How would an Obama presidency
On social movements: Expect greater success for activists, but how much?
BY JUDY REBICK
I am astonished by how many progressive Canadians and Americans I meet who have fallen in love with Barack Obama and believe he is going to make massive changes to the U.S. government. Falling in love often leads to disillusionment, especially in politics. If you have no illusions, you can’t be disillusioned. What has been characterized as Obama’s slide to the right that has so infuriated many of his supporters didn’t surprise me. The importance of Obama’s campaign is not that he is a left-winger; John Edwards is much further left. It is not that he has progressive policies, because his policies are no better—and even a little worse on some questions—than Hillary Clinton’s. And it is not only because he has an excellent chance of becoming the fi rst African-American president of the United States, which in and of itself would be a good enough reason to support him. It is because his campaign has widened the democratic space in the U.S. by a country mile or maybe more.
Barack Obama is a new breed of politician, one who learned from the experience of American social movements over the last decade. Under the radar of the mainstream media, a huge network of grassroots organizations has emerged at a local and regional level, organizing workers and poor people using techniques they call base-building. People are organized around a plethora of issues from defending the rights of groups under attack, such as immigrants, gays, women and workers, to developing visions for the future, such as the campaign to reclaim cities from upscale renewal, and to end the war in Iraq.
Much of the leadership of these new movements is women and people of colour. Obama worked with just such organizations in Chicago at the beginning of his career and his rhetoric reflects their sensibilities. Unlike almost every other politician, Obama never says, “Vote for me and I will do this or that.” Instead he talks about what we can do together. This is the language of a movement leader.
In the U.S. there is a complex relationship between grassroots and mainstream politics. Unlike in Canada, American social-movement groups make no pretense of non-partisanship. While they might be critical of the Democrats, all but the most radical mobilize for them during an election. But what is most important about Obama is that he has reached well beyond these organized forces into a whole layer of youth who have been completely alienated from the electoral process. His honesty, his charisma, his ability to speak genuinely from the heart have cracked the cynicism of millions of Americans, and, as Leonard Cohen would say, it is through the cracks that the light comes in. What is most important about Barack Obama is that he has inspired millions of Americans to believe that democratic change is possible. He has given people hope to replace their despair.
As a result, the pool in which social movements can swim has just gone from the backyard to Olympic size. One example already is the response to the Green for All campaign being organized by a coalition of African-American community organizers and student environmental activists with the goal of creating 5 million green jobs. The focus is to raise billions for projects ranging from the greening of the south Bronx to developing alternative sustainable energy such as wind power and providing jobs to the marginalized and unemployed. Obama adopted the demand and Green for All has already succeeded in getting the fi rst step in legislation. The most savvy American activists I know understand the complicated dance required by Obama’s campaign: support him critically and use the campaign to put forward the issues and struggles that are most important to poor and working-class Americans. It is not only that they can more easily get Obama’s ear, but, more importantly, as the dominant classes move slightly left, the space for progressive ideas widens considerably in the mainstream.
Whether or not he is as open as he looks is not the issue. Nothing has ever changed in my lifetime without the pressure of social movements. As much as political parties want us to believe they were responsible for advances like medicare and women’s rights, each of these ideas was put forward fi rst by social organizations. Only the social movements fi ghting against war and for equality, justice and sustainability will change anything in the United States. With Barack Obama in the White House, their struggles will have much more space to be effective.
For Canadian activists it means a lot. The stronger and more visible U.S. social movements are, the better the climate in Canada for change, too. Cross-border collaborations are increasing by the day. For example, three cross-border groups— Rainforest Action Network, ForestEthics and the Indigenous Environmental Network—were important players in the support for Bob Lovelace and the KI 6, a victorious battle this past spring to free Aboriginal leaders jailed for protecting their land against development. Partly because of their marginalization from power, American social groups have been much more successful at organizing at a grassroots level with poor and working people than we have north of the border. Just maybe we can learn some things from them.
