Obama & I

Everybody develops a relationship with the American President. They enter and influence everybody’s lives in some way or another – from aggressive acts of war, to domestic health policy, trade deals, and speeches you may have caught wind of. For the past eight years, Barack Obama has been ever-present in our lives, whether we noticed it or not. For what it’s worth, this post is about my two terms with President Obama.

In part it’s a response to the global outpouring of liberal grief following the President’s farewell address, which he delivered with vintage oratorical charm. I completely get this reaction. With a Fascist Satsuma waiting impatiently to nest in the Oval Office, I can’t help but look at the future feeling that the floor is about to fall from underneath my feet. But I struggled to truly relate to this sentiment – I have a far more ambivalent and downbound attitude toward the outgoing President – one that is nine years in the making.

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I remember when I got the Obama bug. I was nineteen – naïve, spotty and meek, living away from home (Birmingham) for the first time. In my first year at university, I was a pale brown kid in a predominantly white middle-class environment that I had not properly experienced before, even though I thought I had. I was seriously confused by the looks, the club security pat-downs, the “where are you froms” and my slow characterisation as an oversensitive chipped-shouldered teenage strop-monster.

It was Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in March 2008 that perked my ears up. It’s curious, looking back on it now, as to why exactly it moved me so much. For the previous few years I’d been affected by post-9/11 racial politics, which had, among other things, made me wary of running for a bus or growing my beard too long. Bush, Blair and Brown had made all of us who were teenagers during the Iraq War desperate to hear something else – a politician who did not acquiesce to the hawkish racial profiling of the Naughties, where anyone not white was expected to behave in a certain manner (….and so it remains). In Spring 2008, as the American political classes rounded on Obama for his association with his preacher Jeremiah Wright – who’d once said “God Damn America” – it seemed as if Obama was to be subject to this policing. I think what I liked most about his response at the time was that it did not feel like an acquiescence, rather it appeared to me that here was a black politician taking command of the debate, channeling his own personal experiences into a speech on race in the USA. He did not seem afraid to take this issue on.

I now believe this speech to be more of a sleight of hand – a nuanced way to disparage Wright, his friend, whilst proclaiming an air of statesmanship. But at 19, struggling to even think about my race without imploding, I couldn’t believe my eyes. At the time, the symbol of Obama’s candidature overrode the underlying crude politics of his campaign. I feel that those who have always been cynical about HopeTM  have missed that some of the fervour surrounding Obama was not of his own making. Here, in front of us, was a confident man, a smart-as-nails spine-tingling orator – in the eighth year of Dubya you can imagine how this must have seemed to desperate eyes. After four centuries (and counting) of Jim Crow and his ancestors, to see a black politician speaking passionately and earnestly about an issue from which white America has always preferred to duck and take cover, it felt so far removed from the vacuousness of Bush and the conniving of Blair. It felt so far removed from the USA.

And so I started rooting for him. I stayed up late to watch the primaries and checked the state-by-state polling obsessively. I also read his book over the summer. The first one, Dreams of My Father. I still wasn’t doing great that July, and it helped me to read of how the young Obama came to understand his multi-ethnic roots. It wasn’t particularly profound stuff and he certainly wasn’t the first person to have ever written about these issues, but his book was the one I read at the time and it made me feel slightly less alone, and slightly more comfortable in my own skin. Even now, that still means something to me. Eight years later, when everything Obama does feels very calculated and deliberate, I wonder to the service of what end he wrote Dreams. It is said he wrote it before he decided he wanted to pursue office. I don’t know what to think.

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Source: Washington Post

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Ending the war in Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, preventing drilling in Alaska. Yes we can. Can we? Who’s we? Thousands of miles away, I felt a part of this, and so did many others. A wave of futurism, the audacity of hope. The Nebraska Second District, North Carolina. Indiana. SERIOUSLY? INDIANA? Even the American voters were getting behind this. The President of the USA is black.

Alongside, the Lehmann Brothers collapsed. Over here, Northern Rock followed. The financial crisis had been bubbling away quietly all summer and now it hit hard. It hit us for years, and all of us who graduated straight into the eye of this storm had quite a bit of fun trying to get jobs. Some of us worked for the Disney Store, or the Odeon, or Solihull drinking holes, and I fixed gearboxes for my uncle for a while. Some of us were paid by the hour, zero hours a week. Some of us didn’t work at all. Obama was elected into this global mess, and he began by rescuing those whose opulence, negligence and man-childish irresponsibility had sent half the world up the creek, without asking very much in return.

But still people believed, and they believe still. There exists and remains among many an unusual amount of faith in the US President – and in politicking in general – that far exceeds the constitutional role that a sitting president can take and the historical role presidents have largely played. Obama himself cultured this belief in his presidency especially, and he believes in it himself. He sees himself as a disciple of Lincoln, building behind him a Team of Rivals, for he believed that in debate and disagreement comes good policy and statesmanship.

As for his supporters, many people I know blame The West Wing. It may sound a bit silly, but the show has had a hold over liberal political consciousness over the last two decades. It presents an ideal liberal presidency – a USA run by Jed Bartlett, a genius economist with a strong moral core, ably supported by a gang of beautiful moral geniuses – complete with noble backing music, grand speeches, and rooms full of passionate-yet-civil debates between the absolute kindest representations of DC Republicans and Democrats. The belief among liberals that this is what Washington could be coalesced with Obama and his own self-image of rigorous statesmanship. Obama was as close to the West Wing ideal of the presidency as yet seen. This is more than mere comparison – Obama was the blueprint for Bartlett’s successor Matt Santos, and Obama-brand Democratic politics was certainly an influence on the show.

