November 8, 2008

Obama's tepid progressivism

This past election night was a contradiction in terms.

On the one hand it saw the election of America's first African-American president who sailed to victory on a mandate of 'hope' and 'change.' But on the same night 3 states actually stripped away the right of their citizens to wed same-sex partners.

Looking more closely at these turn of events, however, it's apparent that there's not really much of a contradiction at all. The United States is not nearly as progressive as it thinks it is and its selection of Barack Obama hardly represents a radical step in that direction.

We're dealing with a citizenry, after all, who for the most part still thinks that the term "socialism" is a pejorative, as something that equates to Stalinism. The accusations during the campaign that Obama is a socialist was a sad but telling joke.

And even if he is, so what?

Some of the world's most prosperous and livable countries are solidly left-of-center, while here in Canada our socialist party, the New Democratic Party, recently gained 37 seats in Parliament and acquired nearly 20% of the popular vote (a vote that was undercut by the success of the Green Party who earned 7% of the popular vote; and don't even get me started on the fact that we actually have a Green party -- the U.S. is so far removed from this possibility that's it's not even worth talking about).

Okay, I'm digressing a bit here. But with all the excitement that has come to surround the election of Barack Obama, is it truly indicative of a new progressive wave?

Yes and no.

The election of Obama certainly bodes well for left-leaning and reformist interests -- there's no question about that. And the important thing right now is that the gang of thugs who hijacked the White House for the past 8 years are on their way out.

That said, however, it's worth noting that the incoming Democratic administration looks like it's going to be positioned just a little to the right of center. Much of this stems from political necessity, but some of it emerges directly from Obama's own views.

For example, Obama is opposed to same-sex marriages. Both he and McCain were quite vocal about this during their campaigns. Obama recently went on the record saying that marriage should only be "between a man and a woman."

This shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Obama was baptized as a Christian in the late 1980s. It's not unreasonable to think that many of his political stances are influenced by his metaphysical views. But I don't want to overstate this point. He appears to be a man who will work to ensure the separation of church and state. His position on abortion and stem cell research attests to this.

Obama also supports the death penalty in certain circumstances. He has said that in extreme cases "the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage." Obama concedes that the death penalty makes for a poor deterrent, making capital punishment a catharctic outlet and as a way to punish offenders.

In terms of foreign policy, Obama has made it clear that he will continue the 'war on terror,' increase troop strength in Afghanistan and continue making military strikes in Pakistan. Some of this is genuinely debatable; the situation in Afghanistan is quickly deteriorating and Pakistan continues to be unable to contain its insurgent elements. But still, Obama is not the peacenik that some have made him out to be.

On the home front, Obama recently changed his mind about warrantless domestic wiretaps and now supports it. In 2006 he voted in favor of the revised USA PATRIOT Act.

Again, the Obama administration will undoubtedly be a far cry from the soon to be ended neo-con nightmare. But the United States is a stubbornly conservative country. Those of us who observe it from the outside need to acknowledge that the recent election is a step in the right direction -- even if they are baby steps.

And for those progressives who live in the United States, now is not the time to sit back. As showcased by the recent setbacks with same sex marriage it's important that the new administration not be allowed to get comfortable with its sense of progressivism.

Keep pushing the envelope and agitate! We're rooting for you.


Mac said...

It's not unreasonable to think that many of his political stances are influenced by his metaphysical views.

"Metaphysical views"? Come on, out with it: "superstitions."

George said...

Your point is well taken, and I don't disagree. But I chose to use terminology that's a bit more neutral.

dharmicmel said...

I too am glad that the Bush/Chaney Gang is on the way out; that America is largely conservative is a fact of life that the rest of have to live with, one way or the other; as Americans, we should be thinking about why this gang of thugs ever got into office, and what our responsibility is for letting this happen; I am all for pushing the envelope !
thanks for your words of clarity and encouragement

Anonymous said...

You seem to be just brushing aside the fact that people do have valid reasons for not liking policies sourced from the socialism school of thought.

I mean, if the consensus among economists/political scientists was that "socialism" was the best course of action, then maybe a "so what?" comment is justified, but the merits of those sort of policies are honestly debatable and hotly contested.

You can't claim the right side in an argument by just dismissing valid criticism out-of-hand.

George said...

Dustin, I think you missed my point (or I didn't make my point clear enough). I'm not trying to debate the merits of socialism at this time, I'm merely suggesting that the term was bandied about during the election as a pejorative label, as a form of name calling.

This to me was ridiculous considering that in virtually all other parts of the world the term is used as a matter of course and in polite conversation.

David Golightly said...

You're right, the United States doesn't really have a substantial left-wing faction. Instead, we have a centrist party (Democrats) and a far right-wing party (Republicans). This makes the portrayal of any sort of "left-right" spectrum in American politics pretty lopsided.

RE: socialism, the Democrats are centrist pragmatists. They're not going to be as bold as many of us would probably like. Considering the poles are far-left (socialism; complete collective ownership) and far-right (capitalism; complete unfettered private ownership), the Democrats advocate a hybrid system that uses free markets as the main economic engine, while implementing a progressive taxation system and social policies that help level the playing field. Hardly far-left socialism, it's a recognition that free markets and government each have a role to play, much as they do in European or Canadian social-democracies (and none of these states are truly socialist either).

So yes, political labels used in many places in the industrialized world don't exactly translate well to American politics.

Cliff said...

The United States is not nearly as progressive as it thinks it is

I didn't know any Americans think we are that progressive.

Whether we like or dislike progressive policies, we all (AFAIK) acknowledge America isn't progressive.

For example, Obama is opposed to same-sex marriages.

Glenn Greenwald discusses this. Obama wants to revise the Defense Of Marriage Act to give same-sex couples the same advantage as heterosexual couples:

And for those progressives who live in the United States, now is not the time to sit back.

Absolutely. The kleptocrats haven't been repudiated thoroughly enough yet, and anyone who thinks differently will be unpleasantly suprised.