The pivotal moment for me in the U.S. presidential campaign came during the Republican convention last August, when Rudolph Giuliani couldn't get the words "community organizer" out of his mouth without laughing.
After eight years of Republican rule – during which the rich happily trampled on the poor in their rush to the Wall Street trough – the notion that someone would organize the poor to assert their rights struck both Giuliani and his Republican audience as simply funny.
If Republicans fail today in their efforts to keep the poor from voting, Barack Obama will end up president of the United States. The fact that his early instincts led him to try to organize the powerless rather than hop onto the corporate ladder suggests a taste for meaningful democracy. This has stirred hopes that Obama may be the transformative leader so many – in the U.S. and around the world – have yearned for.
Obama has shown little inclination to alter the dismal pattern of U.S. foreign policy. But he does seem potentially poised to do something else of great importance – to begin reversing the immense damage done by the neo-conservative revolution launched several decades ago by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
In fact, conditions for an assault on this vicious economic revolution could not be better. The disastrous administration of George W. Bush – culminating in the current financial meltdown – has exposed the deep flaws of unbridled capitalism.
Turning the ship around won't be easy. Pushed by powerful interests, neo-conservative policies – tax cuts, social spending cuts, privatization, deregulation – have become the basic tool kit of Anglo-American governments in recent years, including, of course, Canadian governments.
Indeed, the Reagan-Thatcher model has taken on the authority of a religion – "the market as god," as Harvard theologian Harvey Cox has dubbed it. Its core belief holds that society is an economic jungle where all just advance their own interests. Shunted aside has been the notion of society as a co-operative effort in which everyone has certain rights as well as responsibilities, and that together we work toward a "common good."
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Obama has reintroduced the language of the "common good" and "social responsibility," and he's made some policy promises – on taxes, social spending and regulation – that lead in that direction.
But whether this opportune moment is truly seized will depend on more than Obama's inclinations. It's one thing to have the democratic instincts of a community organizer. It's quite another to have the fortitude – even in the Oval Office – to resist the demands of the powerful, with their control of the media and the economy.
Ultimately, rolling back the neo-conservative revolution will depend on the ability of the public to keep the heat on Obama by organizing campaigns, by pressuring elected officials, by marching in the streets if necessary. Only by providing a counterweight to the power of the elite can ordinary citizens compel Obama to deliver on the extraordinary expectations he's aroused.
Here in Canada, the moment is no less ripe.
In the federal election last month, a mere 37.6 per cent of Canadians voted for the winning Conservative party, which remains deeply mired in the Reagan-Thatcher ideas – ideas that are hopefully soon to be out of favour in the White House.
If ever there was a moment for people everywhere to begin pushing back against the neo-conservative edifice that has so damaged the common good, that moment begins after the celebrations tonight.