Wednesday, November 05, 2008

(Some Kind of) Change Is Gonna Come

The world is not going to change overnight. The United States remains in large part a socially conservative, insular, exceptionalist place (though hardly worse than New Zealand on the first two counts or, say, France on the last).

The patchwork quilt of American perspectives and passions is illustrated by some of the propositions that were added to the ballot in various states. Arizona, Florida and California voted for bans on gay marriage. Nebraska voted decisively to 'end affirmative action', while a similar vote in Colorado was too close to call. Colorado also rejected a proposition to define human life as beginning at the moment of conception -- though 27 percent of people voted in favour. From the liberal corner, Michigan voted to permit medical marijuana and (only just) stem-cell research, while Washington passed by a 60-40 margin a proposition that would allow doctor-assisted suicide.

Even if he wanted to, it's unlikely that Obama could sign up to the International Criminal Court, end the War on Drugs, or drive a fairer, less unilateralist approach to international trade and intellectual property law. Obama himself might be portrayed as an uber-liberal by his detractors, but his stated policies would position him as a pretty dry centrist in most parts of the western world. Managing the fallout from the financial crisis, starting some kind of orderly extraction from Iraq, and making a few baby steps towards health care reform are already herculean-enough tasks for a first term. A little progress on alternative energy and non-paranoid immigration policy would be an added bonus.

Caveats aside, let's face it, it feels like a dark, heavy cloud has lifted. At the very least, the sane and rational people are back in charge. The sensible, generous, optimistic side of America was in the ascendancy at last week's election, with outsiders in the unaccustomed position of drawing inspiration rather than despair from events in the US. The dark specter of racism hasn't exactly been ended by Obama's victory, but the symbolic value is enough to get people digging out their Sam Cooke.

The turn for the better should mainly be of benefit to US citizens themselves, who can be a little more confident that the executive arm of their government will show a little more sincerity and humility in pursuing its core objectives. But that might also mean that some other countries are a little less able to project their own pathologies onto an imperial scapegoat.

Should Obama grow weary of the inspiring speeches, be slow and cautious in his reforms, and generally turn out to be little other than a studious, lawyerly technocrat with a good command of the English language, that will still be a massive improvement and a cause for hope.

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