Power must always be questioned

God knows the last few weeks (and undoubtedly the last few days) have confirmed how irritating British people lecturing the Americans on how to vote are, so forgive me if this is in any way part of that. However it’s largely these responses to the election which I want to make a few brief comments about.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Seumas Milne speaking about his new book (which I heartily recommend) at the new left-wing café, Firebox. During the subsequent q & a session he was asked about the American election and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he said that he would rather Obama won. What was slightly surprising was that he couldn’t understand the hesitance of those on the American left to support Obama, stating that it was their responsibility to exert pressure on him to be ‘better’. This makes sense yet it’s difficult for me to see where this pressure could possibly come from. Perhaps there is the possibility of choosing a more left-wing candidate at the primaries stage but overwhelmingly the US Presidential race is a zero-sum game: if you walk away from the Democrat candidate, a Republican wins. In this regard the Democrats need only hope for a caricatured rabid Republican to run against and they can surely count on most people of a left-wing bent supporting them, even if holding their nose as they do so (as an aside, I read a very interesting piece on this yesterday suggesting that American socialists should abandon the Presidential race altogether and focus on localism)

I can certainly relate to this, having voted Labour for the first time in 2010 not because I particularly supported Brown but rather because I opposed the Tories. For all the faults in the British system, however, it’s undoubtedly easier (even if marginally so) to exert pressure on the main parties, not least by taking your support elsewhere. In America third (and fourth, and fifth) parties are essentially shut out of the system in a codified manner. It’s no wonder, then, that politics there seems ever more divided and calcified – it’s patently absurd for the hopes, beliefs and ideals of 300 million people to find their expression in two candidates. The hopelessness of this seems ever clearer as the ‘financial crisis’ trundles on, groups like Occupy and the Tea Party speak to hearts and minds and the Presidential candidates continue to tinker at the edges of a discredited system.

Whomever becomes President is set to do so with a popular support of less than 30% of the American electorate. Yet you wouldn’t think this was the case listening to many on the British left for whom supporting Obama is an almost evangelical cause. The drumbeat of ‘Obama good, Romney evil’ has increased to almost hysterical proportions in recent weeks. What I find fascinating about it is that I’ve seen few cases where the support (it’s too kind to call it an analysis) goes beyond this. The most vocal of Obama’s British supporters in my experience tend to be the ones who feel least compelled to explain why they support him. It’s just self-evident to them that he deserves their support. The question of them supporting someone who is arguably to the right of David Cameron is not raised. The problem of them supporting someone who has not only continued many of Bush’s worst policies with regards to national security, civil liberties and foreign policy but has in some ways worsened them doesn’t raise itself.  The fundamental issue that scores of millions will stay away from the ballot box does not arise. Most startlingly of all, the agency of the American electorate itself ceases to exist – unless they support Obama.

Again and again, supporters of Romney are portrayed as idiotic, bigoted lunatics. Yet despite the implicit idea of Obama voters as educated and progressive, it often seems that all they are doing to warrant support is agreeing with the speaker. It certainly seems the case that many British folk who repeatedly broadcast their support for Obama couldn’t actually articulate even a handful of meaningful reasons for supporting him. You would almost certainly hear about his support for gay marriage (which I’ve written about previously), perhaps his ‘prevention of a Great Depression’. It probably wouldn’t be long before you got onto foreign policy and predictions of apocalypse if Romney won. This underlines the problem – Romney certainly may have tried to sound more hawkish than Obama, but anyone who thinks that (for example) war with Iran is a unique possibility with Romney simply hasn’t been paying attention.

This projection of everything that is seen as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ onto Romney, while not unjustified in many ways, is instructive of the approach here. None of this shit must stick on Obama and, as a result, meaningful criticism of and opposition to his worst activities is a non-starter. It’s that old thing of politics-as-identity, with the political parties largely stripped of ideology and instead being akin to football teams: Labour and Obama good, Tories and Romney bad. God knows I understand how easy and tempting it is to fall into this and I still do it myself sometimes, but it’s utterly meaningless and is more about personal ego than a sincerely held worldview.  I remember an interview with Marilyn Manson where he eloquently spoke about how he almost preferred Republican Presidents as it was only then that people on the left got really angry and motivated. Glenn Greenwald, formerly of Salon and now The Guardian, has been very good at documenting how supine much of the American left has been in its support of Obama. It’s certainly difficult to believe that things like the NDAA, drone wars, Bradley Manning and the ‘kill list’ wouldn’t have become totemic evils under a Bush (or Romney) administration (notably there are Republicans who are far to the left of Obama on these issues.) As it took Nixon to go to China and Blair to bring in tuition fees, it’s taken Obama to normalise extra-judicial assassination. Under Obama, however, these concerns become largely the preserve of apocryphal ‘trots’ who are ruining it for everybody else. For this reason it’s almost impossible to envisage where the pressure which Milne speaks of could come from. It’s also for this reason that I don’t really buy the apocalyptic pronunciations on a Romney victory from people who will wail loudly and then forget about it once the attention moves elsewhere. While most on the left would see an Obama victory as the ‘least bad’ option, the placing of a panto villain in the White House has some crumbs of positivity in that the football team progressives would unite against activities they currently have no interest in.

The point here is not to argue the toss between Obama and Romney, especially given that this is a pretty one-sided argument already. Instead I would argue that whomever is in power, whichever party they come from: power must always be questioned and must always be justified. There should be no free passes because we think someone is a ‘goodie’ or because they are ‘less bad’ and this is the great danger when we reduce political support to being part of a team, sure of our rightness and certain of our enemy.