On election campaigns: Expect Jack Layton to friend you on Facebook, and other surprises
BY JORDAN HEATH-RAWLINGS
While Barack Obama’s campaign is redrawing the electoral playbook, Canadian political strategists are paying close attention to the Xs and Os. Both the New Democratic and the Liberal parties had members working as volunteers on Obama’s primary campaign this spring.
Some of those volunteers will report back to their parties with ideas gleaned from Obama’s staff, and political strategists will add them to the list of notes they’ve been taking while the Obama campaign has gathered steam.
Canadian and American politics may be different—our parties can’t spend an unlimited amount of money, we prefer leadership conventions to extended primary campaigns when choosing candidates and we aren’t recovering from a terrorist attack and waging a war in Iraq— but the fundamentals don’t change.
Those fundamentals boil down to two things: money and volunteers. Obama has secured both in almost unprecedented numbers, and Canadian politicians of all stripes can point to similar challenges they face that the Obama campaign has found ways to surmount. The Conservative Party is keeping its eye on Obama’s bid for the White House, though the party’s director of communication, Ryan Sparrow, says the Conservatives are waiting to see the results of the November election before rushing to adopt any of its strategies.
The Liberal party, which has traditionally relied on now-forbidden corporate donations, is eyeing Obama’s grassroots fundraising success more greedily than its competitors, who have depended more on individual fundraising among party members.
But Obama’s fundraising during the primary season would turn the heads of any party strategists. Campaign contributions had netted him more than $330 million as of July 1. In June alone, Obama took in $52 million. The average donation was just $68. Almost all of that came via the internet.
“[He’s] the new paradigm when it comes to raising money in Canadian politics: getting small amounts from a large number of people,” says recently elected Liberal Party president Doug Ferguson. “It’s fascinating how he’s used the internet.”
The presumptive Democratic nominee’s web savvy has fi lled more than his campaign coffers. It has also provided him with something equally valuable in a hard-fought race: a network of hundreds of thousands of ready volunteers.
Nammi Poorooshasb, assistant director of communications for the NDP, got a firsthand look at this in late June, when the NDP sent him to New York City for the Personal Democracy Forum, which featured a sit-down discussion with the directors of e-campaigns from most of the presidential candidates.
Poorooshasb was hoping to pick up a few pointers for his party. He returned to Ottawa realizing that simply having a website that reaches out to voters who choose to visit isn’t enough. You have to put yourself and your party’s message in the places they visit. Voters didn’t have to find Obama online. He found them.
Whether it’s an email from a friend, a group somebody joined on Facebook, one of hundreds of YouTube clips of Obama speaking or an ad purchased by the campaign on CNN.com, the online presence of the Obama campaign has been inescapable.
“One of the things we’ve defi nitely learned, and we’re working to adapt to our own work, is the philosophy that it’s important to occupy as much space as possible online,” says Poorooshasb.
Obama urged his supporters (via an online video, of course) to “use this website as a tool to organize your friends, your neighbours and your networks … take campaign fundraising into your own hands.”
“It’s a very smart, very intelligent way to use the internet for organizing,” says Ian Capstick, press secretary for the federal NDP. “It’s Campaign Web 2.0 instead of 1.0.”
Win or lose, Obama’s forever changed the way the game is played.
On the oil sands: Expect a slight decrease in U.S. demand
BY DRU OJA JAY
In a June 24, 2008, speech, Barack Obama posed an important question, and one with signifi cant implications for Canada’s tar sands: “Each and every year, we become more, not less, addicted to oil—a 19th century fossil fuel that is dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive. Why?”
Obama didn’t answer his rhetorical question, but his comments caused a stir among Canadian tar-sands advocates, who worried that a change in U.S. policy might hurt what has so far been a bonanza of constant expansion. Obama’s top energy advisor, Jason Grumet, stoked these concerns by suggesting that worries about climate change may trump use of fuels derived from emissions-intensive sources like the tar sands, which may not “play a growing role in the long-term future.”
