Barak Obama and the Democratic Party have won a decisive if incomplete and uneven victory in the 2012 General Election. The victory is decisive because the Democrats overwhelmingly won two of the three the campaigns that they actually fought by a significant margin: the campaign for Electoral College votes and the campaign for the United States Senate. The victory is incomplete because the Democrats were denied control of the House of Representatives. This is due largely to the fact that Republican state legislatures elected in 2010 drew post-census congressional district lines which undercut the Democrats’ growing demographic advantage. It is uneven because the results varied enormously across ethnoreligious and geographic lines. The fact that the President’s margin in the popular vote is rather small is irrelevant, and not only because that vote has no legal effect. Because it is the electoral vote which counts, that is what both parties campaigned for. Had the race been fought for the popular vote, the Democrats would have invested in driving up vote totals in places like Dallas and Atlanta, in states they had little hope of carrying, as well as in the major metropoles which they knew they would carry. The Republicans would have done the same in places like Orange County and Riverside County, California. We simply don’t know what the results of such a campaign would have been –or at least cannot infer it directly from the results of this campaign.
The more interesting question is what this election means. We will consider this question at a number of levels. First, we will ask what it says about the direction of the United States as a civilizational center –what it says about what it means to be an American. Second we will look at its likely impact on US global grand strategy and thus its significance for the rest of the world. Finally, we will draw out its implications for the likely evolution of civilizational-political dynamics both in the United States and globally.
First, however, we need to be clear about some basic facts. The Democrats fought this election, as they have previous ones, as the representatives of the more progressive sectors of Capital. But their base within Capital was much narrower than in the last election and indeed even in previous elections which they lost. Specifically, the Democratic Party dominated fundraising from only one major sector of Capital: Communications/Electronics, which includes the Information industry. Health Care and Pharmaceuticals split their investments. Other sectors which historically leaned Democratic, such as investment capital, real estate, etc. have fled. The remainder of the Democrats’ very significant funding base came from outside Capital, and specifically from Labor, Education, Attorneys, Health Professionals (split with Republicans) and the mostly professional middle class voters who contributed the roughly half of the ideological and single issue group donations which went to the Democrats. The Democratic Party, in other words, while hardly a “workers party,” is less beholden to Capital than it ever has been and to the extent that it is, derives its support from Capital’s most progressive sectors: the Information and Technology sectors. Much of its support comes from nonprofit institutions which are, to be sure, large scale holders of Capital (in the form, for example, of university endowments), albeit Capital dedicated to civilizational progress, but which also depend significantly on federal and state support for research and teaching. Thanks to his grassroots fundraising network Obama has increased enormously the ability of the Democratic Party to fund itself outside of Capital and thus to act with greater autonomy.
The Republican Party, by comparison, has locked up essentially all of the lower technology sectors of Capital. The only higher technology sector it holds, and even then not decisively, is Defense/Aerospace. Interestingly enough it has continued to lose support in the health care sector both at the level of Capital and among health care professionals. What it has picked up is most of a finance sector which, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis saw the effective collapse of the independent investment banking sector which often leaned Democratic. This trend is no doubt reinforced by the decision of most investors to be cautious about investing new capital and to focus on investments which increase efficiency (and thus shed jobs) rather than on investments which create new capacity.
Elections, of course, are not won simply by raising and spending money. We also need to look at the demographic returns. These are not yet fully available, but some basic patterns are clear. The Democrats overwhelmingly dominated the urban, Northeastern/Great Lakes, West Coast vote, the non-Euro-American vote, and the votes of those whose religious identity is other than Christian. Democrats also won the women’s vote and continued to make enormous progress in historically Republican but increasingly global and diverse suburbs in major metropolitan areas. Republicans won the, rural, exurban/outersuburban, Southern, and Great Plains vote. The Mountain West was split, largely between states with significant metropoles and large Latino populations (New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada) and those without. Republicans won the “white” vote decisively and the “white male” vote overwhelmingly.
The only real exceptions to the broad geopolitical patterns are some pockets of Democratic strength in South Texas, El Paso del Norte, and rural New Mexico (all strong Latino areas) and up and down the Mississippi/Missouri river valley (which is the site of a large historic African American population , several medium metropoles which are not large enough to dominate their respective states (New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City) and Iowa, which has a small city/university town, monastery culture which is strongly pro-civilizational. The only major exception to the basic demographic pattern is that Democrats showed that they can win white male working class voters when they do something significant to benefit this sector economically. Thus the impact of the auto bailout in Ohio.
