Not Nearly Enough Change I Can Believe In

Yesterday’s post and Dan Kaufman’s comment on it, have prompted me to pen some thoughts on Barack Obama (and elections).

In 2008, I made two separate donations of $50 to Barack Obama’s campaign. I also drove down with some friends to Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and spent the day walking around several neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking to residents about their possible election choices, thus helping the Obama campaign build up a map of voting patterns that they could use in estimating their chances in the region. I’d like to think that in some small way, I actively helped Obama’s victory in the elections that followed. I took these actions because, besides  wanting to vote for Obama in New York State, I wanted to contribute as much as I could elsewhere, to help the Obama campaign in the so-called swing states.  My vote in New York, a state that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, and where Obama was all but guaranteed the Electoral College votes, didn’t feel like that it would be that useful to Obama; at most it could help some him make some talking points about the size of his mandate.

By late 2008, as the elections approached, I was alarmed in a way that I had not been in 2004 (when I had voted for John Kerry). In 2004, I had merely voted; that was the extent of my involvement in the election process. But in 2008, I might have been described as a member of ‘the energized base’. I was ‘energized’ by Sarah Palin, by eight years of GW Bush, by the chance for change that I saw in Obama’s election. Back then, I was happy Obama had trumped Hilary Clinton’s campaign; even though her election would have been a historic event, I was made just a tad bit uneasy by her connection with the ‘old’ Democrats. Thus, I should have been more alarmed than I was by Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as vice-president; it was the first serious indicator, for me at least, that this candidate would indulge in a great deal of the ‘ol same-‘ol, same-‘ol.

Some three years on, as this election season heats up, and writing the day after Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage,  my disappointment remains acute. The language of betrayal is tempting, but I’m too weary to deploy it. Rather I’m inclined to think that I’ve just been reminded of the cartel-like nature of party politics in our nation, and of the disappointing inability of politicians to recognize where historical opportunities lie. Obama could have been a great one-term president; he has chosen, instead, to aspire to be a disappointing two-term president. I do not think I will send $100 to his campaign this year, and I most certainly will not take the time to go door-knocking for him in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. I wonder how many there are like me, and how much that will hurt Obama (Obama will have gained some new supporters in these past few years and perhaps they will be enough to get him over the finish line.) But I do not intend to fall for the tired old Democratic line ‘if you don’t vote for us, the bad old Republicans will come to power’. I do not feel like voting for Obama, and I certainly do not intend to vote Republican. Perhaps the Working Families Party? Who knows? November is still a long way away.

But there is a far more fundamental problem in all of this: it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities. More on that in a follow-up post tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “Not Nearly Enough Change I Can Believe In

  1. I’m of the view that our system is permanently broken: locked into several vicious cycles that cannot be broken out from within.

    This is the main reason why I have drifted so far politically: from liberal to conservative, back to liberal and now to anarchist. I no longer believe that the system is fixable.

    I also believe that any kind of mass uprising or revolution is unlikely to impossible: the bread and circuses of technology and exploitation-entertainment have rendered the populations that might engage in such revolt completely neutered. Look in the eyes of your students and you’ll see nothing. Try to rouse their passions and you’ll find they have none. In the town where I live, which is as middle-America as you can get, the socio-economic-legal conditions of young people are absolutely appalling…but you cannot get them even to verbally protest, let alone engage in any kind of action. All there is is “activism-lite”–various feel-good charitable efforts–which are little more than the latest version of “being good little boys and girls.”

    This is the reason why Eliot had perhaps the strongest line of the last century:

    “This is the way the world ends…not with a bang, but with a whimper.”


    p.s. “Kaufman” is spelled with just one ‘n’.

  2. I think the system works fine, but I have eccentric — or maybe the word is “perverse” — expectations of what it is meant to accomplish. Which is to ensure big changes happen slowly; that these changes have the support of a large majority before they happen; and that a continental nation with significant disagreements among its citizens on practically every issue finds a way to resolve its disagreements without physical violence (but just barely). This may not sound very appealing, I’m not sure it does, and I wouldn’t say this is a “good” way to run a country, but I think it is the “best possible way we know how right now” and I’m optimistic that we will get through, as we always have.

    I will say to Samir that the system tends turn everybody into sausage. What we want gets all grounded up with what everyone else wants, and the final product usually satisfies no one. That makes any president a “Sausage in Chief” many times.

    1. Peter,

      Where I worry (and perhaps disagree with you as a result) is the slow merger of the corporate and governmental interests, the creation of a new political class that is discontiguous with the American polity as a whole. This is now big enough and powerful enough to skew the nature of American political life – making most of our political activity meaningless as it is unable to impact it significantly. The presence of this entity is what makes it hard to imagine that methods of change that worked in the past will continue to do so in the future.


      1. All those folks who think their personal interests align with the interests of big corporations … and there are enough of them to quite possibly deliver the presidency and both houses of Congress to the Republicans in November … don’t think their political activity is meaningless. And they’re right because, quite often, they are winning. Now I don’t like this. And I find the gap between what conservative voters think their reforms will give them and what it looks most likely they’ll get spectacularly large. These voters, obviously, disagree. Change will come if or when enough Americans come to the conclusion that they’ve voted for a set a policies that have screwed them. When will this happen. 1 year? 5? 10? I don’t know. The rich will eventually come to regret their success. Wide disparities in wealth in democracies destabilize societies because it leads large groups of people to conclude the rules are stacked against them. When they do, they strike back hard. And they don’t care much about the details. Fasten your seat belts. More turbulence is ahead.

      2. Peter,

        I agree about inequality being a dangerous contributor to instability. The only question in my mind is whether the 99% is too narcotized to do anything about it.

  3. @Peter Galen Massey

    You think the following is a situation in which “the system is working fine”?

    1. A never-ending “War on Terror”
    2. A catastrophic financial readjustment, which is likely to turn the United States into a Second World nation.
    3. A country which has the highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world (and even in comparison with totalitarian states.
    4. A “War on Drugs” in which a militarized police routinely terrorizes the citizens it is their charge to protect.
    5. High schools which are little better than prisons and in which young people are stripped of virtually every civil right/liberty that is guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution.

    I could list more. Many more. But I am wondering, if this is “fine” then what would count as bad? (And don’t point at the Rwandas or North Koreas of the world. That’s not the relevant measure.)

    –Dan K.

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