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Why 'Change' Has Already Won

Cynthia Boaz

Guess what? Change has already won in Election 2008. Although the presidential election result itself has yet to be decided, it has become clear over the past weeks that John McCain is now attempting to run a political campaign against a social movement that a) agrees that there are fundamental injustices in the system, and b) is demanding a real, authentic change in political leadership. Regardless of what happens on election day - that is, even if McCain/Palin manages to either garner a greater number of votes through legitimate means or to manipulate the process in a way that produces a victory for them - the social and political movement that is embodied by the surge of support of Barack Obama is here to stay. In other words, to use the language of nonviolent movements theory, McCain might find a way to "win", but even if so, he won't WIN.

It's starting to look as though Obama will also "win", however. The political winds have shifted significantly over the past two weeks, and it seems that presidency is now Obama's to lose. Although the polls remain close in several key states, Senator Obama has - in the last week- pulled ahead (according to numerous polling agencies) in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, and Virginia, and is a serious contender in Ohio- a state considered solidly red just a month ago. The McCain campaign has effectively already conceded Michigan by pulling out their entire campaign apparatus there, and Obama now even stands a chance in places once considered impossible for a Democratic candidate to swing, such as North Carolina and Indiana. GOP master-strategist Karl Rove's own website shows an electoral map that (as of this writing) gives the election to Obama with a victory of 273 "sewn up" electoral votes and another 102 considered "toss-ups", leaving McCain with just 163 fairly secure votes less than four weeks from the election. Even if all the toss-up states broke for McCain, that 265 votes would still not be enough to put him over the top. To add insult to injury, the mavericky market doesn't seem to be responding to the bailout bill quite as quickly as its backers has hoped, and it is the GOP who is (correctly) bearing the brunt of that burden. So if you think McCain is panicking, you'd be right. This of course does not mean that Obama and his supporters should expect to coast between now and election day. Three and a half weeks is a long time in an election cycle, and McCain has shown he is willing to sink very low in the effort to affect a shift in the momentum for Obama.

To wit: McCain and the GOP's desperation over the past two weeks- since the discomfiting performance by Sarah Palin at the VP debate, where she demonstrated a sophisticated grasp on nary an issue of domestic or foreign policy- has begun to manifest in numerous and appalling ways. There was Palin's statement at a campaign stop in Clearwater, Florida that Obama used to "pal around with terrorists," followed by McCain's bizarre Afghanistan ad, which shamelessly distorts a quote from Obama in order to imply that he has verbally attacked the American troops there. And then last Sunday night, Sean Hannity - a proxy (perhaps "shill" is a more apropos term) for anything GOP - hosted a special program for Fox News entitled "Obama & Friends: The History of Radicalism," which among other things, revisits the "Is he Muslim or isn't he?" question, accuses Obama of associating - befriending even-known domestic terrorists, and just for good measure (in case the Muslim thing doesn't stick), reminds us that Obama's former pastor Rev. Wright is a fundamentalist preacher who uses his church pulpit to advocate for Christian black nationalism. Hannity also made sure to blame Obama for the current financial markets meltdown, the logic for which is a real head-scratcher, even by Fox's basement-level standards. And these just represent the tip of the iceberg. It's become painfully obvious that McCain's campaign has resorted to the only strategy it believes it has left: to throw everything including the kitchen sink at Obama, and hope something sticks. Is Obama secretly Muslim or is he a follower of Reverend Wright? Is he an elitist or a socialist? When even your smears contradict themselves, you've got a serious problem with your message.

But that is only one piece of picture. There are many other ways in which McCain, his message, and it would seem, the GOP has already lost. So we must ask- just what has campaign of "reform" managed to accomplish since Sarah Palin was brought onto the ticket?

  • First, they've confirmed that they have no qualms about continuing the Bush/Cheney tactic of using fear and shock by exploiting crises to their political and/or economic advantage. Naomi Klein's prescient book "The Shock Doctrine" explains in disconcerting and illuminating detail how the dynamic works. Ironically, however, the shock and confusion of voters in response to the current financial crisis has worked against McCain's campaign, who is now trying eagerly to separate themselves from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration while simultaneously trying to convey conflicting messages of "maverickness" on one hand, and reassurance to the true-believing Republican base that the campaign does in fact represent them. Oops.


