The saddest event in politics is the death of the hope that things can basically change. This genre of loss involves a setback not just to an individual but to a population, or a large part of it, which placed its hope in a candidate or party. We last saw it here in the early 1990s, when Jean Chrétien's Liberals forsook the hope and change of their red book, on which they were elected, and chose instead the insipid task of balancing the budget by further shredding social programs. Now it's happening in the United States.
It involves Barack Obama's presidency. It appears at this point that its main achievement will turn out to have been his election itself. That, I rush to add, was a big feat. But it is entirely different from governing in a new way. He promised "change," which is pure rhetorical boilerplate for presidential candidates, and he brought it. But the change he brought was the election of a black man as president, full stop.
Some of the blame is his. He may have succumbed to a near inevitable hubris or, as someone said of Kim Campbell's abrupt fall from grace as Canada's first woman prime minister, "believing your own bullshit." But the real problems are structural: There's not much any president can do outside the frame of what all others do. The list includes giving Big Money what it wants while occasionally badmouthing it, and making war on small countries. You get some choice about which countries.
I mean it. If Howard Zinn, the splendid left-wing U.S. historian who died Wednesday, had been elected president, there isn't much he could have done that differs from a Bush or Clinton. He could have said he had other goals, like cancelling foreign adventures or huge military expenses. That's called "using the bully pulpit," which Mr. Obama has done. But it has zero to do with making even minor systemic changes to, say, health care. For that, you need 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, which means, inter alia, overcoming the financial clout that drug and insurance industries have with senators, which you won't be able to do, no matter how much you bully them from your pulpit. The problem isn't the intentions, it's the mechanics.
When politics can't do real things, it becomes by default a realm of entertainment and titillation, requiring ever new thrills and Susan Boyle-like surprises. If last year's American political idol was the neat black guy, what's better this season than repudiating him in favour of a right-wing former centrefold from Massachusetts who drives a truck?
Does this mean basic change in the U.S. is impossible? No. It means the road to it does not run directly through the White House. The last major social legislation - the civil-rights laws of the 1960s - followed a decade of freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent clashes with police, etc., until a president had the impetus behind him to pass the laws. Before that, the big changes of the 1930s occurred in the context of union drives, radical parties, marches of the unemployed - you get the changes your society is mobilized to demand. Then you wander over to the White House.
One of the silliest conceits (or scams) of the Obama machine has been the idea that a campaign organization that elected a president can somehow be converted to a social movement on issues like health care. It doesn't equate. Elections are too broad, superficial, brief and personality-based.
But there is a movement for the Canadian-style, "single-payer" health care in the U.S. that about two-thirds of Americans consistently say they want. It includes 17,000 MDs and has run campaigns in many states. If they continue to gain momentum, they could one day drop by the White House.
Who knows how long that might take? Maybe the current prez should request a rain check for the position, till the rest comes to pass.