More often than not, nations, great and small, pass through a convulsion be it social and political the outcome of which is determined by the decisiveness of the actors involved, the leadership in the main. In its relatively short history, the United States has also passed through social and political convulsions that at the end of the day decided the outcome and made the country for what it is today. If what makes the US for what it is today is its own violent history marked by great political and social convulsions, then the main ones that stand out as highly significant are the genocide against the native (indigenous) population, slavery, the gold rush to California, the war of independence, the civil war, World War II and the resultant dominance in world politics and the resultant self-entitlement as the world policeman. Each of these convulsions was accompanied by political constructs that ‘rationalized’ and eulogized the social and political circumstances that prevailed thereby burying the vanquished into the ashes. Because of the specifically ferocious nature of these conflicts that ravaged the country, ideas and perspectives were polarized that demonized those of ‘the other’. Competing ideas were, more often than not, polarized to the extreme resembling binary opposites. Characterizations followed smearing this or that community or people belonging to certain social classifications. It has always been the native (indigenous) versus the European, slaves and slave-owners, the North versus South, gray versus blue coats, democrats versus republicans, liberals versus the far right. Such dichotomy has also been extended to the international level wherever the US turned up to act as the policeman; Americans versus Japs or Germans, Americans versus Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese (VC), Cubans and the list is long.
In all these developments one element missing with enormous consequences, -and as opposed to Western Europe-, on the political behaviour of US politicians is the absence of social democracy particularly after World War I. Though the social democratic movement in the US was strong in the late 19th century and up until World War I, a ruthless political war was declared on it and was later crushed with extreme violence the remnants of which was once again uprooted through the McCarthy campaign in the late 50s. The disappearance of social democracy from the mainstream US politics deprived that country of another or alternative view, if you like, that is different from those of democrats and republicans who, in the main, are not ideologically different. That was to have huge impact on not only the political process, the working of government institutions and of those state institutions involved in the area of national security, but also in the thinking of an ordinary Americans. Foreigners applying for a US visa used to be asked whether or not they are members of a Communist Party. West Europeans who also come from the traditions of liberal democracy, on the other hand, have distinct political dispensation where political bigotry does not exist significantly unlike the US. People are never persecuted for what they think in the political sense. Until their political suicide in the wake of the end of the Cold War, communist parties freely competed in European politics. In fact, Francois Mitterrand who ran on the socialist and communist ticket won the presidency in 1981. Such political dispensation has huge impact on how ordinary Europeans’ interact politically among each other and internationally.
With the end of the Cold War and with the “victory of the US”, political liberalization was expected to make headway as there was no contending super-power. On the contrary, political bigotry assumed a new proportion as the far right sought political dominance. Clinton won the presidency and a fresh resurgence of hope and optimism in world politics surfaced as a result of which a series of changes occurred at the global level. Apartheid came to an end, the Good Friday agreement ended the conflict in Northern Ireland, the erstwhile ‘unsolvable’ conflict between Palestinians and Israelis gave a promising start with the Norwegian-negotiated Oslo Accord, and the pacification of the Korean peninsula also gave a promising start with the declaration of Pyongyang’s readiness to end its nuclear programme and so on. These were the world’s political hotbeds that were on the way of getting solutions. Amazingly, the optimism that was just created started to fade away, -except the situation in South Africa,- when George W. Bush assumed the US presidency on a political plat form that was so reminiscent of the Cold War warriors such as Richard Nixon. As such, Bush renewed the antagonism that the US entered with different forces globally, a hostile policy that was completely uncalled for at the time of the optimism created during the Clinton’s presidency. The North Koreans went back to resuming their nuclear programme, the Oslo Accord went into shambles and the Middle East once again became a hotbed with the intransigence of Israelis. Incidentally, it is impossible to imagine Bush adopting a jingoist policy particularly in the Middle East without collaboration with the Israelis. With the end of the Cold War, jingoists within the Israeli ruling circles saw a good chance in further isolating Palestinians by crushing their active supporters particularly Sadam’s Iraq and Syria. Bush’s false claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were just excuse for dethroning Sadam. Then, no wonder why Syria was next. It is on the basis of such reality that one needs to examine what is going on in the US today and its involvement outside its territory.
No doubt that G. W. Bush’s presidency was one of the worst in the history of the US. It created public outrage at various levels including foreign policy and the financial crisis that threw the entire Western world in a deep economic meltdown with huge impact on the deterioration of quality of life. Western Europe, save the Scandinavian countries, resorted to a further trimming of public welfare thereby changing the character of the welfare state as we know it. This had to have huge impact on the voting pattern of the election in the US in 2008 when Barak Obama won by a landslide.
Now, we need to ponder a little bit on the historic significance of Obama’s victory. What did Obama’s victory mean? When Jesse Jackson ran for the presidency in the mid-80s, he failed to win even the democratic nomination. Within a span of two decades, the people of the US elected a black man as their president. I had always thought that because the US was built at the expense of the genocide of the native population, the surplus from the cotton plantations where unpaid slave labour was massively abused and the violence perpetrated against women, a black, indigenous and a woman would never be elected as president. Obama’s victory displayed a shift in public perception of race relations in the US. The numbers spoke for themselves; it was not just the black vote that brought Obama to the White House. In fact, a substantial vote must have come from white folks as well. That signifies an important departure from the heretofore prevailing perception about race relations in the US. What does that mean in sociological terms? It means that a social transformation has taken place, a great many people now think differently from the heretofore dominant perceptions on a number of social, political and economic issues. This is highly significant as it is perhaps for the first time that a social transformation has taken place in the US with that scale. A great many people broke from a number of perceptions that they used to hold. It should be within this context that we need to examine the significance of the changes that Obama opted to introduce. Obama’s victory was a victory of sanity over jingoism at a national scale. To that extent it constitutes social transformation.
