electoral undercurrents

A far cry from hope

In conventional political terms, Obama should lose the November election. But this is not a conventional election

Alexander Keyssar

 versão em português 

The presidential election campaign in the United States is an odd – or even odder than usual – mixture of personalities and ideology.   The press has paid a great deal of attention to the contrasting personalities of President Obama (who is considered very likable) and his challenger, Mitt Romney (stiffer, more aristocratic, and less likable), and, in the end, it is possible that their personal traits will determine the outcome of the election.  The election will surely be close, and “likability” could easily sway a critical 2-4 percent of the electorate.

Yet this is also one of the most ideologically driven elections in recent U.S. history.  Not since 1984, when the very “liberal”  (in the North American sense of that term) former vice-president Walter Mondale squared off against incumbent President Ronald Reagan have the two major presidential candidates offered more sharply contrasting visions of the nation and its future.   And not since 1964, when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (the godfather of modern American conservatism) challenged President Lyndon Johnson has so much seemed to be at stake, both domestically and internationally.    Neither of those elections, however, was particularly close – a fact that took some of the edge off the ideological combat.

More importantly, the current campaign is being waged in an ideological climate that is far more conservative than those of 1984 or 1964.  Both major parties have moved far to the right since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and they are light years removed from the 1960s (when both parties, for example, believed that it was the responsibility of the federal government to eradicate poverty).  The current Republicans are staunch advocates of dismantling the social programs and social protections that were erected between the 1930s and 1960s, often with the support of moderate Republicans like Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and even Richard Nixon.   Vice-presidential candidate  and Tea Party hero Paul Ryan, for example,  has advocated privatizing not only Medicare (a system of health insurance for the elderly) but the Social Security system as well.  Republicans now regard as unacceptable, if not treasonous, current tax rates for the wealthy that are already far lower than they were under Ronald Reagan.



The mainstream of the Democratic party, moreover, has shifted in the same rightward direction, putting a lot of distance between itself and traditional liberals like Lyndon Johnson and Walter  Mondale.  Led by Bill Clinton, the Democrats  backed away from programs supporting the poor (ending “welfare as we know it”), stressed deficit reduction, and contributed to the deregulation of the economy, including the banking industry.  It was during Clinton’s presidency that the Glass-Steagall Act (passed in 1933 and separating commercial from investment banking) was repealed, thereby greasing the skids that led to the financial debacle of 2008.   Barack Obama, of course, chose for his principal economic advisers precisely the Clinton-era officials, such as Lawrence Summers, who had endorsed those disastrous deregulatory policies.

Obama, in fact, has governed from the center of the current American political spectrum –which means that he has been standing well to the right of his own party’s pre -1990s positions and traditions.  His response to the financial crisis has been to rescue the banks while doing little to help the millions of households whose home mortgages have gone “under water.”  Partly because of strategic decisions made in the White House, the new regulations governing financial institutions (the Dodd-Frank bill) are far weaker than most reformers had hoped.  Only at the margins of policy and late in his term did Obama take actions to support labor unions or immigrants.  Even his much-heralded health insurance program, the Affordable Care Act, is less extensive than a proposal put forward in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon.   (That proposal was rejected as inadequate by the Democrats of the era).  Obama’s foreign policy, meanwhile, has differed remarkably little from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and, despite his campaign promises, our unusual international prison camp at Guantanamo remains in business.

It was for these reasons that one of the serious problems confronting Obama at the beginning of this election campaign was his apparent loss of support among the progressives who had done so much to elect him in 2008.  Obama’s reluctance to fight for progressive causes and his recurrent willingness to compromise with conservatives deeply alienated what the late Senator Paul Wellstone (and later, other progressives) famously referred to as the “democratic wing of the Democratic party.”     Most progressives – faced with the alternative of Romney and Ryan — have returned to the fold, but the Democratic convention in Charlotte in early September was ringed with protestors from the left.

This portrait raises questions that can, in turn, shed light on the deeper dynamics of the current campaign.  If, as many progressive Democrats and independent analysts believe, Obama has been a cautious, conservative, and centrist president, why have the attacks on him by the Republicans been so ferocious?  Why have Wall Street’s bankers turned on the president who rescued them?   Why are leading Republicans denouncing Obama as a socialist or a European-style social democrat?  Why is the ideological temperature so high and the campaign so nasty?     The answers to such questions are to be found in three broad challenges facing American society and the American polity.

Whose Country Is This Anyway?

