Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Anatomy of Change

Progressives want to change the world. Make it a more rational and inclusive place, where intelligent cooperation displaces superstitions, bigotry, and injustice. No wonder the election of Barrack Obama has been so joyously greeted by fair-minded people everywhere.

The opening decade of the 21st century has so far been shrouded by a superpower regime resolute about helping the rich at the expense of the poor, deregulating the powerful to the point of global economic anarchy, bombing the weak and locking up the innocent, and accelerating the demise of the planet whatever other nations tried to do to the contrary. Now there is a real opportunity for change. But let’s be clear about what progress is being made and what obstacles remain.

The biggest transformation has to be the reassertion of progressive values. Obama’s courage and integrity mean that the politics of reason and justice can stand tall again. The Democrats put forward as their candidate the Senator with the most liberal voting record. He did not flinch from attacks for putting forward socialist policies of taxing the rich to help the rest. He did not pander to fundamentalist nonsense. He put diplomacy before military responses without compromising his patriotic credentials. He did not need some ‘third way’ to sell his vision. His triumph has proven that progressives can win by being true to their cause.

Obama’s readiness to put the case for giving all citizens a decent level of support, without watering down his message for fear of offending the powerful, led to the other big change. Many amongst the blacks, Latinos, the young, the working poor, who were previously unconvinced that the Democrats had anything positively different from the Republicans to offer them, responded by flexing their electoral muscle. At the same time, demographic changes also helped. With the urban cosmopolitan outlook receptive embrace progressive reforms, the influx of city dwellers into states with hitherto large rural populations has further tipped the balance.

Yet for all the talk of an overwhelming win of the electoral college votes, of a seismic change in the mindset of America, the US is still broadly divided between those who are well disposed towards progressive change and those who are all too easily misled by the ‘God is a Stars & Stripes waving champion of moral conservatism and market freedom’ rhetoric. The latter are still around in large numbers. They are as obsessed as ever with their guns at home and their military might abroad ( They care more about having scapegoats (minorities, gay, liberals, feminists) to pick on than securing social justice for all. When McCain, gracious in defeat, asked them to show their respect to the new president-elect, they booed.

Remember also that many former Republican supporters switched to Obama not because they now embrace the inclusive ideal, but because they belatedly came to see that refusing to support a social safety net for everyone (when they thought they were OK) turned out to be a bad idea when there was an economic downturn. These people’s concern is not with the common good, but only their personal position. And just as virtues and talents transcend race, so do greed and bigotry. When more minorities become part of the establishment, there is no guarantee that some of them would not in time seek to protect their own privileged positions against others.

Amidst all the euphoria, the line between progressive change and a return to the Reagan-Bush model of government by prejudice, plutocracy and pseudo-patriotism is still a very fine one. The smallest swing in just half a dozen marginal states (say, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Colorado) could hand power back to the Republicans. Change must not be taken for granted.