Until recently I have been convinced that Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States. I thought it would be close, but I was pretty certain it would be Obama. Now I’m no longer certain. Obama and the Democratic Party’s mandarins are feeling the same; worried!
It is axiomatic in American politics that substantive issues are not what win elections. American presidential elections are decided by two things: hot button cultural issues which mostly are not presidential prerogatives anyway. Obama is pro-choice and McCain pro-life, but Roe v. Wade (1973) was a Supreme Court decision declaring state laws forbidding women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy unconstitutional. The president has no control over a Supreme Court decision. Even if the Court reversed itself most northern, urban states would immediately pass laws permitting this procedure and, of course, women from those states forbidding it would immediately go to those that allowed it.
The second is personality and something elusive called character. The candidate who inflicts the most damage by impugning his opponent’s character is the one who will win. In American political jargon this is referred to as “going negative” through the use of attack ads. In the academic or intellectual world, where contentious debate is normal, such tactics are referred to as ad hominem because they go after the opponent’s character instead of his argument. In the scholarly world, such ad hominem arguments are frowned upon and those who use them are considered foolish by their peers.
In the political world that is the United States, the exact opposite is the rule. Issues are completely secondary to whether a candidate can smear the other’s reputation and create fear and resentment in the voter. The reason why I’m beginning to have doubts as to the certainty of Obama’s election is that the Republicans are, by far, the experts in running negative campaigns, stretching the truth and downright lying. The Democrats have always been distinctly second to the Republicans when it comes to sleazy tactics.
Daily , 30-second, sound bite video films are produced by both campaigns and run in targeted TV media markets. These ads play to the emotions and the prejudices of the voters; never to their intelligence. As H.L Mencken once said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
These tactics are used because they work. Emotions, not brains, elect American presidents. Compared to the Republicans, the Democrats are rank amateurs at fear and sleaze. Much has been widely written about the utter dishonesty and fear pandering of the McCain-Palin campaign ads. Even a master of negativity, former Bush adviser, now political pundit, Karl Rove, remarked on TV last week that the McCain campaign was lying in some of its assertions. But that won’t make any difference. Far too many people make emotional decisions based on the TV’s visual images. They don’t read the quality press and really don’t care.
Two weeks ago two major home mortgage companies – Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – ran out of money due to reckless financial speculation and the search for quick profits over prudent loans. The US Government (meaning the American taxpayer) came to the rescue by taking over both companies. It will take an estimated $52 billion to set things right again. In the brave new world of free market capitalism, if high risk speculation works, the wealthy few get the windfall profits. If they fail – as they often do – the rich abdicate responsibility by having the taxpayer foot the bill.
This week, two of the four major American investment banks went out of business. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. Merrill Lynch was swallowed up by the world’s largest commercial bank, Bank of America, for a bargain price because it ran into a liquidity crisis. As I write, the global stock markets are plunging as many governments desperately try to stave off an outright financial panic.
This unfolding catastrophe is the logical result of nearly three decades of deregulation; better known as Reaganomics and Thatcherism. History has shown over and over again, that free market capitalism is incapable of regulating itself. The so-called self-regulating market does not work and never has. Inevitably capitalism will use any methods it can find to increase short term profits at the expense of prudent, long term growth. As Rosa Luxemburg once said about a century ago, “The choice is socialism or barbarism.” Caving in to the missionary zeal and quasi-religious obsesssions of the American free-market fanatics, the world has chosen barbarism. Now we’re paying the price.
In what is more humorous than anything else, The Church of England announced last week that it was going to issue an official apology to Charles Darwin for intentionally misunderstanding his argument for evolution by natural selection and convincing others to misunderstand it as well. Evolution by natural selection is, of course, a bedrock principle of modern science, no more disputed by any serious scientist than Newtonian gravity or Galilean heliocentrism.
Evolution, of course, is one of those hot button issues I mention above that bedevil American politics. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate, thinks creationism, should be taught alongside serious biology in science classes. Creationism is a religious belief and should be taught in religion classes; science in science classes.
The friend who sent me the article about Darwin, a British-American who teaches at the University of South Carolina, added the quip that “Next they’ll be apologizing to Marx.” Given the nature of the current financial crisis on Wall Street such an admission might come sooner than either of us thought.
Just as I’ve suggested previously, and the Russian insisted all along they would do, Moscow is pulling its troops out of Georgia into the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Americans continue to push an aggressive anti-Russian policy that makes its European allies nervous to say the least. And the Americans are doing their best to re-arm Georgia and its emotionally volatile president, Mikhail Saakashvili, as quickly as possible. The virulent Russophobe, John McCain, is doing his best to inject the Caucasian crisis into the campaign. In the meantime, Sarah Palin is straining her eyes to see Russia across the Northern Pacific from her front porch in Alaska. Geopolitics at its best.
South African President, Thabo Mbeki, is doing his best to save his political skin by negotiating a settlement of the political crisis in Zimbabwe. One more example of politicians using external events for domestic purposes.
Jacob Zuma, coming from the populist left wing of the ANC, had the criminal charges of corruption against him thrown out by a South African appellate court last week. Last year, Zuma defeated Mbeki for the ANC leadership in a heated internal political contest. Mbeki’s Presidential term is up next year and Zuma appears to have a clear path to succeeding him. Deprived of both the presidency and that of ANC party chief, Mbeki looks ready to slide into political oblivion.
The court’s decision throwing out the charges against Zuma was based on inappropriate political influence being used to prefer the charges in the first place. It seems the court blamed Mbeki for this rather crude attempt to get rid of his political rival. The calls from within and without the ANC for Mbeki’s resignation a year before his term is up have increased radically with the embarrassment of the court’s finding. There’s no chance the ANC will lose power in upcoming elections, but this could signal a weakening of its near total dominance of South Africa’s political life.
In the meantime, in the glare of international publicity, Mbeki has negotiated a settlement between King Robert of Zimbabwe, his ZANU-PF gang and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai. I’m sure he’ll have someone arrange for him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Puhleeeeeze! Mbeki is neither Desmond Tutu nor Nelson Mandela, as much as he aspires to such a status.
I have not read the details of the settlement yet, but from the brief accounts I’ve seen, Tsvangirai gave up his principles in exchange for a prominent office; that of the newly created Prime Minister. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF thugs retain the real power positions. This is not the first time that King Robert has outmaneuvered his opponents. Those with long memories can remember figures from Joshua Nkomo to Abel Muzorewa to Ndabaningi Sithole. We’ll have to wait and see, but I see few improvements.