In his autobiography Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm notes that for much of the 20th century most of the world’s inhabitants mentally lived in two countries: their own and the United States. No nation has had more economic and political influence than the U.S. especially via the country’s victories in the first half of the 20th century — first against the Great Depression and then against Nazism. No doubt many of us will continue to mentally dwell in the U.S. far into the 21st century as well. The spectacular recent rise of new economic giants like China, India and Brazil will diminish U.S. influence but not replace it; the financial crisis continues to demonstrate that the success of these countries remains interdependent with the economic prosperity of the United States. As well, while many of the world’s inhabitants would like to visit Beijing, New Delhi and São Paulo, few want to reside in any of those cities as much as they would like to live in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. The United States of America continues to haunt the imagination of the planet.
The country’s presidential election is a good example of the impact of this spectre; most of the world will be watching and most will be hoping that President Obama — despite his obvious weaknesses — stays in office. When Obama was elected, many progressives hoped that he would replicate the country’s first big 20th century victory; that is, he would be our era’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would enact a new New Deal, place emphasis on the citizen rather than the investor, spur full employment, strengthen social programs, reduce poverty and align the U.S. economy towards sustainable economic growth. This was a tall order which an inexperienced centrist was not able to deliver. Obama pledged “change” in his 2008 campaign for the presidency but despite some substantial achievements was not able to deliver on the dreams that he inspired. Yet despite four years of relative disappointment, few people, in global terms, want a return to Republican economic and military policies even if Obama often enacts a lower-calorie “lite” version of the same.
So what will happen today? The most persuasive analysis of the election tracking polls has been provided by the blog FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver’s Political Calculus which has been licensed by the New York Times since 2010. Silver became famous when he predicted the winner in 49 of 50 states in the 2008 U.S. presidential election and the correct winners in all 35 senate races that year. Silver has argued that Obama has an 85 per cent chance of victory noting that Obama has consistently led the large majority of polls in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as the other states where Democrats traditionally triumph. As of Monday, November 5, Silver predicted that Obama, who needs 270 Electoral College votes to win, and who won 365 in 2008, is likely to garner 306 in 2012.
Building on Silver, here is my own prediction: Obama will easily win insofar as the Republicans do not suppress too many of the votes of poor people, people of colour and people with disabilities. Everyone agrees that if Obama wins Ohio — where he has consistently led in polls, where the Democrats’ ground campaign is strong, and where the economy has rebounded more successfully in the past year than most other U.S. states — then he will win the election. With that said, the media focus on Ohio can be misleading: victory in the Midwestern state is necessary for Romney but not for Obama. In the unlikely scenario that the President loses in Ohio, he can still win the election with relative ease.
In the worst-case scenario, even if Romney wins his expected states and also prevails in big swing states like Florida (29 Electoral College votes), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), and Virginia (13), he will not necessarily secure victory. If Obama succeeds in the non-battleground states that the Democratic candidate normally wins and also picks ups swing states like Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4), then he will retain the Presidency. It is hard to believe that Romney will win all of the four big swing states above but it is perfectly plausible that Obama could win the smaller ones mentioned. Unless the various pollsters’ statistics are systematically biased against Romney it is hard to believe that the Republicans can win this election without resorting to nefarious means.
What will an Obama victory mean for progressive politics? That will depend on the grassroots and party activists who are helping to get him elected and on the global activists who have regularly protested against the international institutions — the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization — which the U.S. continues to disproportionately influence. The New Deal of the 1930s was implemented not only because of the actions of a courageous President but also because of the tremendous pressure that social movements of the time placed upon him. Today’s activists should not put down their signs after the election but instead should continue to mobilize on behalf of the stimulus policies that are needed to bring unemployment down, alleviate inequality, and build an environmentally productive economy. The fireworks of an electoral campaign should not blind voters to the meaning of this election: the country has not simply picked a better leader but has again rejected Republican neoliberalism. It is the continued responsibility of the national electorate, as well as international activists, to make sure that the elected representative implements what he and his party have promised. The fulfillment of those promises would renew the best side of the U.S. — that is, the side that inspired so many progressives through the first half of the 20th century.
Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.
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