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I was into this idea then. HopeTM got me good. I’ve always been left, but for a little bit I hoped that putting the right people in charge of existing institutions could provide necessary change. I thought about becoming a human rights lawyer and moving myself to DC where things happened (fortunately for me, the world has too many lawyers already). I binge-watched The West Wing in ’08. Like everybody else, I was watching only the veneer of the show. I see The West Wing differently now – likewise I see US political institutions in a very different light. President Bartlett is the perfect liberal candidate, yet in three seasons he transforms from a moral idealist into a stone-faced international assassin, ordering the killing of foreign diplomats from the gallery of a theatre. In eight years he does little but keep the USA ticking over, to the point where on his final day in office he has to be consoled by his wife, telling him over and over that he has done good.

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Can you imagine a world without lawyers?

Obama, the New Democrat, was always more of a pragmatist. The American President is assigned to preside over the myriad of checks-and-balances scribed within the Sacred Constitution that served to try and keep everybody *important* happy both in 1789 and for all eternity. On the domestic front, the President is Equivocator-in-Chief, a middle manager in an oval office. In 2008 Obama knew this and believed in this. He knew that it was better for his job security – better for the American President – to bail out the financial sector with little consequence. It was better to avert crises, he thought, than risk destabilising US political life for serious change. However, in healthcare policy he bucked this trend. The passing of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) cost Obama a shedload of political capital, but in doing so, the number of those without health insurance in the USA has almost halved since 2010.

In some cases, Obama’s desire for change was handcuffed by the job, especially after the Democrats lost the House. Obama was clearly frustrated and exhausted by his inability to increase gun control in the face of US firearm culture and a hostile political environment. The USA largely brushed Sandy Hook under the carpet, and there’s quite a company beneath that rug. It’s difficult not to grow jaded in the face of such national carelessness. However, the excuse of presidential powerlessness runs very thin in other examples.

I think often of the black people killed by law enforcement. Crimes that go unpunished. Crimes committed with impunity. When Trayvon Martin was shot dead by neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman, Obama was able to strike a small gesture of empathy, perhaps trying to educate white America as to the daily dangers of being black in public in the USA when he noted that Trayvon could have been “my son” or “me 35 years ago.” Yet Obama’s great “conversation on race” never really proceeded past this point, as the list of names grew ever longer, the executions ever public. When Mike Brown was killed, his body lying in the streets for hours, protests erupted in Ferguson, MO. Where were you then Mr. President? Where the fuck were you? The President could only ever muster some horseshoe centrism about “both sides,” and a plea for “non-violence” as law enforcement donned riot gear and rolled in on armoured vehicles. Obama ducked and took cover.

I moved to DC for six months in 2014, on a fellowship to continue studying Haitian history. I was there when the ruling was delivered that Brown’s killer was not to be indicted, watching the news in a diner on the Hill. They waited until the evening to tell everybody what we already knew, delaying it in an attempt to trigger a response. In the days following, the President stayed true, as he always has done, to vague appeals to “peace,” dialogue and patience following in the footsteps of some fictionalised, diluted version of Dr. King (it recalls also his speeches on gender, which were so often injected with grating “wives and daughters” rhetoric). These seemed like empty words, but in an ever-divided USA, they were a cold shoulder to some of his most faithful constituents. If the President is equivocator-in-chief, Obama increasingly seemed willing to earnestly play this role. It no longer held true that he was simply a man hampered by his institution.

Every major city experienced a massive mobilisation of people protesting this Ferguson hatchet-job. In DC there was a huge march that night, and sporadic marches bubbled up through Washington for the next few weeks. By then, it felt increasingly like the president was not on their side.

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Then there’s foreign policy. The “Obama Doctrine” fittingly seems to defy definition, opaque to the core. Riding into office on a wave of anti-Iraq fervour, Obama quickly sought a way to continue business-as-usual whilst appearing to have changed tack. The pledge to close Guantanamo – carved out of Cuban soil, that symbol of US hawkish interventionism fuelled by extraordinary rendition – simply disappeared.

Drone warfare suited the Obama Doctrine to a tee, of intervention without deployment. Throughout the world, the USA was to no longer be seen, but always be felt, often with devastating effect. However, this misdirection, coupled with the scaling-back of US boots on the ground, was enough to convince the Nobel commission that we were back on the road to utopia. Yet there have been some changes. Obama has moved to warm relations with Iran and Cuba – moves for which he has been called a traitor and a communist. He received similar vitriol for expressing sympathy with Trayvon Martin over his racist assassin, and when he pushed through Affordable Care.

The intervention with which I am most familiar was in Haiti. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton personally intervened in the presidential elections in order to place Michel Martelly, a friend of US interests in the country, in a position where he could take power. Ever since, US policy toward Haiti has actively discouraged Haitian democracy from behind the scenes. Clinton receives much of the criticism for this policy, but it was conducted under Obama’s White House and with Obama’s consent. This was an act of harm that continues to harm Haiti, and it upsets and infuriates me still.

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Obama and Martelly

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By the time I made it to DC, the allure of “being there” had long evaporated. The Capitol Building outside my window held no romance in its scaffolding. Inside, its rotunda was adorned with stylised images of the conquest of the New World, and its stewards that November had moved decidedly rightward. But it was a city that captivated me regardless – DC is beautiful, cosmopolitan, and well-and-truly alive with the past and the present. It was here I saw President Obama speak.

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Washington DC: Photo taken by the author

For all of his fame as a great orator, the President gave a pretty strange speech about Jesus, and how the Messiah was basically a stand-up gent. It was a talk that would have fit in well on U Street at 2am. Michelle Obama read “Twas the Night before Christmas” and was, of course, brilliant. It was a weird feeling, seeing the President there in front of me. It was like going to a gig to watch a band you loved as a kid but had long since found them a bit tacky and issue-riddled. It was underwhelming, yet there was still something about them that you’d not lost – that there was a reason you liked them in the first place when you were younger and didn’t think about things so much.

The President on occasion still had the ability to pull my strings and echo the man I used to think he was. When he sang Amazing Grace in South Carolina at the memorial for the victims of Dylan Roof’s mass murder, my cynicism briefly melted away and I burst into tears. But then I think about how Roof was taken for dinner by his arresting officers, whilst police shoot down black kids with toy guns, and I realise this feeling is almost entirely window-dressing.