A fundamental feature of American political life in recent decades is that the social bases of the two major political parties are strikingly different from one another, yet each party is supported by a cross-class coalition.  The Republicans, of course, are the party of business (both big and small), joined by segments of the lower middle class and the white working class, especially in the South.  They are funded by large enterprises such as energy companies and the now-notorious Koch Industries, while much of their grass-roots enthusiasm comes from the almost-exclusively white activists of the Tea Party movement, many of whom have been engaged in conservative political movements for decades.  (Notably, Wall Street split between Obama and McCain in 2008 but is now solidly behind Romney.)   The Democrats, in contrast, are backed by the professional upper-middle classes (and elites), by African Americans, by organized labor, and by an increasingly large majority of the Hispanic population.   Television coverage of the two parties’ conventions vividly displayed one critical feature of the political landscape:  the Republican convention was (in the words of one observer) “blindingly white,” while the floor of the Democratic convention more closely resembled  the diverse country that the United States has, in fact, become.

Behind these socio-political cleavages are two critical historical facts, both of which bear directly on this election. The first was the passage of civil rights and voting rights laws in the 1960s that prevented discrimination and enfranchised African Americans in the South.  Although these laws had bipartisan support, they were identified with the Democratic party in general and with Lyndon Johnson (as well as the deceased President John Kennedy) in particular.  Their passage quickly transformed the African-American community into a very solid Democratic voting bloc (deeper in our history African Americans embraced the Republican party as the party of Abraham Lincoln);  at the same time, it drove conservative Southern whites – who had been Democrats since the late nineteenth century – into the Republican Party.   Within the South, African Americans have acquired political power and influence in some locales, but they and their remaining white Democratic allies are commonly outvoted in statewide elections. The South, which has become the largest region in the country since World War II, is now the stronghold of the Republican party.

The second key fact is the scale of immigration to the United States in the last 40 years and the consequent rapid growth of the Hispanic and Asian populations.   Thanks both to immigration (documented and undocumented ) and to high fertility rates, the Hispanic population   has increased from 14.6 million in 1980 to 50.4  million in 2010:  it now constitutes more than 16% of the nation’s population.   During this same period, the Asian population – particularly important on the West Coast and in some cities elsewhere – has grown from 3.8 million to 14.6 million.  The enormous growth of the immigrant population in general and the Hispanic population in particular has significantly altered the social composition of the electorate in many states and recently become a boon to the Democratic Party.   Some Republican leaders (including George W. Bush) recognized more than a decade ago that the Hispanic vote was increasing in importance, and they made efforts to court that vote.  But those efforts, always modest, have now been overwhelmed by the fierce anti-immigrant tone of the Republican right-wing – which, in several states, has passed legislation that seems to treat all Hispanic residents as potentially deportable undocumented aliens.  In the current election, it is expected that roughly 70% of Hispanics will vote for the Democrats.

More is at stake here than party politics.  Undergirding and sometimes inflaming the partisan tensions is the reality that the non-white population of the United States is growing much more rapidly than the white population.  The black population is growing at more than twice the rate of the non-Hispanic white population., and the number of Americans who describe themselves as being of mixed race has been skyrocketing.  Whites are already a minority in California, the largest state in the nation, and most estimates indicate that the US will be a majority non-white country by 2050.  The Democratic party – now the party of Hispanics and other immigrants as well as African Americans – stands as the political party that has accepted, even embraced, the presence (and desirability) of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic society.  The Republicans have not.  Particularly to the Tea Party supporters and other, less affluent Republican supporters, the social changes transforming American society are alarming:  they threaten a way of life, a culture, a set of values, a “national identity” in the words of political scientist Samuel Huntington.    At Tea Party rallies and many other Republican gatherings, speakers urge their audiences to “take back” their country and to support laws designed to detect and deport the undocumented.   Obama’s caution about policy, even immigration policy, does nothing to assuage their fears.  The Republican right wants to “take back” the country from Obama and the people that he politically, and visually, represents.

Will We Remain Number One?

Foreign policy has, thus far, played a relatively minor role in the campaign.  Governor Romney has no experience or expertise in international affairs (nor does Paul Ryan), and he has preferred to keep the spotlight focused on the state of the economy.  That preference, no doubt, has been reinforced by Romney’s tendency to commit diplomatic gaffes when he does speak out, as, for example, when he insulted his British hosts by expressing concerns about their preparations for the Olympics or when he appeared to be denigrating Palestinian culture while praising Israel for its economic achievements.   More recently, he drew criticism even from fellow Republicans when he issued a premature and inaccurate criticism of the Obama administration after the attack on the diplomatic mission in Libya.