Since the arrival of Columbus in ‘America’, the US had been beleaguered with all forms of bigotry directed against the native/indigenous (condescendingly referred to as ‘Indians’), Afro-Americans, women, Hispanics and other non-Caucasian immigrants, Jews, gays and so on. All these forms of bigotry emanate from constructs that don’t accept human beings for what they are and with what they are born. And none other than Nelson Mandela reminds us of the fact that racism and bigotry is not born but learned, socially and politically constructed. There are two fundamental elements of importance in this statement which, incidentally, Mandela himself lived up to. First, racism is learned and constructed and the hidden irrational for such constructs is either power or money. The second element is that once a person is aware of the origins and irrationality of such constructs, such a person is disposed to consider racism/bigotry as foolish, stupid and ignorance. Such ideological disposition makes an individual capable of being forgiving and never leaves any room in her/his mind to hate and bigotry. It is such ideological disposition that makes one towering over bigots and haters. That made Mandela perhaps not only the greatest freedom fighter but also the greatest statesman. No wonder he was loved by white South Africans as well. Obama was such a leader. I still remember vividly the images of those white young women weeping with joy along Jesse Jackson at Obama’s victory rally one night on November 9, 2008. Unfortunately and unlike Mandela, however, he had to pass so many hurdles erected in his way by the far right both in the Congress and outside. Now, let’s glance at these hurdles.
Obama’s major contribution to the US is mainly in the social transformation that we mentioned earlier. He stood for women and children rights. Invariably, he displayed his support for women and children and unequivocally condemned the violence against them. This was anathema to the far right that sees any liberalization at the level of thought and perception as a declaration of war against the tradition of the US. Obama affirmed gay rights and was the first president ever to endorse gay rights. For the far right and Christian fundamentalists, this was again a declaration of war on the very “morale of the American family.” The US had been one of the four diehard states that stood consistently against the recognition of the rights of indigenous communities. It sided with few powerful states and literally held the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations hostage by blocking the draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for over twenty years. It was under Obama that the US finally signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and it was Obama who stopped the construction of the controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota, the land of the native Sioux. This hit the heart of the far right. These social transformations indeed raised its wrath.
Generating social transformation is one thing but maintaining it and making it sustainable is totally a different matter and belongs to a different category in social thought. This is about strategy and tactics on the one hand and opting for which principles on the other. That is perhaps where the Democratic Party goofed paving the way for the far right to launch a come-back. As the saying goes in my native Amharic, a wounded wild animal makes a violent movement before dying. That is exactly what happened in the US after Obama’s election: enters the Sanders’ phenomenon creating a huge cleavage within the Democratic Party to the extent that Sander’s supporters refused to endorse Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. The powerful youth behind Sanders signify that not only the Republicans, even Democrats are not poised to bring the alternative to the country’s woes. Obama’s social transformation faced setback, the far right regained momentum with the support of conservative elements and voted Trump to the White House. With the help of fundamentalist churches, middle of the road voters crossed over to the Trump camp. The fact that how long this setback to Obama’s social transformation would last depends mainly on the actions of Donald Trump, a process that has already begun and moving quickly. Charlottesville turned out to be pivotal to this process. The wrath of sane America is directed against Trump as the entire political society of the US hit the roof by his statements that are non-committal to the sane values of the country.
Now, if there was ever a moment when Trump displayed his idiotismus, as the Germans would say, was Charlottesville. In a span of one week, he gave three statements one contradicting another. But, the most telling one came on Tuesday when he equated neo-Nazis and racists with those who protested against them. But, politics is not a football match where a referee says you are wrong and punish you with free kicks. This is about the US, a country that bled during the civil war in which perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and managed to abolish slavery and traversed over the years and centuries to bury the ramifications associated with slavery such racism and bigotry. These are the values of the US as a multi-racial country and constitute the foundation for its unity. No politician, let alone the president, can be indifferent to this fundamental value and principle. Neo-Nazis and other far right groups may express their views according to the US Constitution but the state and politicians can remain indifferent when they come out publicly violent. In fact, it was the duty of the state and the police in particular to bring under control these fascist thugs when they resort to violence. In Charlottesville last week, where was the police? And when members of sane America protested against the neo-Nazis, Trump comes out and says “both sides were in the wrong”. We have heard so many absurd statements and utterances by Donald Trump beginning from the days of his campaign but this one is beyond absurdity. The fact that he was so emotional when stating that “there are fine people” among the neo-Nazis speaks for itself. Donald Trump does not belong to sane America, he is on the “wrong side of history”, to use Obama’s famous expression. **************
Melakou Tegegn is a specialist on international relations and development sociologist based in Uganda.