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Washington DC: Photo taken by author

Of course I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the symbol of a black president in the US seat of power – the influence of which cannot be understated. I’ll miss the days when there was not a vicious, race-baiting kleptocratic sexual predator in the White House, and I’ll certainly miss not existing under the daily threat of global annihilation. Trump is a visceral reminder that the USA – and the world they influence so greatly – can yet fall leagues below its current state.

Gary Younge argues that “judged by what was necessary, Obama was inadequate; judged by the alternatives, he was a genius.” Similarly, by the relative standards of those who have previously served the Office of the Presidency, Obama will surely rank highly. But this isn’t sufficient to give Obama a free pass, and view him solely as a brief period of sanity between two destructive Republicans. These have not been eight years of national and global healing – many of the tensions that boiled in the Bush era have persisted and, in some cases, worsened.

What then, of hope? Was Obama’s dream of a New America just a lie? A simple ruse with which to take the Presidency? These last eight years I’ve definitely changed. My youthful idealism has vanished, and I view the way US Government works with fatigued scepticism. I don’t blame President Obama for this. When the promise is broken, you go on living. He was by no means the sole author of the hope that spearheaded him to power, nor did he co-opt it completely. Any frustration I have now with Obama is not rooted in any feeling of betrayal, rather it’s the result of my concerns with the choices he has made whilst within the office. The hope that I had felt was a product of misunderstanding the role of the Office of the President, believing that Obama was the liberal idealist he presented himself to be, and lastly believing that liberal idealism itself was sufficient to transform the Office of the President. Obama’s presidency helped me learn this lesson. Nowadays, if most of my heroes don’t appear on a stamp, then certainly none of my heroes have been President of the United States of America.

Nowadays, I look elsewhere for my hope. At this moment, we need it to give us strength in opposing everything the 45th president will throw at the world. President Obama’s long-forgotten pastor Jeremiah Wright was right about hope’s audaciousness.

In spite of a being on a world torn by war; in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate; in spite of being on a world devastated by distrust and decimated by disease; in spite of being on a world where famine and greed were uneasy bed partners; in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy fed the fires of racism…her harp all but destroyed except for that one string that was left – in spite of all these things, the woman had the audacity to hope. She had the audacity to hope and to make music and to praise God on the one string she had left.

On the worst days, I still hold on to this, tightly.

Decision 1789: A Brief History of Picking US Presidents

 

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Today is the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November in a leap year, which means only one thing – it’s the 1463rd day of the US presidential campaign!

Election day, it’s nearly over. Like a sacred Leap Day, or a planetary alignment, this Tuesday is the only day in four years when nobody is running for president. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, said to have been running since at least the day she last left the White House, it is likely* to be the last day she is not President of the United States of America. In kind, in January 2017, Clinton is likely* to become the first woman president.

(*based on 538’s 69% chance of Hillary White House. no sure thing. UPDATE : 4:40am here, looks like Trump’s gonna win)

She would (figuratively) get the keys to her new presidential mansion – creatively named the “White House” after its fair complexion – sometime in the early hours of Wednesday morning, so long as at least 270 members of the electoral college pledge for her instead of her rival, Donald J. Trump.

This manner of selecting a Brand New Overlord dates back to the very first election, when 69 electors gathered in 1789 to pick the first president. Each elector was given two votes, on the understanding that all would give their first vote to George Washington, and the candidate who received a plurality of the second votes would win the prize of Vice President, which went to John Adams.

Of course, there was nothing democratic about this initial selection. Only the states that had ratified the constitution got to take part, with apologies to the indecisive North Carolina and Rhode Island. New York fell out with itself, so wasn’t allowed to play either. No matter, they’d have chosen Washington anyway. Only six of the ten participating states had a popular vote for their electors, of which only free people with sufficient property were eligible to vote.

 

College Dropouts

The Electoral College has managed to outlast many of these old ways, mainly because it has sanctified in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Tomorrow, the US voters indirectly vote for Hill or Donny by voting for pledged electors, “stand-ins,” for their will. Each state gets as many electors as it has Senators and Houses Representatives, and DC gets three too under the terms of the 23rd Amendment. Each state is winner-take-all (except Maine and Nebraska, but let’s ignore them today).

In the old days, there was nothing holding these electors to the vote other than a Gentleman’s Agreement. Reneging was common; it happened in every election from 1796 to 1808, and frequently after that. Such characters were known as “faithless electors.” In 1820, one generous New Hampshire elector gave his vote to his pal John Quincy Adams. How kind – Adams wasn’t even running that year. It wasn’t always intentional. In 1864, Nevada only cast two of its three votes for Lincoln, because one poor soul, on his way to vote, got snowbound in Colorado.

In 1824 John Quincy Adams actually ran, and he set a few records along the way. It was the first election where they recorded the popular vote, and he won with 30.9% of it. That may seem low – because it is. He didn’t win the popular vote. Andrew Jackson got 40 000 more votes (41.4% of the total vote), and even got 15 more electors. However, Jackson didn’t take a majority of electors, and so the decision went to the House of Reps, or more accurately, a dusty, mysterious Washington office – these days the natural habitat of Cigarette Smoking Men leaning on a filing cabinet. There, Henry Clay gave his support (he’d won 37 electors) to Ol’ Quince, handing him the presidency.

Some say Clay did it for the position of Secretary of State, which he duly received. Others point out that Clay was politically closer to Adams, and he thought little of Jackson, proclaiming that “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy” (wonder what he’d make of hosting the Apprentice).

Adams was the only person to win the president through the House, and as the first child of a former President to follow in his father’s footstep, he founded the first Presidential Dynasty, which have become increasingly popular in recent years (google Chelsea 2024, for further information).

