Obama and the Revenge of Democracy
by Mosharraf Zaidi
Perception is reality. So while there is an almighty chorus of those that are warning the people of the world to be cautious and not invest so emphatically in the hope that the US election result has inspired, it is important to listen not only to our heads, but also to our hearts. Barack Hussein Obama’s ascension to the office of President of the United States is the most globally transcendent political moment of our time. His name, race, class, education, temperament and intelligence represent the most powerful counter-narrative to the global anti-Americanism at the heart of so much of the world’s violence and conflict. The vast stock of stimulus for hatred of America has just shrunk–who he is ensures this much. The challenge is whether or not a President Obama will actualise the potential for change that the candidate Obama inspired. We don’t know everything about the future, but we do know some things. America will not anytime soon give up its position as the dominant global power.
While the contours of US foreign policy and the exercise of US military power will not significantly change during President Obama’s first term, the narrative and counter-narrative between America and the rest of the world in general, and the Muslim world in particular, will. There are several reasons why the conversation will shift, from a conversation between civilisations (us and them), to a conversation within one civilisation (human).
The first reason is Obama himself. The intensity with which African Americans and Americans in general will feel a sense of history is one thing. The sense of global connectivity that Obama inspires among people all over the world is entirely another. Obama is the face of a new world. He is uniquely American in a way that no president before him has been. The ingredients are so unmistakably global and new-age that for most analysts beyond a certain age it is fundamentally incomprehensible just how global his brand is and what’s inside the box: his Kenyan father, his Indonesian stepfather, his banker grandmother, his soldier grandfather, his Jewish chief strategist, his African American wife, and his post-iPod and post-Pokemon daughters. In the conversation between Bush’s “us,” and Bin Laden’s “them,” nobody outside the Fox News tent wanted to be counted among the “us.” That tent and the label outside have changed for the better. Africans, Russians, Dalits, Venezuelans, Scots, Marxists and Muslims may not want to live in the new tent, but they sure are more likely to want to peek inside. Obama can dissolve the lines between Huntington’s and Bush’s two civilisations because he is a product of one, more germane human civilisation.
The second reason is that his election was made possible because of a new set of cultural and demographic realities that define the 21st century. At the core of the electorate that has delivered the White House to Obama is a fundamentally un-racial America. It is not pre-racial, racial, or post-racial.
The analysts and pundits have beaten the race piñata to death. Yet there is no racial candy to be found. Newly registered voters, first-time voters and voters who were tired of Bush voted for Obama with about as much a degree of consciousness about race as they demonstrate when they purchase, and listen to, Eminem and Kanye West–that is, not very much at all. Are the wounds of racism and the legacy of slavery all sorted out with Obama’s election? Of course not. But how the US deals with race has been fundamentally altered by all the antecedents of this election–American’s first black family is not the Obamas, it is and will forever be the Huxtables. The journey from there to here has been long, but ever-progressive. From the urban realities that NWA and 2 Live Crew forced American parents to confront, to the hope that a genuinely post-racial Tiger Woods and Oprah inspired for the fit and the overweight all around the world. From America’s warm embrace of a sick and fading Muhammad Ali to the manifest racial generation gap that David Chappelle’s comedy exploited. As this journey has progressed, so too has the world. This is an American phenomenon at its core, but it has global reach. The best way to understand this is to watch MTV in any country, anywhere in the world. Young people around the world simply do not carry the racial, ethnic and nationalist baggage that their parents, or even their elder siblings, do. This will lubricate and enrich the project of a conversation within one human civilisation.
The third reason a president Obama will bridge the divides of Bush’s “us vs. them” narrative is that this US election is an almighty slap in the face of democracy-cynics (and military dictatorships) all around the world. Its sheer magnificence, in terms of a procedural manual for how to rejuvenate and electrify a democracy, is unparalleled. Pakistanis, especially the politically disengaged educated middle class, should pay close attention to what their more numerous, more engaged and more mature counterparts have pulled off in this election. The record turnout that enabled Obama to win this election took place on a platform that had three very important and achievable (for a developing country) qualities. First, the voters’ lists in the United States are almost entirely automated, and they do not misrepresent the population of the US. Second, Election Day security was not a defining issue for voters in determining their willingness to vote. And, third, that the voter mobilisation, early voting and the get-out-the-vote efforts of civil society groups (like ACORN) were a clear and present threat to the Republican and neo-conservative establishment. By the time the votes are all counted up, the actual turnout for this election might be above 65%, representing as many as 135 million voters. That’s just short of the entire population of Pakistan. There are two lessons Pakistani democrats (and those all around the world) need to learn here. First, that voter turnout is a vital determinant of whether entrenched elites (like the Republican neo-cons that ruled the US for the last eight years) continue to hold power in a country. And the second, that democracy really is the best revenge, not just against dictatorships, but against failed democratically elected governments–like George W Bush’s. If Pakistanis think they’ve no options besides the current government, they are wrong. There may only be one Barack Obama, but change is an inevitable and irresistible political slogan. It must be given a chance to emerge. A President Obama that has been elected through such a grassroots movement will be a much more credible advocate for “bringing about democracy in the Middle East” and regime change there than President Bush was.
Finally, and perhaps most ironically, the most important reason that President Obama will help shift the global conversation from one between civilisations to one within a single human civilisation is the same reason he has won the election. It really is the economy. Conservative columnist David Brooks (of The New York Times) has written this week about the challenge of scarcity that the Obama administration will face. US trade and foreign relations with the rest of the world will be defined, for President Obama and beyond, by the limitations of US economic power, and its dependence on natural and human resources that are outside America, from Indian technology, to Middle Eastern oil, from Israeli and Irish innovation to Chinese productivity. The humility inspired by a genuine and irreversible alteration of global economic power dynamics will be a powerful informant of President Obama’s ability (and compulsion) to transcend the civilisation schisms that Bush soiled the world with.
Will Obama end US engagement in Iraq in 16 months, as he once promised to do during the primary campaign? Very unlikely. Will he change the strategy in Afghanistan? Or hesitate from approving hot pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistani territory? Very unlikely. The real lesson for other countries from the US election is not only just that an Obama presidency is more enabled to deal with global challenges in the 21st century, but that the kind of change Obama has brought about is anchored in the right processes.
If Iraqis want the GI Joes out, they should seek such change too. And while Pakistanis can be forgiven for being appalled by David Ignatius’s revelations in The Washington Post this week, about the “wink-nod” agreements between the Pentagon and the PPP government, they cannot be forgiven for giving up on democracy, especially the ones that never vote. February 2008 was not the last election in Pakistani history.