As the most expensive election campaign in US history draws to a close – candidates have spent over $1.5 billion since the primaries began last year – one thing is certain whoever gets to the White House: the power relations that dominate American society will not change.
Despite Barack Obama’s fine oratory in which he rails against the corporations, chief executives and Wall Street, all they are threatened with is having their feathers trimmed at worst and a rap over the knuckles at best. In fact, John McCain’s speeches as Republican candidate have sounded remarkably similar in their populist appeal to those of his Democratic Party rival. While Obama has raised $300 million in small donations, he has raised an equivalent amount from big business.
As the film-maker and activist Michael Moore, who has campaigned for Obama, has pointed out, his promise to extend health care to ordinary Americans is hedged with conditions, saying: “I don't agree with Senator Obama's health plan. It's not a single-payer universal healthcare plan. It doesn't cover everybody. It's not non-profit. It still sends billions of dollars into the hands of insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, etc.”
Moore, like many US liberals is hoping beyond hope that Obama is a) playing it cautious to get elected and/or b) control of the US Congress by the Democrats will force Obama to adopt a more radical position and go for universal health care. I heard similar arguments on the eve of the 1997 general election in Britain, when people said New Labour under Tony Blair had played it safe just to get elected and when they got in, everything would change. It sure did – for the worse!
Whoever wins the race for the White House is facing a meltdown in the American economy and a financial system that is on its last legs. General Motors, once synonymous with US manufacturing power, cannot continue without state support; many smaller firms are going to the wall. Tens of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs and homes each month. The government itself is heavily in debt, borrowing like there is no tomorrow to bail-out Wall Street. These are fairly insuperable problems.
If, as seems probable, Obama is the victor tomorrow it will, of course, be an historic event. Electing a black man to the White House will be remarkable for a country where slavery was legal less than 150 years ago and where racial discrimination meant blacks in some states had to sit at the back of the bus only a half a century ago.
Obama has mobilised a formidable grass-roots campaign (his Facebook site has 2,500,000 members!) in virtually every community across the country. Tens of thousands of volunteers have helped create a new political movement in parallel with the Democratic Party. The volunteers are treated as equals inside the Obama machine, given a relative autonomy to go out and build. There are lessons to be learned from this approach, no doubt.
America is undergoing a massive change. The demonstrations against the Wall Street bail-out were only a start in a country where hatred for the power of the corporations and bankers is only second to the contempt many people have for the games played out in Washington. The deeply reactionary Bush years have produced one telling statistic: 90% of Americans think the country is on the wrong course.
The contradiction is this: In the end Obama is a capitalist politician and leader of a capitalist party; yet if Obama triumphs, he will have been swept to power on a tide of social discontent and anger. It will be like riding a tiger – you either succeed or get eaten.