Nonetheless, a critical question about American foreign policy permeates the campaign and contributes to its rancor.  Put simply, the question is:  will the United States remain the world’s dominant super power or not?  For Republicans, the answer is simple:  the United States should, of course, permanently dominate the world stage.  We are entitled to do so because of our leading role in past international conflicts (including our victories in World War II and the Cold War) and because of our “exceptional” character as a strong, democratic, peace-loving and justice-seeking nation.  The theme of “American exceptionalism” runs strong through conservative writings, and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Obama for his alleged reluctance to celebrate the nation’s unique virtues.  A Romney campaign white paper also accuses the Democrats of having a defeatist ideology that has led them to retreat from global leadership.

The Democratic posture is more complex and more nuanced.  President Obama has, in fact, invoked “American exceptionalism” on numerous occasions (in part perhaps to placate Republican critics), and his administration has been willing to use military force to defend or promote American interests.  It was, after all, Obama who increased the number of American troops in Afghanistan and who sent a squad of special forces into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden.   But the Democrats – absorbing lessons from both Afghanistan and Iraq – are alert to the limits of American power, as they have demonstrated in their gingerly movements in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring.  They have also attempted to address –cautiously to be sure – some of the sources, contemporary and historical, of the anti-Americanism that periodically flares up in various points on the globe, including both the Middle East and Latin America.  These efforts have been denounced by the Republicans as unnecessary and degrading “apologies” (most recently after the protests in Benghazi and in Cairo).

It is difficult to gauge just how different Romney’s foreign policy might be from Obama’s:   once in office, realities on the ground have always tended to temper the ideological visions of aspirants for office.  (Obama’s actual policies, for example, have differed far less from those of the Bush administration than one might have imagined during the 2008 campaign.)  The Romney campaign certainly sounds as though it would be more willing than Obama to intervene in Syria and to tolerate an Israeli attack on Iran;  it also talks tougher about trade policy with China and will likely bring more of a Cold War lens to its dealings with Latin America.

But the campaign rancor is not grounded in debates about specific policies or specific hotspots in the world.  (Notably, Afghanistan, where the US is still fighting the longest war in its history, has barely been mentioned in the campaign.)  It stems instead from the Republican apprehension that Obama and the Democrats are willing to accept a multi-polar world in which the United States will not wield the kind of power that it possessed for a half century after World War II.  Many Democrats regard such a stance as a recognition of changing global realities, even if they are reluctant to discuss it openly:  in 2004 Howard Dean, then the leading Democratic candidate for president, was widely pilloried for stating that the United States would not always be the most powerful nation in the world.  But, to conservatives, acquiescence to a multi-polar world constitutes an affront to American nationalism;  and in a country wounded by terrorism, struggling economically, and frustrated by a lack of victories in overseas wars, nationalism remains a potent force.  At both parties’ conventions (but far more often at the gathering of Republicans), the delegates occasionally broke into the fervent  chant: “USA, USA, USA.”

Rolling Back the Grand Bargain

With respect to domestic policy, what is – or is perceived to be – at stake in this election is whether the United States should maintain its modest welfare state as well as the regulatory rules and institutions that have governed economic practices for much of the twentieth century.   Stated somewhat differently, at issue is whether the “grand bargain” of the last century – a bargain struck not only in the U.S. but also in western Europe and parts of Latin America – will be dismantled.

That “grand bargain,” which, in the United States, emerged in stages between the 1890s and the 1960s, was an institutional framework designed to balance the needs of the American people with the vast inequalities of wealth and power wrought by the triumph of industrial capitalism.  Those inequalities spawned a variety of left-wing, socialist, and reformist movements that pressed for some form of “cooperative commonwealth” or the break-up of large corporations or, at a minimum, strict regulation of private interests to prevent them from overwhelming the public good.  In the presidential election of 1912, exactly a century ago, 75 percent of the vote went to candidates who called themselves “progressive” or “socialist.”

These socialist and reformist political forces did not, of course, attain their most systematic or far-reaching goals, but they did, over time, secure a new bargain with American capital.  The terms were straightforward, although not always clearly articulated.  Capitalism would endure as would almost all large corporations.  Large railroads, banks, and other corporations – with a few exceptions – would cease to be threatened with nationalization or break-up.

