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A PALESTINIAN STATE: ALWAYS TOMORROW, NEVER TODAY – Page 2
OCTOBER 2011 N o 1110
The US president was elected to deliver change, but may not have intended to supply it. He was elected to fight, but prefers to negotiate. His staff despise the left and liberals who elected him. Where do we go from here?
MARK ROTHKO – ‘White Cloud Over Purple’ (1957)
Tunisia: democracy year one y Serge Halimi
The dictator has gone, so is the Tunisian revolution over? There are more than a hundred, mostly unknown, parties seeking a place in the Constituent Assembly, and anything is possible. The assembly to be elected on 23 October will have impeccable democratic credentials: proportional representation, gender parity (even if 95% of the leading candidates are men), strict regulation of campaign finances, opinion polls and political advertising. The assembly will be representative, and also powerful. It will determine the balance of power, the form of government (presidential or parliamentary), the place of religion in the country’s institutions and, if it wishes, even the state’s role in the economy. There is the excitement of novelty, the hope of establishing an Arab and Muslim democracy. “If it doesn’t work here, it won’t work anywhere,” said a woman from the Pôle démocratique moderniste (PDM), sure of Tunisia’s ability to remain the regional torchbearer.
The polling stations in Bizerte will need many, or very big, tables: voters will be invited to choose between 63 lists of candidates, almost half claiming to be “independent” (see How the voting will go). How to choose among the manifestos with their variations on the same old platitudes: “Arab-Muslim identity”, “social market economy”, “regional development”, “the state as policy-maker”?
“The key to the revolution is the centre left”, says Nicolas Pouillard of the International Crisis Group, which has published several reports on
Tunisia (1). Kamel Morjane and other former big shots in Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s party, the Rassemblement démocratique citoyen (RCD), claim to belong to the centre – and so do their old opponents in the Parti démocratique progressiste (PDP), regrouped under the leadership of Nejib Chebbi. But the Islamists of Ennahda (Renaissance) say they are centrist too, and so do their main secular opponents, the former communists of Ettajdid (Renewal) and the socialists of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés (FDTL), even if the latter both claim to belong to the centre left. Even the Tunisian Labour Party (PTT), founded by leaders of the main trade union (UGTT), takes the same position, although the unions have just played a major part in a social uprising. Confusing? Yes. And here too, Ben Ali’s influence lives on: the RCD was neoliberal in economics, pro-police in politics and a member of the Socialist International.
At least, the political identity of the main parties – unlike the character of their leaders (2) – is clear. The same cannot be said of the shadowy Union patriotique libre (UPL) founded in June by Slim Riahi, a businessman in London who made his fortune in Libya and who is opposed to limits on political budgets, which he regards as designed to prevent the emergence of new forces – including his own, which does not appear to be short of funds. His chosen spokesman, a company chairman with a
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inside this issue Funding the Arab Spring: economic policies for more equal societies Page 5 Syria: the regime has lost its way and repression keeps getting worse Page 6 Service economy: the Philippines’ export boom in housemaids Page 8 Germany’s Green party has cheerfully embraced a growth agenda Page 10
Outsiders: how and why do people turn to terrorism? Page 12 Russia’s bureaucrat-oligarchs have no need for democracy Page 14 Calcutta: trailing in the wake of India’s economic miracle Page 14 Twitter’s non-stop news cycle: a minute’s a long time in politics Page 16
By Eric Alterman
Barack Obama told his supporters as he clinched the Democratic nomination in June 2008: “We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth” (1). But if ever a president proved Mario Cuomo’s adage that candidates “campaign in poetry but govern in prose” (2), it was Obama.
Many liberals expected that the former community organiser might transform the presidency by mobilising the grassroots in support of the political ideas and programmes that provided the foundation of his campaign. This was always a mutual over-promising between the realistic man running for office and his idealistic, but naive, supporters. Despite his rhetorical flourishes, the pragmatic Obama was never likely to entertain the idea that community organisation plus a vision of strong, civic democracy could transform a twocentury-old representative democracy corrupted by the power of money and entrenched special interests.
Barack Obama is a dealmaker, not a worldshaker. No matter what he promised his constituents, when it came to the negotiating table, nothing was off-limits. His opponents sensed this weakness and used it to their advantage. Obama felt there was no need to fight, just to work out an agreement among adults. His speeches, and his legislative strategy, were directed toward inclusiveness, consensus building and passivity. Obama often complained that Republicans were taking hostages. Over and over he paid their ransoms, sometimes with a generous tip.
But Republicans were not interested in the bipartisanship he believed in. Asked in 2010 what he wished for in 2011, Obama replied: “All I want for Christmas is an opposition I can negotiate with” (3). He never got one. Obstructionism proved the rule rather than the exception, and Democratic super-majorities in both Houses of Congress, until November 2010, seemed meaningless as liberal priorities were never raised, or defeated. The labour movement’s key priority, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, had only tepid administration or Congressional support. Nothing was done to reform America’s broken (and exploitative) immigration policies: deportations increased.
Reproductive rights for women were diminished. Money grew ever more powerful, as campaign finance laws were weakened and Bush-era tax cuts extended.
Obama showed remarkable calm over these regressive developments and did nothing that would have conflicted with his unbreakable commitment to bipartisanship.
In his inaugural address he had promised: “The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”
Before the 2010 midterm elections Obama and company (frustrated with their inability to reverse the polls which predicted disaster) chose to worsen their relations with the liberal left, complaining about ingratitude. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called liberals “fucking retarded” when they threatened to withdraw support over Obama’s cave-in on state insurance (the Public Option) during the health care fight. (He eventually apologised to retarded people, but not to liberals.) The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, deriding what he termed “the professional left”, whined: “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Obama mocked liberal disappointment at a $30,000 a head fund-raiser: “Gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and – [laughter] – I thought that was going to happen quicker.”
Beating up your base before an election is rarely a good idea and the Democrats got the shellacking that polls promised: they gave up 63 seats in the House, had their Senate majority reduced and lost 10 governorships. At local level, where state and federal redistrict maps would be drawn to shape national elections for the coming decade, Republicans picked up 680 state legislative seats, smashing the previous record of 628 by the Democrats in the post-Watergate election of 1974. This was the Democrats’ worst
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Eric Alterman is distinguished professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, New York, and author of Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post Bush America, Penguin, 2008