At a dinner table in Akron, Ohio, half a dozen Democratic activists recently took a break from trashing US political activist Ralph Nader for allowing a victory for former US president George W. Bush in 2000 to discuss the material benefits of US President Barack Obama’s first term. One had been able to keep his children on his healthcare plan after graduation; another with a pre-existing condition had been able to move plans without penalty. Then there was an awkward silence, broken by the mention of the jobs saved in Toledo, 225km away, by the auto bailout. That brought us on to Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call to “let Detroit go bankrupt.”
And soon, the conversation is flowing as easily as the beer as talk turns to how bad things might have been — and could yet be — with Republicans at the helm.
Such are the cramped parameters within which Democratic loyalists converse. Questions about poverty, bankers, inequality, climate change or drone attacks are not engaged with a defense of Obama’s record, but avoided with a threat: Romney. Speculation about what Obama might have done differently are met with arguments about what Bush did wrong. Inquire if Obama will get more done if elected, and they shrug and point to the obstructionist Republicans in congress.
Dare to prod further as to why anyone should vote for him given the likelihood that Republicans will win in congress and they will take you right back where you started: Romney. Any question about the good things that might have happened as a result of Obama’s victory in 2008 is short-circuited by a response about the bad things that might happen as a result of his defeat this year. Hope curdled to fear. Everyone can tell you how things get worse; no one can tell you how they get better.
The paradox of large numbers of people investing heavily in a result without expecting a great deal from the outcome is particularly stark during a presidential election. On the one hand, there is the hoopla: the polls, bumper stickers, stump speeches, conventions and debates. All the trappings to celebrate the assumed connection between political power and the popular will. On the other hand, there is cynicism: the low turnout, voter suppression, billionaire donors and contrived controversies. All the evidence of a system corrupted by money and openly rigged.
These contradictions are not unique to the US. Britain is midway through its conference season, where the three main parties lay out their stalls. They have fewer members combined, The Economist reminded us recently, than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Yet we treat their annual gatherings as moments of major national significance.
However, they are particularly acute here because of the dislocation between rhetoric and reality, pageantry and practice, and the nation’s belief in its own democratic values and its actual plutocratic electoral culture. And they are particularly acute now. Obama ran on change — a phenomenon that US elections are not equipped to deliver.
How could they? They adhere to the golden rule that those who have the gold make the rules. That has long been a problem. In 2008, Obama and then-Republican US presidential candidate John McCain spent as much on TV ads in Florida as all the parties spent on the entire 2010 UK general election. Now it is even worse. A few years ago, the US Supreme Court loosened the rules to allow unlimited donations from anonymous sources.
“It’s really sad,” Arnold Hiatt, a key Democratic funder, told The New Yorker. “You could buy this election for a billion dollars.”
While this makes a mockery of democracy it does not create an illusion of choice. The outcome in these elections matter. Hanging chads and slender margins notwithstanding, by the end of the night on Nov. 6, either Obama or Romney will be president.
The case against the Republicans is not difficult to make. Their numbers do not add up, their arguments do not make sense and their record in office contradicts virtually every one of their professed principles. During the eight years prior to Obama’s presidency, they ballooned the deficit, crashed the economy, increased the power of the state over the individual and sent the US’ standing plummeting throughout the world. They built that.
The world is not marginally different because Bush won in 2000 or 2004. Romney is running to the right of him and Obama is running to the left of former US vice president Al Gore.
Insisting it makes no difference who wins is not tenable. Last year, Chelsea Shinneman of Roanoke, Virginia, had a baby, Harrison, who was born with a congenital heart defect. Were it not for the new healthcare act, Harrison would have been destined for a lifetime of sky-high insurance premiums.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, the head of the Homelessness Prevention Initiative, Sue Beck-Ferkiss, could point to 36 families in the area helped by stimulus money. Had there been any Latinos at the table in Akron, they might have added to Obama’s achievements his executive order to halt the deportation of young undocumented immigrants. Had there been soldiers, they might have talked about the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.
So it matters who wins. Just because improvements are incremental rather than transformative does not mean they are not important. The problem is not that there is no difference between Obama and Romney, but that there is insufficient difference between what Obama has delivered and is offering and what the country needs at a time when poverty is rising, wages have stalled, civil liberties have been suppressed, kill lists drawn up and drone attacks escalated. It is possible to indict the Republican party and vote for Obama without endorsing his record or making excuses for his failures.
However, it is not possible to understand his failures without recognizing that an electoral system funded by the wealthy will never be capable of distributing resources and power equitably, regardless of who is in charge. The fact that this is the choice Americans are faced with does not mean they do not deserve a better one. It simply reflects why, under these terms, a better choice is not possible.