Paradigm Shift In American Politics: Implications For The Caribbean
by Indira Rampersad
Guyana Journal, November 2008
Congratulations continue to pour from around the world in an effervescent bubble of endorsement for the historic victory of President elect, Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States. As the cathartic celebrations continue in a wild burst of Obamamania around the globe, political analysts frantically search for explanations for what appears to be a drastic paradigm shift in American politics.
The enormity of this phenomenon is not lost to the world as millions extol American democracy and applaud the American people for their maturity in finally transcending the racial rubicon. What is surprising is the contagious bout of Obamamania giddily gushing out of the White world even as Obama’s victory augurs the transformation of White Anglo-Saxon supremacy in American politics. Naturally, this raises questions about whether the world itself has changed; whether the American people have undergone a makeover; or whether it was sheer luck and Obama happened to be in the right place at the right time to carry the torch.
Certainly, this paradigm shift in American politics cannot simply be attributed to a sudden change in racial attitudes which impacted ethnic voting patterns. Rather, one can argue that it is a confluence of international, national and sub-national forces which produced the political opportunity structures engendering the powerful rally around Obama and climaxing in a combustive burst of support for his election as the 44th President of the United States.
The international forces can be temporally located in the context of the current post-Cold War era when the onslaught of globalization has resulted in complex interdependence through faster, deeper, thicker, wider and denser interactions between states, societies and individuals. The blurring of borders through increased immigration, strides in communication and information technology and the transnationalism of international business, banking and finance, have created a global village with new social, economic and political configurations. Obama’s ethnic composition and background itself represents the result of such transnationalism. Though his particular case precedes the globalization era, he is actually a product of the times through his peculiar upbringing as the son of a White American mother and a Black Kenyan father, raised in Indonesia.
Perceived as a kind of modern, transnational, renaissance man, he holds tremendous appeal to the international community and American youths and immigrants, the latter themselves products of globalization. A somewhat ignored dimension of the ethnic factor is that his enormous popularity amongst White Americans may be attributed to the fact that he has a White American mother with whom they identify. This naturally provokes the question of whether Obama would have won the Presidency if he were the typical African-American kid born of two Black parents in the United States!
At the national level, much of Obama’s success can be attributed to the abject failure of George W. Bush in both the foreign and domestic policy arenas. The inability of John McCain to distance himself from the incumbent President having supported most of his policies of the last eight years, created a “McBush” phenomenon in which McCain became entangled, with no possibility of escape. His confrontational and antagonistic foreign policy proposals for Iraq, Iran, the War on Terror, Cuba and Venezuela, amongst others, threaten to intensify the New Global Disorder. They mirror the Pax-Americana of George W. Bush which has heightened an already potent anti-Americanism in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Both the international community and the American public are fed-up if not disgusted with the same ole, same ole Bush policies which McCain represents.
Compounding the McBush factor is the very recent crash of the U.S. financial sector which produced a window of political opportunity for the Democrats who very quickly and skillfully packaged and marketed Obama as the Messiah who would save the economy. The financial crash in the U.S. is undoubtedly the most powerful domestic factor accounting for Obama’s victory. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, recently explained in an interview with CNN that whenever there is an economic decline, there follows a change in administration in the United States.
Indeed, this was even evident in Trinidad and Tobago where ethnic voting is the order of the day. In 1986, the economic and political conditions were ripe for change when like many developing countries, the island suffered the negative impact of a global recession which ushered the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) coalition into power, toppling the then incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) with a landslide 33 to 3 victory. The NAR’s subsequent implementation of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs with its accompanying stringent conditionalities, combined with the fragmentation of the shaky coalition, saw the PNM returning to power in 1991. By voting against the PNM in 1986, Afro-Trinidadians had not transcended the racial rubicon but had simply responded to the economic recession. Could this also be the case in the United States? How would the White American electorate respond in the 2012 election if after four years in power Obama fails to restore the American economy?
