Tuesday, 6 November 2012

US Presidential Election & left populist talk

Barack Obama, campaigning in Orlando, Florida.

Image Source: Barack Obama's
 Flickr photostream
Well, today's the big day in the US. The day citizens of that republic vote for president (through the comically indirect, winner take all, and disproportionate "electoral college" system).   Obama, in all likelihood, will win.

Statistician Nate Silver has crunched the numbers, giving Obama very high odds of winning given his efficient state-by-state distribution of support in the highly winner-take-all electoral college despite being neck-and-neck when it comes to the popular vote (Wired magazine has an article out debunking the statistically illiterate claims of anti-Nate Silver hacks).

What's particularly notable about this US Presidential election, aside from eerie similarities to the ones in 2004 and 2000, is just how the background and issues have been shaped by left populism and how much centre-left populist rhetoric the incumbent's using.  

The pro-austerity, anti-public social investment Tea Party movement laid the stage for the the Republican campaign to take the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections , based on notions of "government intrusion" from "Obamacare", "overtaxation", and "reckless spending". A variety of McCarthyite conspiracy theories about "communists" in the halls of power, "latte liberals" hating America, and what not filled the movement's not too marginalized extreme. Anger over the collapse of the demand and the American economy had been squarely directed at the US Federal Government in general and the Obama administration in particular that election. Income inequality was not an issue.

By the 2012 election campaign, two things happened to change this.


  • The top ranks of the Republican Party, like both major parties, are filled with members of the American plutocracy. The fact that their candidate was a country club conservative, rather then a supposed "man of the people" fighting the evils of "latte liberalism", was made more apparent by choosing the obliviously, hereditarily wealthy and privileged Mitt Romney rather than a nouveau riche Republican. The Democratic opponent, President Barack Obama, is also well known to have had a much less privileged upbringing - making it harder for "latte liberalism" charges to gain traction.  
  • Romney, in turn, picked one of the most radical opponents of social investments - which provide opportunity to the working and middle classes - imaginable in Paul Ryan. It became patently obvious that Ryan's past proposals for cutting social investments to the public so as to redistribute money to the rich (through tax policy and maybe even some direct subsidies) blatantly amounted to class warfare against the majority of Americans. 
What the Obama campaign successfully did was seize on the opportunity created by a media backdrop that was paying some attention to economic unfairness and unequal opportunity in the US. While some Occupy activists opposed Obama in Iowa, he should still be greatly indebted to them for the opportunity their conversation-changing activism provided. 

Tax relief to the middle class, equal opportunity, "we built it together", and the same set of rules for all Americans are themes the Democrats have repeated again and again in this campaign. Barack Obama, despite some of his more regressive economic policies, fashioned himself as a centre-left populist and hammered Romney over his tax plans and personal income tax returns. The theme was relentless, leading to less emphasis on the intra-class war issues known as "culture wars" and more on the pressing socioeconomic issues facing the highly unequal United States. 

Obama's term has been good for the very rich, in terms of corporate welfare measures like the TARP and in terms of the recovery more generally, where over 90% of the income gains in the first year of recovery went to the richest 1%. The top-heavy, bottom frail recovery and distribution of income will likely continue through Obama's second term. Nevertheless, centre-left populist talk will have extended the President's time in the White House.   


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