In exchange, the federal government adopted a series of significant reforms to shield and empower citizens, safeguarding society’s democratic character.  The first such reforms involved the regulation of business, transportation, and banking, to limit the power of individual corporations and to prevent anti-competitive (and anti-consumer) practices.  Prominent among these measures were the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), and the Glass Steagall Act (1933). This last one was approved during the long (1933-45) and pathbreaking government of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The second prong of reform was guaranteeing the right of workers to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining.   The centerpiece of American labor law, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, sought to empower workers not through detailed legislation spelling out legal labor practices  (as has been common in Europe and Latin America)  but rather through laws that would promote unionization and collective bargaining.  For the least well-off workers, the federal government also mandated a minimum wage and maximum hours of work (1938).

The third ingredient was social insurance, adopted in the U.S. later than in much of western Europe.  Unemployment and old-age insurance systems were created in 1935, as was a program designed to help poor families with dependent children (AFDC).  They were followed in the 1960s by health care programs for the poor and the elderly (Medicaid and Medicare).  Obama’s new health care plan (the Affordable Care Act) was the first significant addition to the nation’s social insurance network since 1965.

These three types of government intervention amounted to a new social contract that shaped the contours of political and economic life in modern America.   However imperfect that contract may have been, it reduced inequality and preserved the dynamism of capitalism while guarding citizens against the power imbalances and uncertainties that are inevitable in a market economy.

Yet this grand bargain has been under attack by conservatives for several decades, and the attacks have been escalating in the last few years, reaching new heights during this long election season.  The regulation of business is decried now, as it was in 1880, as unwarranted and destructive interference with the workings of the free market.  Anti-trust laws have been weakly enforced; regulatory agencies have been starved through budget cuts; financial institutions of various original types (commercial banks, investment banks, insurance companies) have been permitted to merge into giant behemoths that are now surely too big to fail. Centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton (as noted earlier) endorsed some of these deregulatory impulses but with nothing approaching the zeal of the current Republicans.   In the primary campaign last spring, all of the Republican presidential candidates equated the core American value of “freedom” with an absence of business and environmental regulations.  Romney, at one of the Republican debates, characterized the Environmental Protection Agency as “a tool in the hands of the president to crush the private enterprise system, to crush our ability to have energy, whether it’s oil, gas, coal, or nuclear.”

The Republicans are also fiercely anti-labor and anti-union.  The percentage of private-sector workers who belong to unions has declined significantly in recent decades (to less than 10 percent), and employers have been emboldened in their attacks on unions ever since President Reagan’s famous firing of air traffic controllers in the early 1980s.  More recently, Republican attention has turned to public sector workers (who have a much higher rate of unionization), passing laws in Wisconsin and elsewhere that undercut the right to strike or even to engage in collective bargaining.   Nationally, the Republicans have sponsored laws that would weaken the National Labor Relations Board (which superintends labor law and labor disputes) and prevented Obama’s nominees to the board from taking office. The Romney campaign has declared that unions are undesirable because they slow economic growth and cost jobs.

Social welfare programs are also under attack.  Unemployment benefits are meager in many states and Congress has declined to extend them to match the length of the current economic crisis;  similarly, the value of the minimum wage is lower than it was in the 1970s.    AFDC was eliminated during the Clinton administration, and Republicans in Congress, recently led by Paul Ryan, have called for drastic cuts to Medicaid and the privatization of Medicare.  (Some even favor privatizing the Social Security system and diminishing the reach of public education.)  The Republicans insist that if they win the election they will immediately repeal the new health care law.

The American electorate, thus, is being offered a choice between two starkly contrasting visions of economic and social policy.  Obama and the Democrats stand for the preservation, perhaps even a mild strengthening, of the “grand bargain” of the twentieth century.  Although they speak often about innovation, their posture is, in critical ways, conservative:  they are not proposing grand new programs but rather defending long-established institutions and practices.  Even their proposals for tax increases (to help reduce an unsustainable deficit) are modest (and probably inadequate):  all they are asking is to eliminate the tax cuts for the wealthy that were implemented by the Bush administration.

The Republican vision offers a more dramatic break with recent history.  Promising prosperity and celebrating the magic elixir of free markets, they are offering a future that looks – at least to an historian —  eerily like the distant past, a late nineteenth-century world with little regulation of business, no social insurance, and no legal protections for workers.  To their eyes, the social contract of the twentieth century ought to be abrogated both because it is undesirable (burdening business while creating “dependency” among the poor)  and because it is unaffordable : paying for it would entail significant tax increases.  The Republicans’ insistence on shrinking the deficit, coupled with their inflexible resistance to new taxes, amounts to a demand for enormous cuts to non-defense spending in general and social programs in particular.