Obama’s ability to convincingly articulate rhetoric laden with solutions for the devastated economy in campaign speeches and debates against McCain quickly won him support from many Americans who were directly or indirectly affected by the financial crash. His proposals for health care, taxation, education and welfare strongly appealed to less privileged minorities including African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous Indians, winning him battleground states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
Moreover, the Democratic party skillfully managed a campaign in which money, message and strategy converged to appeal to millions of voters across the United States. Amassing an unprecedented US$600 million in campaign financing, the party tirelessly worked the battleground states using modern technology like the Internet and cellular phones to attract both global financing and remote voters throughout the country. The clarion call for change resonated deafeningly across the world as day after day, Obama blasted the failed domestic and foreign policies of the incumbent Republican administration as the possibility of four years under “McBush” loomed frighteningly ahead.
At the individual level, Obama’s outstanding persona certainly found favor with the American electorate. Juxtaposed against the aging and monotonous McCain, a nice, amiable grandpa, but no match for the political savvy of the young, charismatic, and dynamic Illinois Senator whose rhetorical skills and sincere demeanor won the hearts and minds of millions around the globe. Collin Powell describes him as a “transformative figure,” noting that he has “displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and approach to looking at problems that warranted the support of the American electorate”. Even before the economic crash, Obama’s persona outshone McCain’s which raises the question of whether he would have still won the elections if there was no financial crisis.
Responses from the Region
Euphoria is gushing in the region amongst Caribbean leaders, many of whom have been vigorously rooting for Obama throughout the campaign. While showering him with congratulations and praise, several have seized the opportunity to express their high expectations for improved U.S.-Caribbean relations. Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, who is also chairman of CARICOM, actually announced a plan to change the name of the twin-island nation’s highest mountain peak, Boggy Peak, to Mount Obama. St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister, Dr. Denzil Douglas, proposes issues to be re-examined by the new administration, among them U.S.-Caribbean relations. He hopes that Obama will give Caribbean leaders the opportunity to dialogue and reshape existing policies to the mutual benefit of the Caribbean and the United States. Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, hopes that developing countries like his and the rest of the region, “so often left on the periphery of the global agenda, will be part of the foreign policy framework, which recognizes that shared, broad-based development is the surest way to secure and maintain global prosperity and stability.”
Prime Minister David Thompson of Barbados aims to forge closer ties between his country and the U.S, as well as discussions with the new leader. “I look forward to meeting with you and members of your administration at the earliest opportunity to explore ways in which we can work together with the international community to respond to the global challenges of poverty, security and environmental concerns which call for immediate and concerted effort by all.” President Bharat Jagdeo of Guyana is also looking forward to working with Obama. He had endorsed Obama even before the victory and now affirms that Guyana is “very excited about the prospect of change in the United States”. Grenada’s Prime Minister, Tillman Thomas, expresses the belief that Obama’s intentions and promises made over the past few months were sincere and he was therefore confident the new leader would rise to domestic and global challenges. Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago is hoping that Obama will be in a position to announce a favorable package for the Caribbean when he comes to Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas next April. Manning also expresses hope for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., “since many felt that the current relationship between the two countries was a relic of a very distant past and should have been addressed a long time ago”.
The same kind of high expectations are emanating from Latin America given the hostile confrontation between George W. Bush and leaders of the New Left in the region. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who often rile against the U.S. empire, said they stood ready to improve their strained relations with Washington after President Bush leaves office. Chávez is open to “new relations” aimed at launching a “constructive bilateral agenda,” while Morales is “certain” that Obama “will improve relations ... “We salute the grand triumph of Mr. Obama.” Although there is no official word from Cuba, former Cuban President, Fidel Castro, stopped short of endorsing Obama but did praise him as being “surely more clever, better educated and calm than his Republican adversary … He has well articulated ideas” and his election would reduce the danger of war and “increase the peoples’ opportunities to progress” that a McCain victory would hamper.