Adams, however, was not the last president to lose the popular vote but win the White House, thanks to the wonders of the Electoral College, a system whose beauty is supposedly in its simplicity but hides unending complications.  It happened twice in the post-Civil War era, when there were a series of close elections – marked by mudslinging, shady deals and assassinations, as the USA struggled to reconcile its differences. It happened in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes won the college by a single elector (more of that an’ on). It happened again in 1888, where Grover Cleveland was temporarily evicted from the White House by Benjamin Harrison. Most recently, Al Gore won the popular vote by 500 000 in 2000, but George W. Bush took** Florida by 537 votes and with it came the White House.

(SIDEBAR – It seems a preposterous system in these incidences – but I’m not going to pretend I’m sat on some high British horse – the UK’s current government got a parliamentary majority of just 37% of votes cast, and 24% of those eligible to vote. The current Prime Minister was selected by a grand total of 199 people. That’s just the way of things.)

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A High British Horse. Source: dressage-news.com

 

Elephants and Donkeys

The USA has a two-party system. The US has gone through a grand total of six party systems over the years, but the last few have all involved the Republicans and the Democrats. Both were originally founded for a purpose, but have shape-shifted a few times over the years, changing bases and constituencies in an eternal quest for power. The Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Whigs, Anti-Masons, Know Nothings, Bull Moosers, Progressives, Dixiecrats and Reformists have all come and gone, but the long-standing rivalry between the Reds and the Blues has stood firm.

The Democrats, symbolised by the donkey, sprouted from Thomas Jefferson’s now confusingly-sounding Democratic-Republican party. They initially saw themselves as the defenders of individual liberty against the malevolence of central power (embodied by Quince and Clay’s 1824 handshake), but as much as anything it became the very model of a modern political machine.

The Republicans (who claim the Elephant as mascot) were founded as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s, and quickly found support as the Whigs and Democrats pulled themselves apart in the slide towards civil war. Under William McKinley, the Republicans began their courting of Big Business, whilst the Democrats, retaining an element of southern populism, moved steadily towards social democracy characterised by FDR’s “New Deal.” Things changed again in the ‘60s, when the Democrats seceded the “Solid South” after their lukewarm embrace of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon formed a “Southern Strategy” where the Republicans would say thinly-veiled racist, segregationist things to court the Deep South over to their side. Then Reagan came to town in the ‘80s and turned the entire USA over to neoliberalism (twas fertile ground, some might say), before Bill Clinton and the New Democrats responded by diluting the New Deal to incorporate the spirit of the Gipper.

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Republicans in red, Democrats in blue. 1896 and 2004 elections. Source: 270towin.com

So that’s how the parties came to look like how they look now. Sort of. They disagree on a fair few things, such as climate change, abortion, and the name of an east coast NFL team. But on many issues the two parties aren’t too far apart, such as taxes, foreign policy, business, trade, welfare, and the USA’s self-styled status as the “Leader of the Free World.” With the exception of Hillary and Barack, they’ve also tended towards wealthy, old white male candidates.

Their similarity is in part due to the centripetal nature of the Electoral College, and the parties’ longstanding record as efficient, election-winning political machines. It sits in striking contrast to a US society that is once again ripping itself apart; a fact that reflects itself in the electoral map. The USA is growing polarised on the fault lines of race, class, gender, policy and religion, and this is increasingly reflected in the voting habits in states. Swing states are becoming a rare breed. This phenomenon is not unique to the States; it’s happening here in Britain, starkly illustrated by the 52-48 Brexit vote. In the UK, our party system has splintered, but across the Atlantic the hegemony of the donkey and the elephant has held firm.

Sorry, Ross Perot.

Why? Well, US politics is a big money industry. It is difficult for a third-party campaign these days to compete with the big guns. Another reason is because of our good friend the Electoral College. As with much of the USA’s structure, it was designed to ensure that no one area could dominate affairs by racking up huge majorities in specific regions, whilst simultaneously ensuring the interests of regions and individual states are heard through its winner-take-all model. It’s nifty like that.

A successful third-party candidate has to compete across the country, and make sure they have a regional support base somewhere greater than that of the two main parties’ candidates. You need to be flush with cash to do that. Yet the USA has a lot of love for plucky outsiders. Perot did well in ’92, gaining 19.7m votes (19% of the total), but didn’t earn a single electoral vote.

In 2000, there was still a lot of frustration with the “lesser of two” choice that the main parties were now serving up. 2.8m voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in an election where Bush and Gore were separated by just 500 000. In Florida, Bush was given the victory after weeks of recounting – lawyers everywhere – by just 537 votes. Nader had got 97,421 in the Retiree Alligator State. So many things can cause a 0.009% gap in an election. Weather, traffic, the 562 votes cast for the Socialist Workers Party, the “Butterfly Ballot” that supposedly encouraged votes for minor parties, hanging chads, votes denied to 1% of Floridians (and 3% of black voters) on account of being a “felon” including for crimes said to have been committed after the 7th November…buuuuuut for the most part Nader got the blame for taking Gore’s votes. It could be argued that the two-party system is so rigid in the States that Nader and his voters were naïve; myself, however, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that a candidate can take another’s votes, as if a candidate can own a vote before it is cast.

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A Hanging Chad – Chad, Hanging

 

Third party candidates weren’t so popular after that. It’s easier these days to be an insurgent within one of the main political machines, thanks to their fluid ideologies and the Primary system of candidate selection, where anybody with enough cash or support can make an honest run at being a Democratic or Republican candidate for the presidency. It’s what Trump, Cruz and Sanders have tried this time around. Maybe we’ll see more of it in the future, especially on the red side. Once you’ve got the nomination, it seems the USA is so wrought in two that you’ve still got a chance at the White House. No matter how openly megalomaniacal you are, no matter how abusively racist and sexist you are in public and private, no matter how much of a nuclear-fallout-after-a-trainwreck-landslide-Godzilla-attack candidate you are, you’ll still likely do better than Dukakis. That’s just the way of things.

 

The Immortal Jim Crow

The voter suppression tactics that swirled around discussions of Florida 2000 were no stranger to presidential elections. They are no stranger still.