Rival candidate John McCain, like Obama, supports California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low-carbon fuel standard, which the right-wing Washington Times notes would “force U.S. refi ners to buy less American and Canadian oil—which come increasingly from dirty sources like shale and tar sands.”
If a consensus is emerging around curbing carbon emissions and environmental destruction, then opposing extraction from Alberta’s tar sands is the equivalent of campaigning on puppies and sunshine.
Extracting the available oil from Alberta’s tar sands will despoil an area the size of Florida, destroy entire rivers, cause an increase in carbon emissions that will likely make it impossible to meet Kyoto targets and contribute to ecological devastation clear to the Arctic Ocean. Already, cancer rates have mushroomed in indigenous communities downstream from the tar sands, and vast areas have been stripped of all surface life. Toxic lakes many kilometres in diameter and vast deserts of toxic waste sand have replaced pristine boreal forest.
Under the Bush administration, the tar sands have been increasingly treated as a backup plan for energy security as plans in the Middle East have gone awry. Whether tar sands take a diminishing role or not depends on what replaces Canada’s “dirty oil.”
For Obama, the long-term answer is a cap on carbon emissions and increased use of domestically produced biofuel. For McCain, it is a cap on carbon emissions and a stronger military presence in the Middle East, where extraction of oil is not as energy intensive.
Obama’s ethanol-friendly energy policies may not be implemented, even if he is elected. Despite claiming to not take money from oil companies (which are not allowed to donate to candidates), Obama has so far accepted $346,150 in donations from oil industry figures, while McCain has accepted $971,418, according to the organization Oil Change International. That money represents favours that can be called in once one of the candidates enters the White House.
In terms of stopping the damaging effects of tar-sands extraction, a best-case Obama-is-elected scenario might result in a slight lessening of U.S. pressure to extract oil from the tar sands at a breakneck pace. However, with potential tarsands customers like China being held at bay by tight U.S.-Canada ties, but ready to step in if the U.S. were to back away, the only force truly able to prevent the damage is pressure from affected communities, social movements and the general public. Or a collapse of the global demand for oil.
On Afghanistan: Expect pressure for an increase in Canadian troops
BY MICHAEL BYERS
I’m relieved at the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency.
The neoconservatives will lose their grip on power. To some significant degree, the needless destruction, the horrors of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the disdainful, deceitful approach to diplomacy, will end.
There is no doubt that Obama will be a better president than George W. Bush. His racially mixed background and years spent living abroad have created a capacity for empathy that is almost unique in American political history. This man sees the citizens of other countries as human beings, not pawns on a geopolitical chessboard.
People elsewhere see Obama differently, too. The election of a man of colour whose middle name is Hussein will cause millions, especially in the Muslim world, to reassess their assumptions about the United States.
But let’s not get too excited. Many people, including many progressive Americans, will disagree strongly with at least some of Obama’s actions on the world stage.
He will inherit a country that spends more on its military than all other countries combined. The military-industrial complex will do its best to influence the new president and, to some degree, it will succeed. New weapons systems will be built, foreign bases maintained, and military aid will remain a central feature of American diplomacy.
It’s sometimes said that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Being given control over a massive military inevitably causes a rethink of foreign policy options, even if cooler heads prevail.
Some of Obama’s foreign-policy advisers will actively encourage militaristic thinking. Susan Rice, a former adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, shares her mentor’s view of the United States as the “indispensable power,” a position earned through the acquisition of overwhelming military might.
With John McCain playing up his military experience, Obama has responded by threatening Iran and promising to move more troops to Afghanistan.
The focus on Afghanistan is seen as a necessary alternative to Iraq. Obama is committed to a withdrawal from Iraq because it’s the right policy, and because it gives him a key point of distinction from McCain. But he will not risk being seen as giving up the post-9/11 fight.
Fortunately for Canadians, Jean Chrétien’s decision to keep us out of Iraq saves us from this dilemma, enabling principled politicians like Jack Layton to insist that our troops be brought home.
