Thursday 29 May 2008

OBAMA Phenomenon and US Politics: What Malaysia and Malaysians Can Learn From For Our Political Conversations

" Current political conversation in Malaysia is about racial supremacy, racial rights and racial posturing. And it stinks."
-Malaysian Unplug

Extracted from an article by Sam Webb, "New Times, New Opportunities"

Political Upsurge

The political upsurge ricocheting across the country (US) has no counterpart in recent decades.

Its breadth and depth are remarkable. Its politics are progressive.

It is framing the nation’s political conversation.

It rejects the old racist and sexist stereotypes. It is a mass rebellion against the policies of the Bush administration.

It is seeking a political leader — one who gives priority to “lunch pail” issues, appeals to our better angels and visualizes a country that is decent, just, united and at peace with the rest of the world.

And it’s the necessary groundswell and kinetic energy for a smashing victory in November.

The setting of this upheaval is the Democratic presidential primaries. So far, the turnout has been far beyond anybody’s expectations. Records are being broken in nearly every state primary. Every sector of the people is marching to the polls.

Young voters are grabbing the electoral bull by the horns. Twice as many Democrats have voted as Republicans, an ominous sign for the GOP this fall.

The high octane of this upsurge is simply breathtaking. In every place where people gather, the candidates, the primaries and the issues are the subject of animated conversations.

If anyone thinks that issues are getting short shrift or that it is all about personalities, I can only guess that they are just watching, but not feeling and listening to the whirlwind that is blowing across the country.

Aren’t the most pressing concerns of the American people structuring the “give and take” of candidates as well as voters? This is anything but an issueless campaign. It contrasts sharply with the last presidential elections when the “War on Terror” took up nearly all the oxygen in the room.

Thanks to this surge, a woman or an African American is on track to become the presidential nominee. This reflects the growing political maturity of the American people. It should be celebrated as a great democratic achievement. Anything that is done to diminish this fact should be vigorously challenged.

Any mass organizations or movements that don’t insert themselves in a full-blooded and practical way into this very dynamic process will be left behind by their own constituencies and by events. They will miss an opportunity that comes along rarely in political life.

Young People as Voters

One of the most hopeful aspects of this people’s surge is the entry of young people who either were not of voting age in the last election or were old enough to vote but chose not to do so.

In injecting themselves en masse into the Democratic primary process, today’s younger generation is becoming an agent of change. Not since the sixties have we seen young people bring their energy and idealism to the political process on such a scale.

The beginnings of this change were evident in recent years. More young people participated in the 2004 elections and the majority of youth voted for Kerry. Furthermore, young people were a sizeable part of the anti-war movement as well as participants in other social movements.

But what we are seeing today is on an entirely different scale and level of intensity.

The reasons for this qualitative change seem clear enough. Young people are saddled with enormous debt, horrified by the Iraq war and the pervasiveness of violence, alienated from the policies of division and intolerance of the Bush administration, and turned off by a political culture that is opaque, money driven and seemingly empty of higher ideals and aims.

Sensing something different in Obama’s candidacy, they are flocking into the Democratic Party primaries in record numbers as organizers and voters.

Unlike some older people, the pressures and grind of everyday life haven’t yet worn them down. “Keep on keeping on” is not a slogan they embrace.

“Yes we can” better captures their mood. They eagerly desire and embrace change. They not only imagine the possibility of another world; they imagine its realization in their lifetime.

Befitting their youth, they take inspiration from yesterday’s struggles but they are not prisoners to them. The Sixties, even the Reagan years, are history, not lived or vivid experiences for them.
Finally, the young are less inclined to be cynical. This election might not begin the world anew, but for millions of young people it is a first step.

Not least, the working class, the nationally and racially oppressed and women are leaping into this upsurge in a way not seen for many years. Each of these constituencies went to the polls in record numbers.

The Obama Phenomenon

The clearest expression of this developing movement pivots around the candidacy of Barack Obama, whose inspirational message and politics have captured the imagination of millions.

So much so that many commentators and politicians use the words “transformational” or “transforming” to describe his candidacy — that is, a candidacy capable of assembling a broad people’s majority to reconfigure the terms and terrain of politics in this country in a fundamental way.

The Obama campaign has not only brought new forces into the political process, it has also catalyzed new organizational forms.

The surge around Obama’s candidacy, much like the larger surge in the Democratic presidential primary, has a large spontaneous quality. But what makes it different is that it has the feel of “a movement.”

Its supporters see in Obama someone who is without the baggage of an older generation of politicians, and who speaks to their desires.

I have heard political commentators say that Obama mania has no spelled-out political program, lacks organizational coherence and offers no guarantees it will continue after Election Day.

Hearing such observations, I ask myself why on earth anyone would think this developing movement whose life span can be measured in months would be a well- oiled machine?

Anybody with any historical sense knows that movements in their early, and sometimes later, stages aren’t neat and tidy. Ideal types never find concrete representation in real life.

While this movement has its own dynamic, it is inseparable from the personality and politics of Barak Obama. While he is not a candidate of the left or someone we would endorse — since we don’t endorse candidates of either party — he is, nonetheless, a fresh voice on the political scene.

His strategic and tactical concepts are broad in their sweep and his politics are forward looking.

His appeal for change resonates with millions who are fed up with things as they are.

And his desire to overcome divisions between Black and white, Black and brown, white and non-white, red state and blue state, immigrant and native born, Christian and Muslim, Muslim and Jew, blue collar and white collar, male and female, gay and straight, urban and rural strikes a deep responsive chord among Americans.

After three decades of acrimonious rancor and division, people yearn for a kinder, gentler and more just country.

While much has been said about his own personal journey and its formative impact on his values and outlook, what has been greatly understated is that the struggles of the African American people and the larger movement against the right also have left their mark on his sensibilities and politics.

Not since Bobby Kennedy has a leader stepped on the stage with as much promise to reconfigure politics and the underlying assumptions that inform debate and policy choices.

His ability to articulate a vision, give voice to people’s hopes, and use the platform of politics to educate millions is extraordinary.

On paper, it’s true that some of Clinton’s positions, not to mention those of Edwards and Kucinich, are better than Obama’s. But in many ways policy statements and party platforms are not the main things that should shape judgments about a presidential candidate’s potential or the prospects for change. This is looking at politics too narrowly.

It doesn’t take into account who can inspire and unite this massive upsurge, or who can articulate a moral and political vision to tens of millions, or who has the capacity to assemble political majorities in the post-election period, or who has the ability to win a landslide victory against McCain and the Republicans in November.

On these counts, advantage goes to Obama in the eyes of many voters. That isn’t to say that Clinton wouldn’t be a worthy adversary to McCain. She would. Nor is it to suggest that she couldn’t win in a landslide. She can. But it would be much more difficult.

I also suspect that she would govern to the left of Bill Clinton’s administration, in large measure because the conditions and expectations are so different now.

But I have heard it asked, isn’t Obama a bourgeois politician? Hasn’t he raised a lot of money from Wall St.? And isn’t he is a centrist and a creature of the Democratic Party? All of these assertions are worth discussing, but none of them can be easily answered with a yes or no reply.

And even if they could, these questions by themselves wouldn’t necessarily tell us who Obama is, what his presidency would look like and how he would interact with the broader labor led people’s movement.

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