  • Second, they've attempted to exploit - mostly via proxies in "news" media- the suppressed racism and bigotry of a subset of voters, in the apparent belief that the fear of a black president will be enough to trump reason and facts. It's a waste of energy, however, because there simply are not enough dedicated racists in the United States for this message to make a significant difference in the final count. The people for whom this message resonates have already made up their mind. The rest of us just find the tactic beneath the dignity of a man whose primary strength going into this campaign was his perceived integrity.


  • And thirdly and perhaps most bizarrely, the philosophies that underlie both the Grand Old Party and the ideology of conservatism itself have been completely abandoned. This has been written about extensively elsewhere, so allow me to break it down to the most significant points. Conservatism, by definition, is about the suspicion of change. It's about preserving tradition and the status quo. Since Governor Palin was put on the ticket, McCain has attempted to co-opt the theme of "reform." Setting aside the amusing irony that the reform McCain proposes is in response to the very policies he's advocated for decades, the fact is that - on principle - true conservatives are suspicious of reform. Additionally, conservatism puts an emphasis on civic virtue and the need to work for the development of the community. That sounds an awful lot like "community organizing", doesn't it? (Fortunately, the Democratic Party also makes this value a priority.) So it was quite surreal indeed to see such strongly self-identified conservatives like Mitt Romney and Rudy Guilani mocking the notion of community service during their RNC convention speeches. It seems that the Republican leadership has disconnected itself completely with the notion of ideological conservatism, and has replaced it with a stylized, simplistic rhetoric that is intended to provoke a visceral response without actually saying anything real. All of this presents a multifaceted set of concerns for true-believers in the Republican base, starting with the fact that their presidential ticket (and evidently most of their party) does not truly represent their values or their interests.

So there can only be one explanation for the otherwise unexplainable indignities on the part of McCain and the GOP (other than McCain's excessive ambition to win the presidency): in a very important sense, they recognize that have already lost.

A key substantive difference between McCain's campaign (and to be fair, pretty much all political campaigns) and the movement whose momentum Obama's success symbolizes is in their respective conceptualizations of power. McCain speaks about and wields power in a way that suggests he thinks of it as a top-down phenomenon: something that - from the perspective of a voter - happens "to you" or is exerted "over you." That is not only demoralizing to a democratic citizenry, but it is fundamentally undemocratic in design. On the other hand, Barack Obama's great appeal (and what I think explains the depth with which his message resonates with young and previously disaffected voters) is the fact that he understands power as a bottom-up phenomenon. Obama recognizes that no leader can truly lead without the active consent of the people. It is a highly empowering message and moreover, it's authentic. Which makes it very, very difficult to compete against. For example, in start contrast to McCain supporters- most of whom seem to simply repeat their campaign's loudest talking points, Obama's supporters have for many months now taken genuine ownership over the campaign by designing and implementing creative actions on their own volition. One recent example is the "Great Schlep", which calls on Jewish youth to travel en masse to Florida to convince their grandparents to support Barack Obama.

So in many respects Obama- or rather, what he represents- has already won: the movement for a real change- starting with a renewed understanding of power and it's corollary, civic engagement- will go on whether Barack Obama wins the presidency or not. Movements can be hindered, but once they gain the kind of scope we've seen in this country over the past six months, they are very difficult to undermine. Is there anyone alive today who would argue that the Civil Rights Movement would have come to a halt had Nixon had won the presidency in 1960 instead of John F. Kennedy? The momentum may have been temporarily slowed and the victories might have taken longer to achieve, but they would have come nevertheless, because, in the words of MK Gandhi, "A victory attained by violence is tantamount to defeat, for it is momentary." Although in the United States in 2008, the debate is not about exactly the same kind of violence to which Gandhi was referring, the meaning is still relevant. At some point, people find themselves unwilling to continue being complicit in their own disempowerment; to be abused by a culture of oppressive fear. And once that point has been reached, no message of "reform" - no matter how well-packaged in anger, cynicism, greed, prejudice, or fear - stands a chance against a message of genuine change.

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Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University.

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