the left?

The tea leaves are ready, and the crystal balls are out. Now that the campaign is over, everyone's attention is focused on predicting what sort of president Barack Obama will be. The real answer is that it is too early to tell: the degree to which he moves the country to the left will be limited not by his plans but by what is politically feasible, and that will be revealed by events yet to come.

It is true that some of Obama's recent actions seem almost designed to test his left-wing base's patience. He has reportedly offered the position of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton, who he pilloried in the primaries as a symbol of nineties triangulation. Clinton was never popular with the party's left wing or 'netroots', and Ben Smith at Politico reports that they are reacting to her reemergence with some dismay.

Likewise, the possibility of Lawrence Summers becoming Treasury Secretary is generating anger among feminists; they reacted badly (and in my opinion unfairly) to a notorious remark he made mentioning the possibility of gender differences in aptitude and interest in science. Obama's tolerant attitude towards Joe Lieberman, which yesterday resulted in the Connecticut Senator earning only the mildest of punishments, has also irritated some on the left.

However, these actions tell us more about Obama's attitude to HR than about his governing agenda. Neither Clinton nor Summers would drag the administration notably towards the left; both show signs of having moved away from the centrist nineties. As for the Democrats' leniency towards Lieberman, I argued earlier this week that it was the smart political choice, and this consideration appears to have been what drove Obama's decision.

The "celestial" president

The New Yorker's recent issue boasts a particularly arresting cover (pasted below). Obama's "O" moon waxes high over the Lincoln Memorial, casting a pale reflection in the pool beneath. Still months before his inauguration, Obama finds himself in the longest of shadows, that of the president who steered the United States through bloody division and great crisis. It's a mantle that Obama has, in effect, placed upon himself. He quoted Abraham Lincoln extensively throughout his campaign. And in his first interview since the election, Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft that he'd been preparing for the months ahead by returning to the works of Lincoln: "I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

The reflection of the memorial - eerily reminiscent of the pillars of light that all too briefly replaced the World Trade Centre after 9/11 - tells a cautionary tale. Even the brightest alabaster of presidential grandeur has its dark side. He probably knows this. Obama's performance on 60 Minutes was low-key and almost pedestrian, belying the tremendous anticipation weighted on the President-elect. On display was not only Obama's famous calm, but his deep respect for the office and the moment he has risen to. Perhaps he has imbibed the "wisdom" of Lincoln. The "greatness" expected of him, Obama knows, will only materialise if it ultimately draws from a deeper reserve of modesty.  

 

Hat-tip to BAGnewsNotes.

Let Obama be Obama

The constraints he will inherit mean that the United States president-elect will be a change-maker not a miracle-worker, says Godfrey Hodgson.

The week of pragmatic transition

The significance of the transition period for an incoming presidential administration cannot be overstated: not only does it offer the opportunity for the President-elect to identify the priorities within his or her legislative and policy agenda for the forthcoming term, but it also represents the first true test of managerial acumen at the highest governmental level; just ask Bill Clinton, who endured a number of early and largely self-inflicted blows to his executive authority as a result of tardy mobilization and ill-judged selections for his supporting cast (cf. Zoe Baird).

As such, the actions of the Obama transition team in the coming weeks should not be observered merely for the sake of palace intrigue. Instead, like a candidate's general election campaign, transition offers a fleeting glimpse as to how well prepared a future Obama administration is to meet the challenges ahead, while at the same time acting as a rough indicator as to what the President-elect's advisers believe are the key issues that need to be addressed internally between now and January 20th 2009. Over the brief but fervent period of time that has elapsed since Obama's electoral victory, I would suggest that the following has rung true:

The pariah-to-messiah moment

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Comaroff. (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

Democrats ask: "Will no one rid us of Joe Lieberman?"

Senator Joe Lieberman has been a thorn in the Democrats' side for a long time, but relations have only worsened since Connecticut primary voters booted him off the party ticket in 2006. Lieberman reacted by separating himself from the party and running as an independent, despite his earlier promises not to do so. Having campaigned for him in the primaries, many of his Democratic colleagues switched their support to the official party nominee, much to Lieberman's chagrin. He won re-election anyway, and since then has repeatedly broken his campaign promise to be loyal to the Democrats, stumping for his old friend John McCain, smearing Barack Obama, and delivering the keynote address at the Republican convention.

It's no surprise, then, that the party base want revenge. There is already outrage at the gentle approach President-elect Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have taken thus far. However, they ought to remember the proverb about not cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Kicking Lieberman out of the party might send a message that disloyalty will be punished, but other than that it would accomplish precious little. It would be far wiser for Democrats to send a forgiving and non-partisan message, and keep Lieberman on board for important Senate votes. There is currently a real prospect of their controlling a 60-seat majority in the Senate, which would let them stop Republican filibusters derailing their legislative goals. These are still goals that Lieberman shares, despite his alienation from the party. Here's hoping Democrats don't give him more reason to subvert these goals. Lieberman is the one who has been cutting off his nose to spite his face, and there is still a chance that he will come to see that.