Back to 1876. Rutherford Hayes won by a single electoral vote, having lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. Tilden had taken 184 electors, but three Southern states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, were yet to officially declare, amid reports of voter fraud and suppression that particularly targeted African-American voters. Importantly, these three states had Republican governors, and together their electors would see Hayes over the line. Here the Republicans set up “returning boards” to recount the election, root out Democratic voting fraud, and maybe doctor some results of their own.

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A North Carolina red shirt, c1898. Source: Wikipedia

By 1876 the Democratic voter suppression racket was fully operational. The party hacks made allegiances with Southern paramilitary groups the Red Shirts and the White (Man’s) League to intimidate black voters and break up Republican organisation in the South. It was working, and for the first time since the Civil War the Democrats look set to regain the region, sweeping even those districts with massive black majorities. Were there no vote-mangling at all, it is likely Hayes would have carried much of the South.

Unsurprisingly both sides claimed victory, each accusing the other of fraud. It got incredibly heated, and there were fears that a second civil war could erupt. Eventually, it (officially) went to Congress where a Commission voted 8-7 (along party lines) to give the states to Hayes. Secretly, however, in another smoke-filled room, Hayes met with senior Democrats promising a series of federal spending in the South and, importantly, the withdrawal of Federal troops from the region.

This ended Reconstruction, handing a monopoly of Southern violence to racist groups such as the Red Shirts, who would incorporate themselves into state militias. In exchange for a Republican presidency, the party seceded control of the South to their rivals, abandoning the newly enfranchised former slaves. Over the coming years, Democrats constructed a framework of laws alongside a widespread system of intimidation that locked out African-Americans from voting and running for office and denied them a whole host of civil liberties. This was the Jim Crow South, where black people lived segregated from white people in an Apartheid enshrined by the Supreme Court (Plessy v Ferguson, 1896). Although emancipated, ex-slaves in the South were not yet free.

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1876, from the Rutherford Hayes Papers. Source: rbhayes.org

Jim Crow was largely felled by the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (on paper) ended disenfranchisement on the basis of race. Yet, as Florida 2000 shows, it still goes on. In 2016, it appears to be making a strident comeback, alongside the white nationalist fervour of the Trump campaign. Poor, minority areas across the USA generally have fewer voting stations, with less staff. Voting takes place on a Tuesday, and the polls close in the early evening. Those with long, unforgiving jobs may not be able to spare enough time in the day to queue to vote. Voting bans on felons – the USA is the incarceration capital of the planet – take millions off the register and disproportionately affect black people. In North Carolina, over 6000 voters, mostly black democrats, have been taken off the register in a process illegal under federal law. Jim Crow lives. It never really went away. That’s just the way of things.

 

Until Next Time…

Robert McCrum in the Guardian says that many believe the electoral system to be broken, “but it has seemed broken before and somehow staggers on.” Maybe. Maybe it’s worked fine for those it is made to serve. Maybe, like the Second Amendment, the Electoral College is so ingrained into the American fabric first wove by the Founding Fathers that to change it would be considered treasonous. Maybe, as when it was first created, the Electoral College keeps the lid on American tensions and papers over the cracks of this nation. Either way, it isn’t likely to change any time soon, but the way the USA has chosen its president over the last 200 years has had a great bearing on who ends up in the White House, affecting all of our lives from that oval office.

Soon we’ll know who that next person will be. In the meantime, relax. The next election begins in less than twenty-four hours.

The Bird Cannot Build Her Nest

DEMOCRACY IN HAITI: PAST AND PRESENT

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Aristide, bulletproof but weakened. Souce: wehaitians.com

Yesterday there were supposed to be a run-off election in Haiti, to decide the country’s next president. The problem is, there was only one candidate.

That’s Jovenel Moïse. He’s known as the “banana man,” for his role as head of Agritrans SA, a company growing bananas set up exclusively for export, destroying the lives of numerous peasant farmers in the process.

He’s also the handpicked successor of the current president, Michel Martelly. The Export Zone where Moise makes his fortune is one of the president’s pet projects. Sweet Micky is head of the PHTK- the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – which means “bald head.” It’s a nod to Micky’s shiny dome, but Tèt Kale holds another meaning; to be bareheaded means to go “all the way,” to be pure of heart and thorough in head. When Martelly cried “Tèt Kale!” in 2011 he was calling for a sea change in Haitian politics, an end to the corruption and immobilisation of the past.

Martelly has been no tèt kale, by this measure. He declared Haiti “open for business,” to beaming smiles from the US State Dept., the Clintons, and the myriad of American capital that has looked with desire upon Haiti for over a hundred years. With the international kingmakers satisfied, Martelly has taken a neo-Duvalierist taste for power, cancelling a series of elections to the point that in 2015 there were just 11 elected figures in national politics. There are meant to be 130.

michel-martelly
Michel Martelly. Source, hottestheadsofstate.com

Essentially ruling-by-decree, Martelly welcomes tourists to Haiti’s private beaches and empty hotels, and gets his photo taken with Obama and Kerry whilst surrounded with rumours of corruption, intimidation and violence.

1987 –With ‘dechoukaj’ – the uprooting of Duvalierism – in full swing, the State Dept. decreed that it was time for democracy in Haiti. Reagan sent money in “military aid” to help the process. The guns were turned on Makout and uprooter alike. November would see a president chosen, but the Makouts were not willing to relinquish power yet. By the time the polls were open, two candidates were already dead, slain along with hundreds of demonstrators in a bloody summer. As Haitians lined up to vote, the Makouts and soldiers were waiting, and opened fire. Onlookers struggled to describe the horror. But elections must be held. Two months later, they restarted. The historian Leslie Manigat was the victor, in a poll where the wise stayed indoors. Some things are worth more than casting a vote. (See Michel-Rolph Trouillot – Haiti: State Against Nation)

Sunday became the latest poll to fall foul of Micky’s machete, but this one is a bit different. In November’s 1st round, Jovenel Moise won the day, predictably. The only surprise considering the electoral manipulation, ripped straight out of Dictatorship 101, is that he didn’t get more votes. In second was the centrist Jude Celestin, who recently confirmed he did not want his name on the 2-man run-off ballot. Why would he? The way his elections have gone before, he’d probably finish fourth.