Obama might in fact share this view, even if he feels unable to express it. The problem, however, is that even electorally motivated policies can acquire a momentum that outlives the campaign.
This is especially the case with a first-term president who will, as soon as the election is over, begin thinking about November 2012. Wary of being accused of a flip-flop, Obama will shift direction on Afghanistan only cautiously.
During a foreign policy speech in July, Obama said, “It’s time to strengthen NATO by asking more of our allies, while always approaching them with the respect owed a partner.” He didn’t specifically mention Canada, but a request from this country to do more in Afghanistan is to be expected.
It’s the perfect time for Canada to weigh in, but not in favour of more militarism. Our soldiers have carried the heaviest burden, suffering the highest casualty rate of any county. It is unfair to expect more of them. It’s time to give the Canadian Forces a break, and focus on diplomacy and development instead.
Politicians and pundits will fume that Canada is abandoning its NATO allies at the very moment a U.S.-led “surge” is about to begin. That position ignores the hard lessons of close to 100 lost Canadian lives. The war in Afghanistan has become just as futile and foolish as the war in Iraq. The faster Americans realize this, the better for everyone concerned.
On NAFTA: Expect further waffling, wiggling and wallowing
BY GARRETT ZEHR
As Canadians know, Barack Obama’s position on free trade is a slippery one.
In a rare role reversal, Canada made headlines in the United States back in February following the release of a memo suggesting that Obama’s campaign-trail NAFTA-bashing was little more than political posturing for the sake of the protectionist states in the Midwest that are watching their manufacturing industries collapse.
In a debate the week prior, Obama had threatened to pull out of NAFTA if Canada and Mexico were not willing to renegotiate the deal with improved labour and environmental standards. This left NAFTA naysayers giddy with hope that an Obama presidency would also mean a meaningful rewrite to the deal, which has delivered job losses and weaker environmental protections and undermined democracy by giving corporations legal authority, rather than providing the prosperity promised when it was signed 15 years ago.
That hope was short-lived, however, as news emerged that Obama’s chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, had allegedly told the Canadian consulate in Chicago that the comments were merely campaign protectionist rhetoric. Dubbed NAFTAgate by the mainstream media, the incident dulled any hope of fundamental change to trade on this continent and may have cost Obama a victory in the Ohio primary.
As it is for the NDP in Canada, NAFTA is seen as a vote getter for certain democratic demographics south of the border. Bill Clinton campaigned on revising the agreement, negotiated under George W. Bush, but passed it unamended soon after settling into the White House.
Obama too has hyped the anti-NAFTA rhetoric on the campaign trail. In 2007, he said that if elected he would immediately call the leaders of Mexico and Canada to reopen NAFTA because the deal “should reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should also be good for Main Street.”
But it seems unlikely Obama would do anything too radical with NAFTA. “I am a pro-growth, free-market guy,” he told CNBC shortly after his coronation as presumptive Democratic candidate in April. “I love the market.”
For Obama, the market is simply out of balance. His remedy to right the scales is improved trade agreements, a position he says is reflected in his past voting record.
The Illinois senator supported a deal between the U.S. and Peru in 2005, but has opposed agreements he says contain insufficient labour and environmental protections, such as a deal with Colombia, arguably the worst humanrights violator in the hemisphere.
While many Canadians would like to see NAFTA repealed, the best that can be realistically hoped for is that Obama will make good on his promise to open the deal and renegotiate. After the results of 15 years of NAFTA, many critics on this side of the border would settle for basic, yet fundamental improvements.
On race: Expect Canadian politics to stay (mostly) white
BY RINALDO WALCOTT
Let me begin with a confession: The phenomenon that is Barack Obama so fascinated me that I was left in the throes of a rather buoyant addiction to the U.S. Democratic primaries. CNN reports radiated from my television 24 hours a day. I compulsively perused half a dozen newspapers and twice as many websites to keep myself up-to-date on the Obama-Clinton race. Never had I conceived of a time when a black man might clinch a nomination of a major American political primary, but now that Obama is the presumptive nominee, and the election has shifted in the way of uninspiring drivel and a choice between lesser evils, my CNN days are in drastic decline. If I were able to vote in the U.S. election, I would have no candidate to vote for.
