In the U.S., we live in a kakistocracy, a society ruled by its worst elements. In this land of milk and honey, the scum rises to the top. If the Bush administration proves this poisonous point, many hope an Obama presidency will provide the antidote. In his historic campaign, “hope” has been, unsurprisingly, the mot juste, along with “change” and some other feel-good sentiments.
No doubt a healthy dose of hope and change would do the country and the world a lot of good, but I also recognize campaign rhetoric. Political campaigns have long recognized a public hunger for hope and change, which is why Jesse Jackson coined the “keep hope alive” phrase and Bill Clinton fudged his town of origin in order to be “the man from Hope, Arkansas.”
Then Clinton (who the late James Laughlin dubbed “Smiley”) betrayed his campaign promises, failed on health care, ended welfare programs, instigated mass murder against Iraq, and so on. Now, after eight more years of lies and bludgeoning from Bush’s war mongering, kleptocratic regime of gangsters, who isn’t ready for some hope and some change? Even McCain and Palin supporters seem to rest their hopes on their dynamic duo bringing some changes to Washington.
The problem is that campaign rhetoric has been completely extrapolated from reality. The Nader, Mckinney and Barr campaigns actually do offer some alternative perspectives, and some real hope and change, but they and their platforms have been ignored, except as potential spoilers to a Democratic (as opposed to democratic) victory. Obama enthusiasts tend to get annoyed or depressed when his similarities to Bush and McCain are pointed out–signing on to Paulson’s “bailout,” expanding the war in Afghanistan, genuflecting to the Israeli lobby, reauthorizing the Patriot Act, providing immunity for the telecom’s spying, and so on. But Obama is not identical to Bush and McCain, and those differences, both rhetorical and actual (such as his pro-choice stance), do matter. How much they matter depends on your perspective.
Like a lot of people, I think it would be nice to have a president who can speak in complete sentences, has lived abroad, admits to having smoked pot, and is also African American. I recognize that these are just personal qualities that appeal to some, alarm or disgust others, and have at best symbolic bearing on the political substance of an Obama/Biden presidency. Like a lot of people, I can not even bear to look at or listen to Bush, with his sneering, sniggering, blue blooded swagger. But whether it’s the egregious Bush/Cheney, the geriatric, belligerent, God-fearing McCain/ Pain, or the establishment-favorite Obama/Biden team in charge, I see that these people are largely figureheads at the prow of a lurching ship. Or to choose a more apt metaphor for this most expensive campaign in history, Obama/Biden are the label glued to a product called “America.”
In the immediate wake of what seems to be an impending Obama victory, these probably seem like saturnine, party-pooper sentiments, I know. Sorry, friends. Can something be said to impart some real hope and change?
Esperar means both “to hope” and “to wait” in Spanish. For many Latin Americans, who have withstood the onslaught of decades of dictatorships and neoliberalism, these are familiarly intertwined emotions. Real change must be fought for and built from the ground up, as events across Latin america, as well as our own history, teach us. It’s not about humbly and patiently waiting for someone to ride in on a chariot and pronounce CHANGE! It’s about diligently working to make it happen. Have we forgotten what that work looks and feels like? In spite of everything, I am somewhat hopeful, I admit. It’s not for an Obama/Biden presidency, though as I mention, for superficial reasons, they seem more tolerable than McCain/Palin. I’m hoping the groundswell of support for Obama’s campaign indicates a sea change in public sentiment in the U.S.. I hope that people do grow disenchanted with his more of the same policies, and do organize for some real change–demanding an end to these wars, stopping the Wall Street giveaway, reducing the Pentagon’s budget, investing in infrastructure, encouraging more green economy, halting off shoring, etc etc–all ideas that have popular support.
But “support” until now has not translated into organizing, into changing the institutions we currently tolerate, or starting new ones. It isn’t naive to work for that, to hope for it, to wait for it. To go on bowing before the plastic shit birds our system produces, to accept the worst, is largely a psychological issue, and in the realm of psychology, the symbolic championing of hope and change matters. It’s easy to feel discouraged, and so it’s tempting to get caught up in the rhetoric of hope.
Though we live under the rule of the worst, it doesn’t have to be that way. Exhaustion, laziness, and cynicism are our most daunting foes. Waking up to the possibilities of real hope and change means challenging leaders, and daily, difficult local work that some, but not yet enough of us do. The most hopeful aspect of Obama’s “hope and change” message might be that people see those words for what they are, and demand that whoever assumes office, some real policies justify those fragile, necessary emotions so many of us cling to.
ANDREW GEBHARDT can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org