The weeks prior to Sunday saw protests growing, bubbling in the capital, angry at the opaque process, at the lack of representation, at the limpet president clinging to power. There is outrage too at the meddling hands of the “international community. Haitians are mobilising on the streets of Port-au-Prince in support of democracy, and against the sham elections.

They want to restart the process, under a transitional government, without interference and with Martelly put out to pasture. Yesterday, veve of defiance were drawn, and songs of protest sung as Port-au-Prince took to the streets. Some bore the banner of Famni Lavalas, and spoke of finishing the work of Aristide.

1991 – After the drought, comes the flood. Lavalas swept the elections, bringing Liberation Theologist Jean-Bertrande Aristide to power. He was intent on disrupting Haiti’s cavernous inequality gap. But after the dance, the drum was heavy. The elites and the army were not to be disturbed so easily. They tolerated him for seven months, before General Raoul Cédras plucked him from power. If you took a blank piece of paper and drew an authoritarian General it would resemble Cédras. Cue three more years of repression. Whilst Aristide sat on the White House steps, placard in hand, Cédras collected CIA paycheques. (See Robert Fatton, The Roots of Haitian Despotism)

The USA, once again blinded by the belief that elections and democracy might be the same thing, have struggled to comprehend how pro-democracy protests could embrace a cancelled election. The State Dept vaguely urge Martelly to stick to the timetable, thinking an election with one candidate is surely more democratic than an election with none. Last week Ban Ki-Moon too decided to take a stand, and call for the elections to be completed, as he deleted kolera accusations from his @UN inbox.

raoul cedras
This is Raoul Cédras. See what I mean? Source: AP

In the meantime, the Banana Man waits silently for his coronation. East of his plantation lies the near-abandoned industrial park of Caracol, the brainchild of Bill and Hillary Clinton. They are busy up north on their own plans for coronation. Martin O’Malley decided to bring up Haiti in his campaign. He’s currently polling >1%.

1994 – It was called Operation Uphold Democracy. President Clinton had decided to bring Aristide back. He could ignore him no longer. The President’s economic embargos had only made things worse. He could no longer turn a blind eye to the hunger strikes at his door and the Boat People who continued to drift into Key West, dead and alive. The old ally Cédras would be removed, but it was ok, he’d be taken care of. Aristide was brought back to Port-au-Prince, triumphant, accompanied by the drone of Black Hawks and American army boots. Aristide addressed his supporters, declaring the return of democracy from inside a see-thru bulletproof box. A perfect display of powerlessness.

The protests bring back familiar words of the “resistance” and “resilience” of the Haitian people that have bounced around liberal commentaries since the douz janvye earthquake. Y’ap boule. But the image of demonstrations and burning tires are simultaneously deployed by those who wish to preserve the pseudo-democratic status quo. The Organisation of American States, influential in Martelly’s rise, condemned the “acts of violence,” urging a swift end to the crisis. That means swift elections. CEPR observer Jake Johnston wryly notes that here, “the past is prologue.

“Remember: Martelly became president through riots,” warns Jonathan Katz. He’s seen it all before. Was Haiti ready for an election, less than a year after the devastation of the goudougoudou that ripped Port-au-Prince apart? No matter, President Preval’s time was up, elections must be held. Sweet Micky finished third in the first-round of elections, behind law professor Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin. (Famni Lavalas were banned from participating).

The OAS cried foul – insisting Celestin, an ally of Préval, had stitched up the election, and argued Martelly be parachuted into the runoff in his place. Micky sensed an opportunity, and his supporters took to the streets, promising to set the wounded city on fire if there will be not heeded. Who knows what chicanery had taken place in the backrooms, but it seemed the OAS was fed up of Préval’s unwillingness to play ball. Washington agreed. Hillary Clinton came to town to negotiate with Préval. Celestin’s name disappeared from the ballot. Martlly went on to win the runoff and the presidency. Haiti was now “open for business.”

(See Jonathan Katz – The Big Truck That Went By)

Yesterday, a familiar face returned, to announce that he was “ready for war,” against the “anarchists” on the streets. This man was Guy Philippe, a drug lord and soldier instrumental in the coup that felled Aristide a second time in 2004. Aristide had this time grown distant from the dreams of 1991, instead towing the neoliberal line and holding power increasingly through intimidation. The second coup saw the intervention of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They’re still there, and along with “stability” one can credit them with the achievements of brutal repression of the slums and the introduction Cholera into the country in 2010. Over 1 million have been infected. 10 000 are dead.

guy philippe
Guy Philippe. Source: Haitiantruth.org

It’s hard to see the way out of this storm of competing interests in Haiti. There is a quest for power involving the traditional elites, the US State Dept., the OAS and the rest of the “international community,” elements of the diaspora and remnants of the army that Tèt Kale were beginning to restore. The old Duvalierists are far from finished. The recent protests are yet another reminder that large swathes of the Haitian population would like to partake in the democratic process. After all, that’s what democracy is supposed to look like, right?.

Robert Fatton calls this “the unending democratic transition.” He continues to be right about that. The bird cannot build her nest.

February 1986 – “Those two weeks interim, when there was no infallible authority on Earth, were the happiest of my life.” David Nicholls resurrected these old words after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. The protests, led by the ti legliz movement and moving to the sound of Radio Soleil, put the rotund dictator on shaky ground. Reagan decided to pull the plug, and Baby Doc was placed on a plane bound for exile. The monkey’s tail had snapped. Crowds flocked to the airport as old friends returned home after years away. They say that Christopher Columbus himself was uprooted in the flood and cast out to sea.