It’s clear now that Obama’s emergence comes more from what he represents than the politics he has articulated. As pundit after pundit has pointed out, there is little difference between the positions and policies of Obama and his former, more conservative rival, Hillary Clinton, especially regarding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the war in Afghanistan. Obama and Republican nominee John McCain are shockingly similar in their market policies as well. Both of them, with minor differences, believe in a free market that regulates itself. Don’t expect any fundamental political change come January 2009.
Barack Obama is not the liberal, inspirational, policy saviour that the U.S. and the world needs, and once observers here accept this fact, they can proceed to think carefully about what his emergence means for black Canadians and the Canadian political system.
The truth is that Obama buttresses the myth that those who work hard enough can achieve what they want, which continues to hold sway over what is possible for those outside America’s mythical origins. In many ways, the realities of multiculturalism just do not measure up, especially in the Canadian political system.
The parliamentary closed-shop of Canadian party politics makes it especially difficult to be an insurgent candidate, and the fabricated story of Obama as an outsider breaking into U.S. politics is not about to make itself present in Canadian politics.
Whenever attitudes toward black people in the U.S. shift and change, Canada follows suit and mirrors its lead on race relations. The history of civil rights in the U.S. and its forced inclusion of African Americans warranted similar changes in Canada as well. In Canada we follow the U.S. on these questions in a manner that suggests questions of race and racism are not a fundamental aspect of Canadian nation-building, and thus not a priority for our own national consciousness. At least in the U.S. it is impossible to pretend that race, racism and thus race relations are not central to its national formation and its contemporary conversations.
Obama’s meteoric rise was planned, crafted and strategically executed by him and his Chicago political backers and has no Canadian counterpart. In a political context, Canada is a scene devoid of black Canadians in the upper echelons who could be rolled out in the same fashion as Obama. In the Canadian party system, sponsorship still operates in a fairly narrow realm of WASP family dynasties. Additionally, the demographics both in terms of population numbers and geographic concentration of black Canadians means that they do not exercise votingbloc practices in federal, provincial and municipal elections, which means they are not specifically courted. Insurgent black candidates who could use party connections to emerge as representative figures are non-existent in our system because of this.
More profoundly, black Canadians only tangentially identify as a national group, preferring instead to be Nigerian or Barbadian or Somali. In this multicultural, multiracial nation of ours, politics is still a white game. Politicians continually trumpet our demographics while keeping almost every level of government essentially white. If Obama’s Democratic nomination means anything for black Canadians, it is a rebuke of our multicultural reality, which is fraught with a quite serious lie: being black still signals to many that you might not be Canadian and therefore do not legitimately belong, despite our touted multicultural citizenry.
Contemporary Canada likes to recognize itself as a nation of immigrants but when it comes to articulating the future vision of nation, province and city, the founding fathers return with a vengeance to tell us black Canadians just where our place is: following their vision, not adding to it or directing what it should be. Obama’s symbolism should remind us of this failure in a country that requires more and more immigrants to secure its continued economic health and wealth.
In the realm of politics, who are the black Canadians? If Obama’s symbolism is to mean anything, it might produce more Carol-Anne Wrights and Rosemary Browns (remember them?). For that to happen, though, the closed-shop party system needs to have its doors smashed wide open.
What Obama means to Canadian cartoonists
BY STEVE MURRAY
On anti-Americanism: Expect less, but what will replace George W. to unify the left?
BY DOUG SAUNDERS
For 50 years, the compass of Canadian politics has been broken. In other countries, there is left and there is right, progressive and conservative, social justice and inherited privilege, equality and inequality. In Canada, those axes have too often been pulled out of line, distorted into a simple geometry defi ned by the United States: pro or anti.
