So the interminable US election process has finally ended with the re-election of Barack Obama. The electoral college numbers made it look rather more convincing than it actually was – Obama captured about 51% of the popular vote, which translated into 60% of the final score.
His victory speech had, as all such occasions do, partly the character of a badly planned Oscar acceptance – thank you, Joe Biden! Thank you, Michelle! Thank you, everyone! Inasmuch as anything distinctively Obama came through, it was the paean to diversity that closed things out: black, white, Asian or Latino, rich or poor, gay or straight, you should be able to make it in America. That got the biggest cheer – the second biggest, tellingly, came when the president made a fleeting reference to a ‘decade of war’ coming to an end.
It all feels a bit canned at this point. Obama’s carefully non-specific pitches at people’s emotions had a messianic air in 2008; by now, he is clearly going through the motions. It does not matter on the morning after election night, but soon he will be confronted with a Republican-dominated lower house and a slender majority in the upper – and the task of keeping American capitalism on the rails. None of this will make him many friends.
The process of the election was, as ever, an extraordinary spectacle. Barely had we recovered from the Byzantine structure of the Republican primaries than we were confronted with the electoral college, which sees votes compartmentalised by state in a mathematically bewildering fashion.
Bewildering it truly is. It is no accident that the pollster-technocrat in this country – the key actor in Labour and Conservative campaigns today – was a US import. The American election is not a contest – it is an algorithm. That the election should, in popular vote terms, be such a knife-edge contest might, to the more naive, be taken as evidence of passions running high – of a deep, existential choice facing the American nation. Surely nobody can be naive enough to believe that this time around, however. The most striking thing about this election is the utter lack of enthusiasm among anyone for either of the two candidates.
Obama has to carry the disenchantment that almost inevitably hangs over the incumbent. In his case, it is hardly a mystery as to why. His entire political career has been based on a kind of outsider status. A barnstorming speech at the 2004 Democratic convention put him on the political map for many – but at that point he just seemed to come out of nowhere. As chatter built up mooting him as a potential head of state, it was his skin colour that put him out of the running.
Then came the primaries in 2007: Obama versus the Clintons, a well-rooted political clan, better connected than almost anyone else. What hope did he have against such establishment figures? When it became clear that Democrat voters were far more excited about this electrifying speaker than a machine woman of the Hillary Clinton type, he was duly selected. Then the race issue came back: was America really ready to vote for a black president?
Just about, it seems; and so America got the black president it deserved. The four years since have seen what everyone not blinded by the ‘Hopey McChange’ guff knew was coming – another commander-in-chief, from the same drawer as all the others, pursuing a capital-friendly consensus at home and brutal interventions abroad.
If Obama did Romney the favour of destroying his own grassroots base, then the Republican Party returned it in spades. If the narrative of the 2007 Democratic primaries was the emergence of a charismatic outsider against all the odds – the American dream itself! – the contest to see who would face Obama on November 6 was the exact reverse. A more unsavoury crew of demagogues, morons and spineless careerists would be difficult to arrange, even for legendary film crime boss Keyser Soze (“12 lunatics. One line-up. No coincidence”).
Mitt Romney slid through because he was the only tenable piece of human capital the GOP could muster. He was not as bonkers as ranting pizza magnate Herman Cain. He was not as painfully establishment and widely reviled as Newt Gingrich. He was not much of anything, really, and that was both his strength and his key weakness. The GOP faithful will pick stubborn idiocy over pragmatic inconsistency every time, and so Romney’s flip-flop over Obamacare was unforgivable. Moderate voters, meanwhile, will have been dismayed by his unstatesmanlike demeanour on foreign trips and apparent ignorance of simple geographical facts.
Romney’s selling point was that he is not Obama (who, the Teabagger faithful would have us believe, is about to institute a communist regime in the States). Obama’s, conversely, was that he is not Romney – a bloodless vulture capitalist who likes to fire people.
Nobody won this election, and neither candidate imagined they would. The important thing was to make the other guy lose. Hence the ‘super-PAC’ attack ads on both sides; hence Republican efforts to gerrymander votes in key states, both literally (as in Texas, where the legislature and courts has redrawn electoral boundaries to dilute the Latino vote) and figuratively (the infamous ‘voter fraud’ laws).
So the most striking thing about this electoral cycle is simply how toxically constricted the American body politic has become. It is easy enough to shudder in horror at – and easier still to mock – the lunatic right wing, whether it be preachers blaming the two candidates’ support for gay marriage for Hurricane Sandy, or the ‘birther’ conspiracy theories concerning Obama’s supposedly foreign origins.
It also makes it easier to take sides: Obama may be a reactionary, after all, but he is at least a rational actor, and so – broadly speaking – are his supporters and appointed executive team. Yet, just as Obama ended up pursuing a late-Bush foreign policy, thanks to the brute imperatives of US imperial interests, Romney would equally be forced away from his more wild-eyed rantings on foreign policy if he had won. The practical difference is nil; only, under an Obama presidency, it is liberals and progressives who become disillusioned, while under Romney it would be the Tea Party lunatic fringe.
The American constitution produces a legislature at the mercy of the president and a president at the mercy of the legislature, with both at the mercy of life-appointed supreme court judges. The object, as it always is with the ‘separation of powers’, is to minimise the actual power the people have to determine their own destiny. Soul-searching over who to vote for in presidential elections is all well and good; but democracy will not exist in America until the office of president is abolished, and the supreme court thrown out with it.
The Washington machine can only offer up grey men for election. The set-up is the very opposite of democracy. In response to that non-choice between McCain and Obama, and now Obama and Romney, irrationalism takes stubborn root.
Bourgeois politics gets the electors it deserves; by treating voters as an embarrassing nuisance to be negotiated every four years, by attempting to ensure they cannot ‘damage’ things too badly through voting for the ‘wrong’ candidates, by denying them the opportunity to meaningfully shape society, it infantilises them. The result is the Tea Party.
What do the next four glorious years have in store for the American population? The details are impossible to calculate. Obama is secretly a lot like Mitt Romney – a ruthless pragmatist, who will pursue US interests with the requisite degree of vigour. The “decade of war” is likely far from over. At home, there will be attacks on the working population – concealed, of course, under the convenient facade of political gridlock. The absence of a viable working class party, unfortunately, makes all this far too easy for the Obamas and Romneys of America.