The Unfamiliar Feeling of Optimism
November 6, 2008
I was in Toronto visiting my family when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. Watching his acceptance speech on tv, I turned to my brother and said “can you imagine that things might actually get better?”
The September 11th bombings happened almost 3 months before my 21stbirthday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my entire adult life has been defined by things getting worse politically. The left has been in a period of reaction; with a few exceptions (like the campaign to legalise gay marriage) we’ve been forced to re-fight old battles, forced to fight to hang on to victories that we thought had been won years ago. Suddenly torture is acceptable again; suddenly foreign nationals need id cards; suddenly internment, both of suspected terrorists (Guantanamo Bay) and asylum seekers, is back on the political agenda. I feel myself getting nostalgic for the alter-globalisation movement, despite its flaws, because it represented a step forward for international justice. At the moment, all we can do, it seems, is try maintain our places, try to prevent ourselves from being pushed too far back by the forces of injustice.
All of this has coincided with an increasing democratic deficit. Millions marched against the war in Iraq in the UK – and it happened anyway. I don’t know anyone who thinks that ID cards are a good idea – but I also don’t know anyone who takes it for granted that the government is going to go ahead nonetheless. Who do we vote for in the UK?!? The Tories are right out, obviously. So there’s a Labour party that isn’t all that left-wing before and is developing increasingly xenophobic policies while curtailing our civil liberties. There’s the Lib-Dems, who are actually really good about civil liberties and migrant rights – but their economic policy changes every 20 minutes, and they’re not all that concerned about distribution of wealth, or poverty.
I don’t know how much Obama is going to change. I’m cycling between profound scepticism and wild optimism at the moment. He’s not all that left-wing, and he believes in “civil union” rather than gay marriage – but he praised the Supreme Court’s Decision to reinstate Habeas Corpus to detainees in Guantanamo! Maybe he’ll shut down Guantanamo!! He is in favour of continuing the wars in Afghanistan and has suggested he would send troops into Pakistan to fight pro-Taliban militants there – but he would sit down and talk with the leaders of Iran rather than just declaring war and setting off WWIII!!! What I’m most optimistic about is that Obama seems genuinely concerned with bridging the democratic deficit. His time as a community organiser served him well in his campaign, as he was able to create an incredibly efficient and effective on-the-ground organising machine. His acceptance speech emphasised that change comes from below, not (just) from above. He spoke of working with ordinary people, and I actually believe he means it.
If Obama turns out to be a bad president, it will be devastating – it will pretty well prove that, as the saying goes “if voting could change anything, it would be illegal”. But if he’s a good president – not revolutionary, but does succeed in improving people’s lives and ends some of the more appalling abuses of power in America right now (like torture) – he could restore a lot of people’s faith in the ability of government to bring positive change to people’s lives.