found myself facing a peculiar choice. Because I was taking Election
Day off to do election work, I could have submitted an absentee
ballot. In fact, that would probably have been the most logical
thing to do. It would have saved me a lot of time. I kept procrastinating
in filing for such a ballot until it was too late.
Election Day I realized why I did not file the absentee ballot.
Like millions of other voters, and particularly African Americans,
I had to physically touch the voting machine. In my case, it was
a touch-screen computer, but it would not have mattered whether
it was that or an old-style lever that I had to push. November
4, 2008 was a moment when I had to make physical contact with
the voting machine and actually see my vote counted. I had to
know that it was actually happening. And I needed to stand on
line - in our case for 2 1/2 hours - with hundreds of other African
Americans and wait patiently for a moment to influence history.
of any reservations one might have regarding the proposed policies
of President-elect Obama (yeah, I get a kick out of writing and
saying “President-elect”) there is no question but that the election
victory had a profound emotional impact on Black America specifically,
but this country generally. I can honestly say that I never expected
to see a liberal Black person elected President of the USA, and
I was not sure that a conservative Black person would be elected
either. As the election returns were coming in, my stomach was
tied up in knots unlike anything I have experienced since my daughter
was born. I did not make predictions and I do not trust polls.
More importantly, I did not trust the white electorate.
What to make of the election?
reviewing the stats from the election, the results are quite interesting.
Obama won the popular vote by 52% compared with McCain’s 46%.
This is extremely significant and has not been replicated by a
Democrat since Lyndon Johnson won the Presidency in 1964. Nevertheless,
what it also shows is that the USA is quite divided. That 46%
of the vote McCain won represented more than 55 million people.
What is noteworthy is that while Obama won only 43% of the white
vote, whites under the age of 30 backed him by a 66-32% margin.
Latinos voted with Obama at a rate of 67% (an important increase
over those who went with Kerry in 2004). Women voted with Obama
at a rate of 55%, though he lost white women by 5% points (although
this was better than Senator Kerry in 2004). It is also noteworthy
that although Obama only received 45% of the veteran’s vote, compared
with McCain’s 54%, this remains significant in light of the red-baiting
and terrorist-baiting that was being targeted at him. Additionally,
union voters went with Obama at 60% compared with McCain receiving
38%, a lower percentage than should have sided with Obama in light
of the current economic crisis but that probably reflects racial
divisions within the house of labor.
election reflected several important concerns and tendencies:
question, the Obama victory needs to be understood as a tribute
to exceptionally good organization; the initial positioning of
Obama as, at least in the primaries, an anti-war candidate; the
onset of the economic crisis; the candidate’s continuous message
of optimism; and Obama’s ability to remain cool under fire.
Act II: Beginning right now
implications of the Obama victory will need to be unpacked over
the coming weeks and months. That said, there are a few points
worth noting because they will have strategic implications:
Obama’s mandate is vague, yet identifiable: the mandate he has received is to
(1) address the economic crisis immediately in a manner that favors
regular working people. This is evident from the polls and from
plenty of anecdotal information. In addition, the mandate involves
(2) changing the relationship of the USA to the rest of the world.
This particular point is very unfocused but it is evident that
the US voters are increasingly concerned about the perception
of the USA overseas and what that means for matters of national
people were unfamiliar with the actual programmatic steps Obama
is advocating on the economy, yet they were unwilling to be swayed
by the red-baiting rhetoric of McCain/Palin. This may offer an
opportunity for progressives to advance one or another variant
of a redistributionist approach toward the crisis.
regard to foreign policy, this is extremely complicated and quite
troubling. While Obama has emphasized the need for negotiations
as a first step in international relations, when confronted by
forces to his Right, he has tended to back down and often suggest
highly questionable military and crypto-military options in handling
crises, e.g., unilateral attacks on Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan.
Some people around Obama seem to be advocating a get-tough approach
toward Iran, which itself could lead to hostilities. While the
people of the USA, by and large, are not looking for more war,
the ability of the political Right to manufacture the ever-present
threat from right-wing Islamists (including but not limited to
targeting Iran) has successfully promoted a climate of fear. This
will, more than likely, be a weak point for the President-elect
and a place where pressure must be placed by anti-war forces.
The world is expecting a great deal from an Obama administration:
All corners of the Earth erupted in glee upon news of the Obama
victory. Obama will more than likely reach out to traditional
US allies in order to repair the damage done by the eight years
of the Bush administration. There
will more than likely be outreach to Africa, though the character
of that outreach is as yet to be determined. Obama, while Senator,
expressed a great deal of interest and concern with Africa, and
developed legislation focusing on the on-going crisis in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. He will probably try to alter the relationship
of the US to Africa, though it is not entirely clear thorough
how such an alteration will be. One should expect outreach to
the African Union to offer support in cases of humanitarian disasters
and crises, but unless Obama is prepared to break with the whole
“war against terrorism framework” there may be continued militarization
of the continent (through vehicles such as AFRICOM and the Trans-Sahel
Progressives will need to perfect an approach of “critical
support” towards the Obama administration: The corporate backers of President-elect Obama have
no interest in a transformative agenda. They are interested in
stabilizing capitalism generally, but especially stabilizing the
financial sector. They are open to selective nationalizations
as long as such nationalizations do not bring with them significant
popular accountability. In light of this, progressive forces will
need to be organized in such a way as to mount a challenge from
the left side of the aisle. President Obama will need to be pushed
on many areas, including foreign policy; healthcare; housing;
jobs; and in general, the need for a pro-people approach to addressing
the economic crisis. Taking this approach of critical support
means, tactically, pointing out what has NOT been accomplished
in the Obama agenda on the one hand, and, on the other, challenging
the new Administration when it advances policies that are regressive,
e.g., threatening Iran or Cuba and compromising with the insurance
companies on healthcare.
support also means raising issues that the Obama administration
may tend to shy away from or avoid altogether, such as race/racism.
Race is fused into the US system. Racist oppression and the differential
in treatment between people of color and whites remains a major
part of the US reality. For that reason, progressives must push
the Obama administration to address the continuing impact of racist
oppression. This may lead to clashes that at one and the same
time appear to be tactical, i.e., matters of timing, but are actually
quite fundamental, i.e., about whether there needs to be a systemic
challenge to racist oppression.
of this happens in the absence of organization. Those who rallied
to the Obama campaign came from various political tendencies and
experiences, and many of them will seek to return to their “everyday
life.” At the same time, there are those who mobilized that are
looking to be part of implementing the “dream” and they will be
unable to do this as individuals operating alone.
If one really wants to advance an approach of critical support
for the incoming Administration, it will mean creating the grassroots
organizational structures around the country that are capable
of educating and mobilizing the millions of people who are seeking
a new direction. This approach, what I have described elsewhere
as a neo-Rainbow approach, can be used to exert pressure
to ensure that the incoming Obama administration lives up to its
many of us cried with joy and amazement on the evening of November
4th with this historic breakthrough. Our excitement cannot rest
with the electoral success but must be fused with a genuine effort
to create a new politics.
to post a comment about the election
and read what others are saying
on the BC Readers' Corner Blog
Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies,
the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and
a New Path toward Social Justice
of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor
in the USA. Click here
to contact Mr. Fletcher.