The first black president of the USA

Submitted by martin on 5 November, 2008 - 9:20 Author: Martin Thomas

On 4 November Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the USA. He got 60% of the votes of the relatively hard-up (household income less than $50,000 a year) and only 49% of the votes of the well-off (household income above $100,00 a year).

He got 95% of the African-American vote, 66% of the Hispanic vote, 62% of the Asian vote, and 43% of the white vote. He won 56% of the female vote, and 49% of the male vote.

66% of 18-29 year olds voted for him, his vote decreasing through age groups to 45% of the over-65s. (All these figures from USA Today.)

We can only rejoice at the barrier-breaking involved in the election of a black person as president of the USA. Not so long ago in broad historical terms, in the 1940s, US Trotskyists used to support black candidates, even those put forward by bourgeois parties, because of the immense symbolic significance of those black candidates.

It is less than half a century since that African-Americans gained - or rather regained, having first won them in the aftermath of the Civil War - elementary civil rights in large parts of the USA.

Even today, Obama himself is only the third black person since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to sit in the US Senate, and the only currently sitting black member of the Senate. Before 1955 (and after Reconstruction) there were never more than one or two black members of the House of Representatives (today there are 40). The first black mayor of a major city (Cleveland, Ohio) was not elected until 1967; the first black state Governor, not until 1990.

Only a short time ago, it was unimaginable that one of the big political parties in the USA would nominate a black person for president, let alone that he would be elected. That Obama was elected, and that very large numbers of white people, probably a majority of young white people, voted for him, reflects a huge change of attitudes.

It is not the end of racism, or anywhere near that, but it reflects a great step forward.

The symbolism is enormously greater than that in the election of Britain's first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 (though even that contained, in an odd way, a reflection of the achievements of the women's movement of the 1960s). Britain had had women Cabinet ministers on and off since 1929. It was not unusual for women sharply dissociated from feminist claims to play a prominent role in political life.

Obama is not, and cannot be, sharply dissociated from anti-racist claims in the USA. At the very least he represents the claims of the "liberal" anti-racism of the big cities of the Norhern USA, against backwoods racism.

Another positive effect of the election is that it must help to break the common reduction of anti-capitalism to anti-Americanism. George W Bush and Dick Cheney could almost have been chosen to give credit to the idea that capitalism = the USA = capitalism.

Obama is not anti-capitalist, not at all. But visibly he is pro-capitalist in just the same way as more-or-less liberal political leaders are in every country in the world. He is not pro-capitalist in a way that is peculiarly "American".

His election also deals a blow to the prejudice that crass xenophobia and arrogance towards other peoples is something peculiarly American. Most Americans voted for someone who, though certainly pro-capitalist, is not a xenophobe, not crassly arrogant towards non-Americans, and not racist.

In almost every country in the world opinion surveys showed a majority, and sometimes a huge majority, for Obama. Non-USA has got the US president it wanted.

The election may thus help break the prejudice that socialists should back anyone "Third World"-ish against the USA, even if they be the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or Ahmadinejad - the prejudice that capitalism = USA = racist arrogance = imperialism, and anti-USA = anti-racist = anti-imperialist = anti-capitalist = progressive.

Obama in office will disappoint his leftish-minded voters. He was elected as the candidate of the Democratic Party machine, and with the backing of very big money indeed. His political career has been a conventional Democratic Party machine career. He promised little in specifics, and is unlikely to carry through his better promises.

For all those reasons, revolutionary socialists in the USA did not vote for Obama. Kim Moody and Barry Finger have explained why on this website, while recognising that "the symbolic significance of an African-American so close to the presidency in a country whose politics is so fundamentally scarred by racism cannot be underestimated" (Finger).

Even the disappointment, however, will not undo the positive symbolism: not even racists are likely to explain the bad things of an Obama presidency by the fact that he is black. Now, as Kim Moody puts it, "everything depends on workers getting organised to fight back from below".

Comments

Submitted by martin on Thu, 06/11/2008 - 15:28

See here for a critical "Black Agenda Report" look at Obama.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Sat, 08/11/2008 - 11:56

Writer, historian and socialist activist Mike Davis is the author of several books, including The Planet of Slums, In Praise of Barbarians and City of Quartz.

FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Democratic Party (the party of Jim Crow and the Cold War, as well as the New Deal) shipwrecked itself on the shoals of an unpopular war in Vietnam and a white backlash against racial equality.

The "emerging Republican majority," as Nixon's Machiavelli, Kevin Phillips, famously branded it, was always episodic and often paper-thin in national elections, but it was galvanized by impressive ideological and religious fervor, as well as lavishly subsidized by an employer class everywhere on the offensive against New Deal unions and social programs.

Republicans, although more often than not the minority party in Congress, dominated agendas (the New Cold War, the tax revolt, war on drugs and so on) and led the restructuring of government functions (abolition of direct federal aid to cities, deliberate use of debt to forestall social spending and so).

The Democratic response to the Reagan revolution from 1981 was not principled resistance but craven adaptation. The "New Democrats" under Bill Clinton (whose personal model was Richard Nixon) not only institutionalized Nixon-Reagan economic policies, but sometimes surpassed Republicans in their zeal to enforce neoliberal doctrine, as with Clinton's crusades to "reform" welfare (in fact to create more poverty), reduce the deficit and implement NAFTA without labor rights.

Although the New Deal working-class core continued to supply 60 percent of the Democratic vote, party policy was largely driven by the Clintons' infatuation with "new economy" elites, entertainment industry moguls, affluent suburbanites, yuppie gentrifiers and, of course, the world according to Goldman Sachs.

Crucial defections by Democratic voters to Bush in 2000 and 2004 had less to due with Republican manipulation of "family values" than with Gore's and Kerry's embrace of a globalization that had devastated mill towns and industrial valleys.

This week's election paradoxically augurs both fundamental realignment and fundamental continuity.

The Republicans now know what 1968 was like for the Democrats. Blue victories in formerly bedrock Red suburbs are stunning invasions of the enemy's electoral heartland, comparable to George Wallace's and Richard Nixon's victories more than a generation ago in Northern ethnic-white, CIO neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the desperate marriage-in-hell of Palin and McCain warns of the imminent divorce of mega-church faithful and the country-club sinners. The Bush coalition built by Karl Rove's thuggish genius is breaking up.

More importantly, tens of millions of voters have reversed the verdict of 1968: this time choosing economic solidarity over racial division. Indeed, this election has been a virtual plebiscite on the future of class-consciousness in the United States, and the vote--thanks especially to working women--is an extraordinary vindication of progressive hopes.

But not the Democratic candidate, about whom we should not harbor any illusions. Although the economic crisis as well as the particular dynamics of campaigning in industrial swing states finally drove Obama to emphasize jobs, his "socialism" has been far too polite to acknowledge vast public anger about the criminal bailout or even to criticize big oil (as has off-and-on populist McCain).

In policy terms, what would have been the difference if Hillary Clinton had won instead? Perhaps a marginally better health care plan, but otherwise the result is virtually the same. Indeed it might be argued that Obama is more a prisoner of the Clinton legacy than the Clintons themselves.

Waiting in the wings to define his first 100 days is a team of Wall Street statesmen, "humanitarian" imperialists, ice-blooded political operatives and recycled Republican "realists," which will thrill hearts from the Council on Foreign Relations to the International Monetary Fund. Despite the fantasies of "hope" and "change" projected onto the handsome mask of the new president, his administration will be dominated by well-known, pre-programmed zombies of the center-right. Clinton 2.0.

Confronted with the Great Depression of globalization, of course, the American ship of state, whatever the crew, would probably sail off the edge of the known world.

Only three things, in my opinion, are highly likely:

First, there is no hope whatsoever of the spontaneous generation of a new New Deal (or for that matter, of Rooseveltian liberals) without the combustion of massive social struggles.

Second, after the brief Woodstock of an Obama inauguration, millions of hearts will be broken by the administration's inability to manage mass bankruptcy and unemployment, as well as end the wars in the Middle East.

Third, the Bushites may be dead, but the hate-spewing nativist Right (particularly the Lou Dobbs wing) is well-positioned for a dramatic revival as neoliberal solutions fail.

The great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment, understanding that our task is not "how to move Obama leftward," but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself.

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