Implications for the Caribbean
At the societal level, Afro-Caribbean nationals have been fizzing with excitement over Obama’s victory in the deep sense of pride that finally, an ethnic look-alike has attained one of the highest political positions in the world. Obama’s rise to the Presidency is a success story which provides an example for many young, aspiring Afro-Caribbean nationals.
But Caribbean citizens need to be realistic about their expectations since currently the region is by no means a priority on the American foreign policy agenda. Since the end of the Cold War and the September 11 terrorist attack, the Caribbean has been sidelined in favor of the Middle East and, to some extent Asia, given the U.S. extensive trade and investment relations with that continent. Moreover, the Caribbean diaspora in the United States has never organized itself into an effective lobby as have other groups such as the small but powerful Cuban-American community based in South Florida.
Economists are already wary that an Obama presidency may have an adverse impact on the region. Trinidad and Tobago is particularly concerned given Obama’s drive toward energy independence. The United States accounts for about 70 percent of the island’s LNG market, 70 per cent of its methanol market and 55 percent of its ammonia market. Trinidad and Tobago earns most of its revenues from its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) sales and is the largest exporter of the product to the U.S. But energy Minister, Conrad Enill, insists that a new Barack Obama-led administration in the United States would not result in any significant change in its energy-sector relationship with Trinidad and Tobago in the short or long-term. According to Enill, those LNG exports are governed by contractual arrangements that will not change because Obama has now become America’s 44th president.
Nonetheless, Obama’s presidency does not promise miracles for the Caribbean. He has inherited a devastated economy, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and already consolidated contractual agreements with foreign governments. Moreover, he faces numerous foreign policy constraints imposed by limited resources, domestic interest groups, ethnic watchdogs, American bureaucracy, and the international community. Thus, Caribbean nationals at home and abroad should not be too hopeful that he will be able resolve the critical issues of crime, poverty, economic recession and regularization of illegal immigrants, overnight.
Neither should they expect a sudden improvement in race relations in the United States. While Obama’s Presidential victory suggests that Americans have made significant strides in the last fifty years, it does not imply that racism has disappeared in the United States or that it would never rear its ugly head again under an African-American President. The national results show the Republicans winning 46% of the votes and Obama losing by more votes than John Kerry did in 2004 in some of the Southern red states indicating that the race factor is not a thing of the past.
Indeed, there could be a serious backlash if White Americans choose to ignore entrenched racial divisions while claiming that America has reached the racial Promised Land. One African-American asserts that “a monumental success for one black man might simultaneously become a setback for the whole race,” because “a black president means that America no longer has any race problem to talk about. It would mean there is no longer any special debt to African Americans to be repaid!” The big question is whether Obama’s victory would bring an end to the continued demands for post-colonial reparations from Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean citizens and the implications of this for their social and economic progress.
Moreover, there are invaluable political lessons to be learned from Obama’s victory in the Anglo-Caribbean, particularly in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana where ethnic voting patterns predominate. Ironically, while citizens in these countries were vigorously rooting for Obama, hoping that White Americans will overcome their racial prejudices, they themselves persistently revert to tribalism in their political choices. Hopefully, Obama’s victory would contribute to shifting the paradigm in these countries as voters opt for leaders who can make meaningful contributions to Caribbean society, polity and economy, irrespective of ethnic background. This is perhaps the greatest challenge that Obama’s Presidency can offer to the Caribbean electorate.
There is no single explanation for Obama’s victory but it certainly cannot simply be attributed to a sudden transcendence of the racial rubicon by White Americans. As noted, a myriad of international, national and sub-national forces converged to produce the historic feat.
But it is only after the dust has settled and the honeymoon is over that the true implications of an Obama presidency can be properly assessed.
Dr. Indira Rampersad is a Lecturer in Political Science/International Relations at the Department of Behavioural Sciences, UWI, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago.