Why the 2012 US Presidential election matters

An interview has been published in Open Democracy with Professor Theda Skocpol, from the Kennedy School of Public Policy at Harvard University, about the forthcoming 2012 US Presidential election. Skocpol is known to many for her pioneering work on state theory, which established public policy as an important variable in progressive politics, and rejected the determinism of Marxist state theory, noting the active role played by state agencies as political actors in their own right. More recently, she has authored The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. This interview was originally published in Juncture, the online journal of the UK-based Institute for Public Policy Research.

Assessing the Obama Presidency:

We have to talk about Obama and the Democratic party in Congress – they arrived together and that’s what created a chance to change direction in American public policy. I think that they accomplished quite a lot given the enormity of the simultaneous crises they were facing – first the financial crash and then the recession that engulfed Main Street. You can certainly argue that Obama was caught in the trap of trying to save the financial system and did not explain to Americans sufficiently well the need for a bold recovery policy, and he didn’t focus perhaps enough on job creation. But he did get through, with the aid of the Democrats in Congress, a stimulus programme that saved the US economy and probably the world economy from a plunge into a great depression. He saved the American automobile industry, which has really turned out to be quite a triumph and very important to the social and economic fabric of the midwestern states.

He and the Democrats also fashioned an historic and important healthcare reform. It is hugely complicated and yet another one of these things where you send the Congress people off to reach a 1,400-page deal that nobody can understand. And people will make fun of Obama if the Supreme Court – the five right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court – turns the Affordable Care Act into ashes. But I think that they did a gargantuan job in getting it through in the face of extreme obstruction. They have faced a level of obstruction from the ‘out party’ – the Republicans – that has not existed in American politics since the era before the civil war.

Could Obama have been bolder? Partly yes and partly no. The 2008 campaign was unusually bold for an American Democrat – Obama spoke about the need to raise taxes on the rich and he has never flinched from that. That does not sound like much – it actually isn’t much, given the historic increases in wealth and income inequalities in the US – but by the standards of the US Democratic party, which has been wimpy in the extreme on these issues, he did articulate important themes which he has stuck to. When his efforts to compromise were spurned for the 100th time, and when they squeaked by in that very radical moment in the summer when a significant group of right-wing Republicans were prepared to not raise the debt ceiling – which would have had catastrophic consequences – he began to articulate a clearer contrast with the Republicans. I think he is going to stick with that through to the election, as he gives up on his earlier efforts at bipartisanship. This coming election is going to be one of the most clear on issues of socioeconomic inequality and distribution and taxes of any that we have had in the US in a long time.

On the Tea Party and the Republicans:

Well the Republican Presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, who will be the nominee, have all explicitly endorsed both grassroots and elite Tea Party priorities. Getting rid of healthcare reform, or at least eviscerating it if they can’t get the lot off the books; cracking down on immigration: illegal immigrants who are here as well as those who might enter; cutting taxes further on the very wealthy, and privatising social security and Medicare – these have all been signed up to. They are breathtakingly radical stands. If Romney is elected he will probably be there with a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House and in the first three months he will sign bills that destroy healthcare reform, push privatisation of social security and Medicare, and cut taxes. In many ways he is the ideal Tea Party candidate – electable, but someone who will deliver their agenda.

If Obama wins, clearly it’ll be different. Grassroots Tea Partiers are angry and afraid of Obama for all kinds of reasons, which have cultural as well as economic sides to them. The elite Tea Party forces are extremely worried about the survival of any kind of tax or social policies which could appeal to the American middle class and build Democratic party coalitions over time. But if he is re-elected, they will have to deal with him. There may be deals around taxes and the budget, and it is possible that if re-elected Obama’s moderate tendencies will come to the fore again, especially as he’ll have to deal with immediate issues about tax cuts, spending and the debt ceiling. So I expect Tea Party forces, if not necessarily the label, to continue to play a role, but that role will be quite different depending on whether it is a Republican who is elected or Obama …

there are forces on the right who understand that they are close to their last chance – to use an American football analogy, it’s in the final two minutes and they have got to get that ball down the field and score a touchdown. They understand the importance of this election much better than the befuddled people on my side. They understand that if they can destroy or eviscerate healthcare reform, if they can change social security and Medicare for future generations (they will grandfather and grandmother the Tea Partiers, but they want to change them for people 55 and younger) then they can turn afterwards to making an appeal to the growing Latino population and to the younger generation around somewhat more free-market principles.

After this election they’ll have to change – they’ll have to give up some of their ‘dead-endism’ over their opposition to gay marriage for example. Republican elites already understand that. But by winning they could very well buy themselves five to 10 years to make this shift, because they’ll be associated with whatever economic recovery occurs and they will have destroyed policies that could have built political identities and coalitions which they understand would have been a threat.

On the Occupy movement:

Occupy was initially successful in putting inequality on the media agenda – this success was in some ways comparable to the thematic agenda-setting role the Tea Party achieved in its first year. Occupy helped to change the conversation about inequality. But it has shown no signs of organising for the long run. Setting up tent cities was the kind of tactic that could work for six weeks and then you really had to move on. The tent cities were always going to be moved into by all kinds of strange people who were going to change their image and, to my knowledge, Occupy hasn’t come up with any other strategy for organisation. Unlike the Tea Party, they’re not interested in using the formal political process to achieve their goals. I know for an empirical fact that many involved in Occupy did not vote in the last election even though they consider themselves centre-left. They definitely are not thinking of the Democratic party as something they can remake into an instrument, in the way the Tea Party thinks of the Republican party. This is a major mistake. If you don’t vote and you don’t give money and you don’t affect the chances of these politicians, then they’re not going to pay much attention to you. Why should they?

A new broad-based progressive coalition?

I have talked about the need for a new ‘national greatness liberalism’, which would mean investment in education, infrastructure and extending our social protections to working-age families. There obviously needs to be a big push on job creation and new industries and we may be able to make some progress on environmental issues by investing in new energy sources. This would respond to Americans’ concerns that in the 21st century the US is falling behind the international competition – they worry that a once-leading nation is headed for ‘has been’ status. But the core of this left renaissance has to be around bread and butter issues like living standards, with an understanding that new relationships between the genders and workplace and family are also important.

There are some seeds. Take paid family and medical leave: that’s a policy that is broadly appealing and has the chance of bridging between the needs of the poor and the needs of the middle class that you require to build a strong majority coalition. We need more of these policies that build such coalitions. We must also speak consistently about what it will take to build a strong national economy in the future – the kinds of investments in people, communications facilities and public institutions we require …

Part of the answer is emphasising job creation and investment in new industries as a way of increasing government revenues – economic growth will help. But there is still a bigger issue of how we create a more sustainable tax system. And it’s not the case that we can only tax the rich to solve these problems. In the US we have to tax the rich because we really have super-duper rich people who keep getting richer, and they use a small fraction of their income to then buy elections. So we have to establish the principle that they need to pay a bit more.

But when all is said and done, we are going to have to have an honest conversation about taxes in general and re-establish the idea, in my view, that broad-based taxes which everybody pays and everybody benefits from are the best way to build a centre-left democracy. We did it with social security in this country – we should be using that payroll tax model for a broader set of needs now. You are hearing this from me, but many on the left would not agree. They don’t like to talk about making anyone but billionaires pay. I’m all for making billionaires pay, but I just do not think they have enough to do the job.

The future of teh Democratic Party:

Part of what Obama has been trying to do is re-establish some civility and some faith and some sense of participation. But it’s an uphill battle, and he hasn’t paid enough attention to the fact that we are going to need to re-establish the quality of the Democratic party: the people who run for office, what they are prepared to stand for, who they are prepared to stand with, who they are prepared to organise with.

There are some bright spots. Take a look at the courage of the Democrats in Wisconsin where Republican governor Scott Walker is facing a recall election after his assault on the unions. The national Democratic party does not necessarily want this kind of thing, but these are Democrats who came out of the labour movement, who decided they were going to take a stand and who have used every lever at their disposal. They are fighting, and whether they win or not matters a lot …

I am also quite certain that money alone is not the problem. Sure, we are going to see up to $1 billion spent trying to smear Obama later this year, but this is not the key to US politics. I think that the key is finding a way to broaden the base of people contributing money and to get people organised and able to communicate and understand. To a degree the Tea Partiers did that among themselves, even if their understandings are not factually anchored in some ways. Something similar has to happen more broadly in and around the Democratic party. It’s going to take a renovation of the Democratic party.

Why the 2012 elections matter?

this is a turning-point election – this is one of the most important elections in American history coming up, not because Obama is some world-striding superman but because he has slightly turned the direction of the nation and the Democratic party, and if his turn is overturned at a critical juncture there may not come another opportunity for a while, and by then the identities and the interests may not be exactly the same.

I think the 2012 election is going to be one of the most riveting, most hard-fought no-holds-barred elections in US political history – and that says something.

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About Terry Flew

I am Professor of Media and Communication in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. I am the author of New Media: An Introduction, the fourth edition of which was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. I am also the author of Understanding Global Media, published by Palgrave in 2007, and The Creative Industries, Culture and Policy, published by Sage in 2012.