Is the Amer­i­can Dream be­com­ing a night­mare? (Part 2)

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS PLUS - Arnold Ber­tram is a his­to­rian and for­mer Cab­i­net min­is­ter. His most re­cent book is ‘Nor­man Man­ley and The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Ja­maica’. Email feedback to col­umns@glean­ and re­

IN NOVEM­BER 2008, Barack Hus­sein Obama de­feated Repub­li­can, John McCain, win­ning 365 Elec­toral Col­lege votes to McCain’s 173, and 53 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote, to be­come the first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the United States. It was a defin­ing mo­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Barack and Michelle Obama tower in­tel­lec­tu­ally over nearly all of their pre­de­ces­sors and cer­tainly over their suc­ces­sors. They brought a re­fresh­ing in­tegrity to pub­lic of­fice and a ster­ling ex­am­ple of fam­ily life to the White House.

As pres­i­dent, Obama steered the ship of state out of the worst eco­nomic cri­sis faced by the US in more than seven decades. Dur­ing his ten­ure, Africans and US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­parts from Tegel air­port in Berlin, Ger­many, on Novem­ber 18. Obama met the lead­ers of key Euro­pean coun­tries to dis­cuss an ar­ray of se­cu­rity and eco­nomic chal­lenges.

peo­ple of African de­scent, es­pe­cially African-Amer­i­cans, walked with their heads held a lit­tle higher and their backs a lit­tle straighter, while Democrats and Lib­er­als world­wide joined in the ap­plause.

How­ever, at another level, many were dis­ap­pointed that Obama did not be­come the trans­for­ma­tional pres­i­dent they ex­pected; that he did not seize the op­por­tu­nity that pre­sented it­self in 2009 to rein in Wall Street and chart a new course for Amer­ica that would bring a fuller re­al­i­sa­tion of gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, and for the peo­ple.

Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt had faced a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in 1932 with the Wag­ner-Costigan Bill, which sought to bring the full force of fed­eral law against lynch­ing. He was doubt­ful that he could suc­cess­fully op­pose the South­ern lead­er­ship of his party, which was against the bill, and al­though he won four terms as pres­i­dent, the bill was never passed.

The engine of Obama’s elec­toral ma­chine in 2008 was the gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­i­cans that cut across the tra­di­tional lines of class and colour to unite around a de­mand for change.

A crit­i­cal weak­ness in this ma­chine was the ab­sence of or­gan­ised labour, a tra­di­tional ally of the Demo­cratic Party, which, dur­ing the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion, had one of its le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Arthur Gold­berg, ap­pointed sec­re­tary of labour. With the con­tin­ued ex­port of Amer­i­can jobs in man­u­fac­tur­ing to places like China and Mex­ico, the Amer­i­can share of global man­u­fac­tur­ing has con­tin­ued to de­cline sig­nif­i­cantly. This, along with an em­ploy­ment prac­tice that frag­ments the labour force with sub­con­trac­tors, has di­min­ished the tra­di­tional role and bar­gain­ing power of labour unions.

It hardly helped that Bill Clin­ton, who took over the chair­man­ship of the Demo­cratic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil (DLC) in

1988, fo­cused his ac­tiv­i­ties on ex­pand­ing the role of the en­tre­pre­neur­ial class in the DNC, which led Jesse Jack­son to re­fer to the DLC as “Democrats for the leisure class”.

The task of re­build­ing the re­la­tion­ship with or­gan­ised labour re­mained unat­tended. In Wis­con­sin, an in­dus­trial cen­tre and a tra­di­tional Demo­cratic strong­hold, “unions once rep­re­sented 35 per cent of the state’s work­force. To­day [2016], that fig­ure is 11 per cent”.


The cam­paign prom­ise of “change we can be­lieve in” later be­came “no drama Obama”. One ma­jor rea­son for Obama’s cau­tion was the recog­ni­tion that he could not have halted the down­ward slide of or­gan­ised labour with­out rolling back the neo-lib­eral eco­nomic poli­cies that gave cor­po­rate Amer­ica com­plete con­trol of the econ­omy and ex­tended its in­flu­ence into so­cial pol­icy as well.