Are we brave enough to imagine a Canadian left without anti-Americanism? Can we envision a Canada in which our politics are defi ned by our attitudes toward important public issues and not by our attitudes toward the United States?
A Barack Obama presidency offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove this lodestone from our political compass. Eight years of George W. Bush have made it almost impossible to imagine a Canada in which the left-toright spectrum isn’t simply a measure of attitudes toward the States. Or, even better, a Canada in which progressives take the lead in opening borders and building continent-wide communities.
It doesn’t matter whether Obama proves to be liberal or social democratic or dully centrist, exciting or fumbling or disappointing, or whether he wants to broaden NAFTA or shut it down. The larger opportunity for the Canadian left—by which I mean both the NDP and the socialdemocratic branches of the Liberal Party—is one of mindset and perspective: With a United States we can admire and consider a partner, voters and party members can be inspired by something other than resistance and rejection.
It will be a jarring change. Without the distorting factor of anti-Americanism, do we even know what progressive values are? Look at one important recent example: In other countries, parties on the left are opposed to governments taking money from working citizens and handing it to wealthy corporations—such acts are called “regressive.”
In Canada, the Liberals and NDP spent a decade and a half fi ghting to give billions in government money and cutprice public land to wealthy softwoodlumber companies in order to give them an unfair trade advantage.
Why did a massive transfer of wealth from working people to corporations become a major cause for the left? For only one reason: the United States opposed it.
It did not have to be this way. Nationalism is supposed to be a hallmark of the right. But something changed exactly 50 years ago.
“There is a definite feel of nationalism in Canada—anti-Americanism if you will,” a wealthy Ontario businessman wrote to the Liberal opposition leader, Lester B. Pearson, in 1958, “and the Tories capitalized on this.” Indeed, for most of Canada’s history, isolationism had been the purview of Tories.
That wealthy businessman, Walter Gordon, helped engineer a reversal of political roles that did two generations of damage: He convinced Pearson that what Canada needed was not to build a strong domestic economy and knowledge base, but rather to resist U.S. investment and build a coddled, closed Canadian economy that helped big companies like his family’s Clarkson Gordon, and badly hurt investment-seeking entrepreneurs (also making possible such hidden abuses as Conrad Black’s fraudulent empire).
Because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, such ideas got far more of an audience than they deserved, and the left became preoccupied with the nonexistent “Americanization of Canada” at precisely the moment when Canada actually had the best chance to assert its economy and culture on the world. And at a moment when the U.S. had the most progressive government in its history, under Lyndon B. Johnson, Canada’s Liberals missed an opportunity to begin building something like the modern European Union. Instead, we turned inward.
There were heroic efforts to resist the anti-American impulse. Pearson kept Gordon’s worst ideas from becoming policy. And, when the NDP began to be infected by those ideas, leader David Lewis purged the Waffl e faction, a nationalist and economically authoritarian movement opposed to any U.S. engagement—a move that allowed the NDP to rise to its apex of popularity.
But that all collapsed in 1988, when the NAFTA debate crippled the Canadian left. By identifying itself as an anti- American party (even though many of its leaders and members held far more complex and interesting views on the deal), the NDP won seats in that election, but spent most of the next two decades—the most successful two decades in Canadian economic history—sidelined by voters as a single-issue party.
The Liberals were poisoned, too: The decade-long feud between their left and centre prevented the Clinton years from becoming the moment of continental harmony they could have been. And because of lingering anti- Americanism on their party’s left, they rejected the exciting leadership of Michael Ignatieff on jingoistic grounds, a decision that is costing them dearly at the moment.
And, worst of all, the job of building bridges to the U.S. was surrendered to the right. So instead of a pact that could have included free cross-border mobility, common citizenship and shared public services and standards, we have a limited trade and investment pact that forces Canada into long-term resource deals it might not want.
Imagine how different it could have been. Look at what Europe’s parties managed to accomplish in the same period. After fi ve decades of missed opportunities, we may soon get a chance to straighten out our heads.