Only in America (part VI)

In the sixth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett realises that Obama's victory was hardly as comprehensive as it seemed. Catch up with part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5

Dear Kay,

You are right to mull it over. There are big issues to be addressed, from celebrity to Afghanistan not to speak of the recession. But not immediately. I had a shock about 36 hours afterwards. I'd known - I'd put it as strongly as that - since January that Barack Obama could win and that in his case his race would not prevent this. I suppose I must have been too confident that he would. It was only afterwards that I suddenly saw how close it was. Obama needed Lehman Brothers to turn all the "palling around with terrorists" junk into froth.

One American in three did not vote at all! Most Americans did not vote for Obama. He got 66 million to McCain's 58 million votes. Nearly a quarter of the US's 300 million plus population are under 18, still leaving over 230 million of which less than 130 million voted. Obama got the actual votes of barely more than one in four American adults. He and his supporters must do something about the extent of what remains, in effect, a form of disenfanchisement in the USA.

What Obama means for Iraq

The United States president-elect promises to withdraw troops from Iraq. Will he deliver? Barack Obama's past statements offer a less certain guide than his opposition to the Iraq war might suggest, says Zaid Al-Ali.

"Obama's Afghan challenge"

Elsewhere in openDemocracy, Anita Inder Singh explores the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. Singh paints a bleak picture: "The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war." Read the rest of the article here.

 

Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0

The assumptions that guided earlier American policies towards Europe no longer apply, says A Wess Mitchell, who delivers a nine-point proposal to the United States president-elect.

The electoral college is still a poor system

Last Tuesday, Barack Obama won clear majorities in both the electoral college and the popular vote. Their divergence in 2000 remains an aberration in American political history; remarkably, the parties' support in different states is distributed in such a way that the winner of the popular vote will tend to win the electoral college (with Democrats currently having only a slight structural advantage due to the more efficient distribution of their vote).

In that respect, things are better in the US than in the UK, where the first-past-the-post system has often put one or other of the major parties at a disadvantage (as well as denying the significant number of third-party voters proportionate impact). However, we should not let this obscure the fact that the electoral college system has a number of other drawbacks.

First, it gives voters in low-population states like Vermont and Wyoming over twice as much weight as those in high-population states like New York and Texas.

Second, it hampers the growth of third parties. Some will regard that as a good thing, on the grounds that it encourages stability and forces compromise, but I disagree.

Third, it allows states to disenfranchise voters without losing clout. Southern states originally supported it for just this reason, as it let them increase their electoral college votes by counting their slave population (albeit at a discounted rate, with each slave worth three fifths of a free man).

Fourth, states in which one party has a comfortable margin suffer decreased turnout, as their residents feel that their votes will not make a difference.

Fifth, these states get less attention from the candidates than large swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which force politicians to pander to their particular needs. For example, John McCain's defeat in Iowa was ensured by his (admirable) refusal to follow Barack Obama in supporting ethanol subsidies.

There are moves afoot to overturn this flawed system. One of the cleverest, which bypasses the need to pass a constutional ammendment,is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.This is an agreement which kicks in when joined by enough states to command a majority in the electoral college, at which point these states promise to award their votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It has already been joined by Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland,and New Jersey. Let's hope that more states recognise the flawed nature of the current system, and join in the effort to reform it.

Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you

The new United States president must focus quickly and strongly on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, says the analyst John C Hulsman, who  offers Barack Obama an eight-point plan.

The future of campaigning

The Obama campaign has set new standards for politicians, strategic advisors and spin doctors around the globe. What aspects of his campaign will be appropriated abroad and shape the conduct of political competition in elections to come?

Only in America (part V)

In the wake of Obama's victory, KA Dilday begins to digest an unprecedented result. Catch up with the earlier segments of her conversation wtih Anthony Barnett: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.  

Dear Anthony:

From the moment the news was announced at about 4 am in London, and I heard the triumphant roar of the Harlem, New York City residents through the phone as I spoke to my sister overseas, I've been in a state of shock.  A black man with a funny name, and Hussein as a middle name no less, was elected president by more than half of the Americans who voted in the largest voter turnout in 100 years.

I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a black man to be president for Obama to win. In a time of Islamophobia, I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a man who had Muslim relatives for Obama to win. Until the moment when it became an irrefutable fact, I had underestimated my country.

So I consumed my dish of crow with relish.

One nagging concern though: while John McCain's concession speech was gracious, I inferred that he thought Barack Obama's success heralded the end of racism in America. Just as Thatcher's tenure as prime minister didn't mean the end of sexism in Britain, or Lula's and Morales' triumphs don't mean the end of classism in their respective countries, nor does Obama's success mean that racism no longer exists. But it does mean that for any one person with determination, anything is possible. And that is a powerful piece of knowledge to hold.

I think I'm going to take a few days to mull this over, Anthony, before we continue our conversation.

Kay

KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

 

Gay marriage: what now?

Dennis highlights the success of California's Proposition 8, which amends the state constitution to ban gay marriage.  This was a bitter note in Tuesday's results, made all the more so by evidence that the surge in African-American turnout carried the proposition to victory. Gay rights activists clearly have a lot of work to do convincing socially conservative blacks, unless they plan on hoping that their high turnout was a passing aberration.

Other than continuing the slow process of convincing Americans of the rightness of their cause, or simply waiting for time to do its work as each new generation becomes more tolerant, these activists have a few options. Attorney Gloria Allred has already announced plans to challenge the constitutionality of the new constitutional amendment - unsurprisingly, this does not seem likely to succeed. Others are hoping to wait a few years and then introduce a new proposition to overturn this one - a prospect which suggests we may see decades of see-sawing court decisions and citizen initiatives.

In the meantime, what will happen to those same-sex couples who have already got married in California? Eugene Volokh has a good rundown of the possibilities. In brief, it appears quite possible that their marriages will be converted to domestic partnerships, either by the courts or by the legislature. Strangely enough, that would not provoke the ire of many who voted for Proposition 8 - a solid majority of Americans are comfortable with something very like gay marriage, so long as it is not called 'marriage'.

Despite the bad news in California, it is worth remembering that Connecticut and Massachusetts still have equal marriage rights, that New York recognises marriages in Massachusetts, and that President-elect Obama has promised to push for federal civil unions. Time remains the best ally supporters of gay marriage have on their side.

Lost in the moment: ballot measures

While the world celebrates Barack Obama's historic victory over John McCain, many ballot measures on the state level also deserve our attention (overview). Most controversial among them were the decisions on same-sex marriage and abortion that were up in several states.

Is this what a landslide looks like?

With almost all states called, we have a pretty good picture of the electoral map. It looks like this:

Though not quite the stuff of Democrats' wildest fantasies (which featured Georgia and even Montana), this is about as good as they could have hoped for. It is already being called a "landslide" by the often restrained New York Times. Nonetheless, it looks somewhat less impressive than this:

Or this:

However,  those sorts of landslides look to be things of the past. America is now much more evenly split, with both parties calibrating their message so as to win 51% of the electorate. The Democrats in particular have moved to the centre ever since Bill Clinton, scarred by the experience of the 1984 and 1988 elections depicted above, in which their candidates were widely seen as too liberal. Of course, some commentators, like John Judis of the New Republic, are already interpreting this election as part of a leftward shift in the nation. They may well be right, and I am sure we shall be discussing this at openUSA over the coming weeks. But there is no missing the fact that many of the new congressmen the Democrats have gained are more conservative than their old colleagues. This is the result of a deliberate and apparently highly successful strategy of recruiting candidates in tune with their districts. It will help keep the Democrats close to the centre, and perhaps even mark the return of a South in which both parties are competitive. Perhaps then we may see an electoral map which is more uniformly blue.

Only in America (part I)

In the first segment of a multi-part exchange, KA Dilday reminds Anthony Barnett of how Barack Obama's rise is very un-European. Read on: part II, part III, and part IV

Dear Anthony:

It's been several months since I told you that Barack Obama's nomination as the presidential candidate for a major political party, could only happen in America . But even as I said that, I also insisted that he would never be elected president because of his race, particularly since he was running against a patrician white man. Now, and I say this with a cautious optimism, it seems that on the night of 4 November (EST of course) I may be eating a dish of crow, and relishing every bite.

I've lived in three countries in Europe - France, The Netherlands and now the United Kingdom - and despite the western European belief, particularly in France, that their countries are more liberal and tolerant than the United States, none of them have ever voted someone from an ethnic minority to a major position in national government. France, despite having a Muslim population (mostly of north and sub-Saharan African descent) of nearly ten percent, has never elected any Muslims to their National Assembly, the directly-elected body of their bi-cameral parliament.

In a way I'm embarrassed that my excitement is based on a politics of identity - Obama's black, I'm black, hooray for the race! - because as a thoughtful person, I've always tried to base my decisions on a candidate's ideas and policies. And despite that I've always been registered as a political independent, unaffiliated with either major party, I didn't vote for another black man, Jesse Jackson, when he ran as an independent candidate for president in 1988. But I can't deny the thrill I felt when I colored in the dot next to Barack Obama's name on the absentee ballot that I scoured the mail for each day until it finally came last Monday. I'm still expecting an unpleasant surprise. I don't think the exposure of Obama's aunt as an illegal alien will derail him, but who knows what the Republican's dirty tricks strategists will throw up. They're fiendishly clever and unabashedly dissolute when it comes to winning elections. But could it be? A black man, president of the United States! Who would have thought it in my lifetime?

Optimistically yours,

Kay

KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

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