1983 and its Misuses: Jeremy Corbyn and the “Lessons of History”

Ed stone

PART I: TRAUMA DENIAL

One of the most common proverbs of pop history is Santayana’s Warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

History has been well-remembered in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Labour Leadership ballot, and even more so since he has become favourite for the job. Andrew Rawnsley’s words are the most colourful, telling of “a nightmarish revival of demons” in the shape of a bearded man from Shropshire. Among others, the ex-SDP candidate Polly Toynbee recalls the early 1980s and the terrible days of Militant entryism in her column, and just today Kevin Meagher writes that a Corbyn victory is the manifestation of lessons of the past “defiantly unlearnt.”

These voices of scepticism specifically point to the early-1980s. The “Lesson of History” employed is designed to take older Labour minds back to their lowest point, when the party was split in two by the Gang of Four who formed the SDP in response to the growing influence of hard-left activists, dividing the anti-Thatcher vote. In the 1983 General Election, Michael Foot’s Labour Party received just 28% of votes cast. Some at the time saw it as the final nail in the coffin for the party, although its electoral performance would recover.

“Trauma denial” was responsible then, says Martin Kettle, and such post-traumatic stress is also responsible for #Jezmania. It is the job of cool-handed, hard-minded Labourites, he argues, to ensure the party doesn’t fall into its comfort zone and select another socialist. It’s a psychological assessment, incidentally, taken straight out of Liz Kendall’s campaign.

In actuality this is the exact mental state these agents of history wish to induce into the minds of left-leaning types who lived through 1983 and Thatcher’s victory, a success that gave her the confidence to launch her assault on trade unionism and local government power. Politics in Britain is a ruthless beast, and to open these old wounds that have never quite healed is to strike at the heart of the political trauma of the left, to hypnotise Labourists into thinking that it was placing their principles over pragmatism (as much as anything Thatcher did) that were to blame for the brutal repression of the miners, the centralisation of the Thatcherist state, privatisation, and a foreign policy that propped up Pinochet and Apartheid.

And what of those of us, myself included, who were not alive or old enough to remember this disaster? We are instructed to respect our elders, and defer to their opinion, for they had witnessed 1983 in the flesh, and learned the hard way that socialism can only ever be an expression of youth. “I’ve been accused of being patronising by some of the new idealistic members,” writes Luke Akleshurst, “sorry but it is difficult not to be when confronted by naivety [and] sheer made-up cloud cuckoo land economics and political analysis that i grew out of at about the same stage in 1983, when aged 11.”

Or, I was wiser as a kid than you are as young adults, so listen to my words in lieu of picking up a history book. The story of 1983 is far more complicated than its portrayal in 2015 opinion columns.

What these figures are evoking is History with a capital ‘H’. A loaded tautology, the idea that as something failed before it will only fail again. It’s the very “definition of madness” to try otherwise, we are told. The past is a clear warning against the future. To speak of 1983 is enough in such arguments, further words need not be necessary. Steven Fielding can therefore rename Jeremy as “Catastrophe Corbyn” with 1983 as supporting evidence.

Likewise, take Erdington MP Jack Dromey’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper (which incidentally contains very little about Cooper herself). Dromey writes extensively of Foot and his failures, before applying his conclusions directly onto Corbyn’s future.. In such analyses Corbyn becomes Michael Foot simply because he is left-wing, and alongside his manifesto (five years prior to being written) becomes the second “longest suicide note in history.” Is this accurate?

PART II: MICHAEL FOOT, THE FICTIONAL LEFTIST

Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg
Private Eye Cover, 8th October 1982, Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

Let’s step into our time machine and head back to 1983. Gerald Kaufmann is perhaps most famous for that phrase, “the longest suicide note in history”, his scathing indictment of Michael Foot’s manifesto, and the Manchester Gorton MP remembers it as a time when “poor, innocent Foot” had been misled by communist infiltrators (known as the Militant Tendency) who worked at the mercy of the KGB (the spy he mentions, Viktor Kubeikin, according to a google search only appears on the entire internet within articles penned by Kaufmann). Kaufmann’s words are emblematic of the Lesson of 1983, where Foot plays the gullible, romantic leftist who was dealing with forces he could not understand.

Others remember it differently, and place serious doubt over the validity of Foot’s leftism. Academic Jeremy Gilbert sees Foot as an “intelligent but un-charismatic” leftist, but others remembered Foot as closer to his deputy Denis Healey and the reformists of the right, and was regarded by many of the left at the time, Labour or otherwise, with healthy suspicion, tied to the proto-austerity of Callaghan’s government as much as a leftist agenda. Toynbee remembered a buzz of excitement around Foot from the converted (#Footmania, if you will), but there was certainly no premature coronation; a quick look back at opinion polls shows that Foot’s did not record support over 40% from 1981, and was far behind Thatcher for a year prior to the vote.

But did Michael Foot even matter? The National Executive Committee and the Constituency parties, under the figurehead of Tony Benn, held great sway over Labour policy in the early-1980s, and had seen a shift leftwards in the decade previous as activists born in the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s graduated to higher office. Their influence was palpable in manufacturing a left-wing platform for 1983 that has certainly never been seen in the party since. But, as Ralph Miliband argued at the time, its commitments to unilateral disarmament and re-nationalisation of industry were not far-removed from previous, victorious Labour manifestos of the 1970s. So what went so dreadfully wrong?

Polling data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report
Really Useful Graph of Polling Data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

Had times changed? Had Thatcherism more in tune to the mood of the electorate? Perhaps, but Thatcher was deeply unpopular until the advent of war in the Falklands. The narrative of the “Falklands Factor” is well-known, but its perceived impact has recently come into question. In any case, Thatcher’s vote share fell from 1979. The SDP were an important factor, born of the “civil war” within the party, and gained millions of votes, although the idea that those votes would have otherwise “belonged” to Labour is fraught with inaccuracy. But Miliband still located the responsibility for Labour’s loss at its own doorstep. It was not the leftist platform itself, he argued, but that Labour presented a left-wing manifesto to be argued at the highest level by people like Foot and Healey who did not believe in its words. How could those unconvinced by their own arguments possibly defend them in the face of a full-blown assault by the Thatcherist media?