The path he chose may well have been in­flu­enced by his judgement that his so­cial base would not have en­abled him to pre­vail in what would cer­tainly have be­come a war against big cap­i­tal. In the end, he chose to be a con­sen­sual pres­i­dent, and this choice in­evitably strength­ened the sta­tus quo.

Larry Sum­mers, who had been Bill Clin­ton’s sec­re­tary of the trea­sury, was brought back as chair­man of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil. He had been di­rectly linked to the poli­cies that left the door open for the ram­pant spec­u­la­tion dur­ing the pres­i­dency of George W. Bush that led to the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis. His ap­point­ment was cer­tainly ac­cept­able to Wall Street.

Another rea­son for Obama’s cau­tion was the recog­ni­tion that de­spite his elec­tion to the pres­i­dency, racism in Amer­ica was still alive and well at the high­est lev­els. As late as 1980, Ron­ald Rea­gan had cho­sen to launch his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that year in Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi, where the three civil-rights work­ers had been mur­dered by white su­prem­a­cists in 1964 for tak­ing part in the

drive to reg­is­ter black vot­ers. Many white vot­ers who were too em­bar­rassed by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion to vote Repub­li­can in 2008 sim­ply stayed home. The thought of vot­ing for an African-Amer­i­can would never have crossed their minds.


Pre­dictably, Wall Street re­cov­ered be­fore Main Street as in the first two years of Obama’s pres­i­dency (20092010), 93 per cent of the eco­nomic gains made went to the top one per cent. The re­cov­ery nei­ther en­hanced the earn­ing power of the work­ing class nor halted the con­cen­tra­tion of wealth at the top.

Neo-lib­eral poli­cies had con­trib­uted to the de­cline of Amer­ica’s share of the global man­u­fac­tur­ing mar­ket from 28 per cent in 2002 to 16.5 per cent in 2011; and even with the par­tial re­cov­ery dur­ing Obama’s sec­ond term, it only moved to 17.2 per cent.

The con­cen­tra­tion of wealth at the top gath­ered mo­men­tum, and by 2016, ac­cord­ing to CNN Money, 10 per cent at the top held 76 per cent of the wealth, while the bot­tom 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion shared one per cent of the wealth of the coun­try.

The so­cial de­te­ri­o­ra­tion that re­sulted from the de­cline of man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in tra­di­tional US in­dus­trial cen­tres brought both poverty and deep de­pres­sion. A study con­ducted by econ­o­mists at Prince­ton Univer­sity found that death rates had been go­ing up for “white Amer­i­cans age 45-54 ... es­pe­cially work­ing-class and ru­ral whites ... as a re­sult of in­creased use of opi­oids and other drugs ... liver dis­ease from drink­ing too much al­co­hol, and in­creased sui­cide rates”.

As the so­cio-eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated in the for­mer man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tres, the Demo­cratic Party lost po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal. “Be­tween 2006 and 2016, the Democrats lost nearly 1,000 seats in state leg­is­la­tures.” The trend would con­tinue into the elec­tions as the elec­torate in these “hol­lowed-out towns” would prove to be most re­cep­tive to Don­ald Trump’s plat­form rhetoric.

The rate of in­car­cer­a­tion also pro­ceeded apace, and the United States now has the largest prison pop­u­la­tion in the world as with just 4.4 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, the US in­car­cer­ates 22 per cent of the world’s pris­on­ers.

As Obama’s pres­i­dency came to an end, his ap­proval rate of 56 per cent was an in­di­ca­tion that even his “en­e­mies” had to con­cede his su­pe­ri­or­ity to his pre­de­ces­sor.

How­ever, the state of the Demo­cratic Party he was leav­ing be­hind would need a rad­i­cal re­ori­en­ta­tion if it was to com­mu­ni­cate a mes­sage of hope to ru­ral Amer­ica and re­store the sup­port of the work­ing class. Bernie San­ders, whose roots are in the work­ing class, ag­o­nised that his party could not find a way to com­mu­ni­cate with the peo­ple from whom he came.

Part Three will con­clude the se­ries next week.




Arnold Ber­tram

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