President Obama himself has highlighted the “return to the past” aura of the Republican program.  In an important speech last December, he claimed that Republicans appeared to “be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia,” forgetting the suffering that Americans experienced during the Great Depression and earlier periods in American history.  Obama identified himself with President Theodore Roosevelt, an early twentieth-century Republican who supported a minimum wage, a progressive income tax, and “insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly.”  Roosevelt too, Obama observed, had been “called a socialist – even a communist.”

Approaching November

Given these far-reaching disagreements about policy, coupled with the parties’ contrasting stances towards hot-button, emotional subjects like national identity and international supremacy, it is hardly surprisingly that the campaign is being bitterly fought, that the adversarial tone is sharper than it has been in decades.  Barack Obama may be a cautious and conciliatory politician, but he stands in the way of the far-right agenda that has now become mainstream Republicanism.  He frightens those who are committed to a unique and “exceptional” international role for the United States, and he symbolizes a multi-ethnic America that many citizens find disturbing or even threatening.  At the same time, the Republicans have spawned fear (and hostility) among many Democrats, both centrist and progressive.  They worry that a Republican victory would represent a return to a more bellicose foreign policy, revived discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, and the shredding of an already-frayed social safety net.  The polarization that now stamps American political life is only made worse by the fact that the two warring camps get most of their news and information from different sources.  On some days, at least, readers of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, or viewers of Fox News and MSNBC could be inhabiting different planets.

The extremity of many Republican positions also helps to explain why this election remains close and why President Obama now seems likely to win, according to most opinion polls.  As pundits and political scientists have repeatedly pointed out, all of the standard election indicators suggest that Obama should end up as a one-term president.  The recovery from the economic crisis has been slow and sluggish, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, with 20 million people still out of work.  Obama’s “favorability” ratings are below the levels usually deemed necessary for a president to be re-elected, and much of his original political base remains disenchanted with his presidency.  Indeed, Obama has not been a very successful president, and, despite his eloquence, he has been unable to offer a persuasively promising narrative for the future.  (At the Democratic convention, he handed that job over to Bill Clinton, who made the case superbly.)  In conventional political terms, thus, Obama should lose the November election.  But this has not shaped up to be a conventional election:  voters have to choose between real alternatives, and the Republican vision may well be too severely conservative for a majority of the electorate.  Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, although wildly popular with fiscal and social conservatives, signaled to many independents and centrists that Romney had fully thrown in his lot with the right wing of his own party.

The Democratic cause has been helped by Romney’s shortcomings as a candidate.  The former Massachusetts governor has frequently refused to follow up general pronouncements about policy with concrete details, most importantly regarding his stated intention to reduce the deficit while also reducing taxes.  He has been prone to mis-statements of fact and is often tone deaf in his relationship to audiences.  Last spring, for example, he tried to establish his credentials as a supporter of the American car industry – even though he had opposed Obama’s bail-out of General Motors – by pointing out that his wife owned two Cadillacs.  (In one of the Republican debates, he offered to make a $10,000 bet with one of his opponents.) He exudes a sense of entitlement, not least in his remarkable refusal to release most of his tax returns and in his blithe lack of concern about parking some of his wealth in overseas tax shelters.  While he has sought to make his achievements in business the centerpiece of his qualifications for reviving the economy, the Obama campaign has painted him, with some success, as a very rich man utterly out of touch with average Americans.  That negative portrayal was powerfully reinforced in September by the release of a videotape in which Romney, addressing wealthy donors at a private gathering, spoke disparagingly of the “47 percent” of the population that “pay no taxes,” see themselves as “victims,” and vote for Obama.

Much could happen in the final month of the campaign.  Obama and Romney will participate in three nationally televised debates, while the vice presidential candidates will debate each other once.  New data on the economy will be released in October, which could be either good news or bad news for Obama; and events abroad could always provide a jarring twist to the campaign.   But as the campaign enters its final weeks, it appears that there is more worry and apprehension about Romney taking office than there is about Obama remaining in the White House.  That’s a far cry from the “hope” and “change” that lifted Obama in 2008, but these have been difficult years.

Alexander Keyssar is Stirling Professor of History and Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Alexander Keyssar

Alexander Keyssar é professor de história e política social da Kennedy School of Government da Universidade Harvard. É autor de The Right to Vote, da

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