Jeremy Corbyn is a bona fide left-winger, there can be no doubt about that, he is a republican, a vice-chair of CND, and a weekly contributor to the Morning Star, Britain’s last remaining Marxist paper. But his platform is hardly radical when compared with ghosts of manifestos past; a Keynesian economic policy, re-nationalisation of the railways, devolution to northern England, and scrapping of Trident. These are policies with significant support that are held already in some form by the SNP and Greens. Foot in 1983 was, perhaps, in an opposite situation, as a moderate in charge of a left-wing manifesto. There is certainly enough doubt in the similarity of Corbynism with Michael Foot and the “longest suicide note in history” as to argue that there is no historical use in such association.

PART III: FROM SUICIDE NOTES TO TOMBSTONES

That is not to say that to compare Labour in 1983 and 2015 is simply an exercise in futility, there are useful comparisons to be made, but they have little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Consider these words from Ralph Miliband.

The election results have conferred a new legitimacy upon an exceptionally reactionary Conservative government; and they have also served to demoralise further a movement that was already in bad shape well before the election. It may be said – and indeed it should be said – that the Conservative Government only obtained 30.8 per cent of the total vote and 42.2 per cent of those who voted; and that its vote was less than in 1979. But the system is designed to put the main emphasis on the number of seats won rather than on votes cast; and the fact that the Government obtained a majority of 144 seats in the House of Commons makes it possible for it to claim, however spuriously, that it has a ‘mandate’ for the policies it chooses to put forward.

Ring any bells? Fast-forward to 2015, and we have a government who obtained 24.4% of electorate support and 36.9% of those who voted, and with a majority of 12 has immediately set upon massive cuts to welfare (and even attempted to re-introduce fox hunting) with its new-found mandate. Foot and his manifesto combined to present a confusing, contradictory face of the Labour party, in 2015, there was Ed Miliband, who muddled his way somewhere between tackling inequality and mimicking Tory policy on immigration and the economy in a bid to seem electable. Labour was nearly buried by this confusion; the metaphor of “the longest suicide note in history” was mimicked by Ed Miliband’s tombstone of triple-locked pledges; promises so wrapped within meaningless platitudes as to promise nothing but a manifesto worth less than zero.

 

PART IV: LEADERS OF THE OPPOSITION

Poll Tax Demonstrations. Source: BBC News UK
Poll Tax Demonstrations, 1989. Source: BBC News UK

It was the damage following 1983 that many today warn may be repeated under Corbyn. Dromey gives an impassioned recollection of the decade, and how Thatcher’s war against trade unionism was legitimated by Labour’s defeat. That’s fair, but it discounts the frequent historical examples wherein opposition (or lack of it) played an important role; Kinnock’s diluted labourism achieved nothing but two further electoral defeats, and as Thatcher met stern opposition from striking miners and city councils, the “leader of the opposition” was nowhere to be found. While Kinnock sat on the fence, solidarity for the miners instead came from small activist organisations (such as the now-famous Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The Poll Tax demonstrations that would contribute to Thatcher’s downfall were forged in Militant. Kinnock, a weather-vane leader, was absent again until the tide was clearly turning.

Opposition can make a significant impact, just ask Ed Miliband, whose stance against David Cameron on Syria for a time changed government (and international) policy on the matter. It is another myth of history to suggest that little can be achieved outside of government; but when electability is all that matters to the Corbyn critics, no other aspect of political history is even considered. Were Labour to select another Kinnock, the current government may rule without proper and consistent opposition from the second-largest party in Parliament (as the SNP are unlikely to always intervene on English and Welsh legislation).

I cannot predict the future; it would be foolish and reductive to say with any certainty that “effective opposition” to the Conservative government would manifest itself simply through a Corbyn leadership. Gilbert is sceptical. He feels that the lack of an accompanying left popular movement will render this impossible; it was this, for Gilbert, that was the key failing of 1983 and he feels that, based on past experience, it could take another 10 years (or two Conservative governments) to build one.

PART V: FIRST LESSON, TRIPLE HISTORY

“Angelus Novus” by Klee, or Benjamin’s Angel of History

Whether it’s 1945, 1983, or 1997, the Labour leadership election is constantly being dragged into the past, and as in so many British political issues, there is perhaps too much importance being attached to the lessons of history. The intentional evocation of 1983 by the Labour right is clear, but British society as a whole can be too obsessed with applying historical rhetoric to present-day arguments. It is the duty of the historian to call out distortions of the past such as this, but to keep this discussion rooted in 1983 is to mimic Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, hurtling backwards through the present with our eyes firmly rooted upon the debris of the past.

It needs to be written, boldly and simplistically (but not set in stone), that 2015 IS NOT 1983. Things move quicker now. The “Yes” campaign, Syriza and Podemos all show that mass movements do not need 10 years to grow, they just need a catalyst. Never mind the obvious statements that there is no Soviet Union in 1983, the Militant Tendency no longer exists, as well as the fact that left-issues considered “loony” 32 years ago such as LGBTQ rights and feminism are now increasingly part of the political mainstream. It is possible, through Corbyn or through other channels, for the English and Welsh left to organise on a national scale and nobody can say for certain whether this will “succeed” or “fail” based on the memories of Michael Foot and the election of 1983.

But memories of an altogether different time continue to dominate discussion over Corbyn. Just yesterday, Blairite John McTernan called for Tom Watson to rescue Labour “from itself”, writing that “if Jeremy Corbyn is Michael Foot, Tom Watson is Neil Kinnock. There is no alternative.” The real lesson of 1983 is that those who obsess over the past are condemned to repeat it, and those who misuse the past intend to repeat it.

Disclaimer: Although it is no secret that I am a massive leftie, this post is in no way affiliated to Labour Party, Corbyn, Michael Foot, or anyone except myself, and I write it as a historian.