What does this all mean? First, at a civilizational level, it represents a continuing re-definition of what it means to be an American –a move away from the conceptions of the United States as a white, Christian nation and towards a deeper embrace of de Tocquevillian pluralism. The United States is, first and foremost, a place where competing civilizational ideals thrive side by side, contending with each other but also learning from each other in a public arena which has the potential at least to become the locus of real deliberation regarding questions of meaning and value. The Republican strategy of playing to white racism –the dominant strategy of that party since 1968, and quite successful in many elections— is no longer demographically viable. Even with solid white support and overwhelming white male support, the Republicans cannot hold the Electoral College. And if the Democrats choose to, they can chip away at Republican control of the white male working class vote simply by doing a few things which modestly benefit those voters, something they have been, for reasons we will discuss later, very reluctant to do.
At the same time, we should point out that this redefinition of what it means to be American is demographically driven and geographically constrained. It is only in major metropoles that the understanding of the United States as defined by its civilizational pluralism is really hegemonic. Much of the vast territory of the United States outside the Northeast, Great Lakes, West Coast, and Mississippi/Missouri valleys and outside urban centers in other parts of the country retains a resolutely “white” “Christian (read evangelical Protestant) identity.
At the level of strategy, the Democratic victory represents an embrace, if not fully conscious or consistent, of what might be called the United States’ natural civilizational strategy. In order to understand this strategy we need first to consider the United States’ global comparative advantages –and challenges.
First, as a continental polity, US enjoys unusually diverse resource base, including both outstanding arable land, extensive pastures, abundant energy sources, from fossil and radioactive fuels through water, wind, and solar power, and abundant minerals. As George Friedman of Stratfor has pointed out, our rivers make the transportation of agricultural, extractive, and manufactured goods relatively easy. While we are not fully self-sufficient, at least at the standard required by a postindustrial economy, and while our geography offers us numerous opportunities to engage the global market, it allows us enough self-sufficiency to be rather picky about the nature of that engagement. And our domination of the continent, reaching from coast to coast, leaves us singularly invulnerable to foreign attack.
Second, because it is more immigrant-friendly than all but a very few highly developed countries, and because immigrants themselves tend to have higher birthrates, the United States is in a better position demographically than, say, most of Europe or East Asia. This does not mean that we do not face a challenge in funding income transfers and medical care for an aging population, but we have rather more room than most other developed countries.
Third, the United States continues to enjoy a comparative advantage in high end innovation. This is due, on the one hand, to our constitutive diversity and pluralism and to an educational system which has continued liberal education through beginning university studies and which has invested heavily in basic as well as applied scholarship and research. It is this same commitment to liberal education which has made it possible for the United States to accommodate growing civilizational pluralism. Liberal education is the condition for engaging questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines and thus for polity which is both civilizationally pluralistic and (relatively) democratic.
Finally, our historic commitment to high levels of consumption and relatively low rates of exploitation for our own population, while sometimes secured at the expense of other peoples, has forced a “high road” development strategy by making low skill, low wage production unprofitable, creating favorable conditions for human development. This in turn supports investments in education which increase the value of labor power and, as I will argue in an upcoming article, gives us a comparative advantage in trade and a naturally strong currency. It also gives us an unusual kind of clout –as a global market. Export platform economies with which we may otherwise be in competition (e.g. Germany and China) are unlikely to try to inflict fatal damage on one of their most important markets.
With regard to our challenges, the following stand out:
First, the United States has failed to invest in the development of ecologically sound energy sources and transportation infrastructure, something in which we lag behind Europe and probably Japan, leaving us more dependent than we need to be on ecologically damaging and gradually depleting fossil fuels. While we have essentially no reason to fear external military threats properly understood (i.e. foreign invasion), this leaves us dependent on both our own reactionary extractive hinterlands and reactionary extractive states, distorting both our own public life and our foreign policy and leading to the unnecessary transfer of surplus to those who hold the rights to petroleum and other mineral rents. Our position as a global exporter of grain and other crops as well as the viability of many of our coastal cities is threatened by global climate change.
Second, our population has become so diverse that it requires a transformation in our identity as a people. There is significant resistance to this transformation, as indicated by the high Republican vote totals and support for draconian anti-immigration measures in large parts of the country. Unless our embrace of pluralism as constitutive of American identity becomes hegemonic, large parts of the country will continue to be left behind in development and the country as a whole will be held back.
Third, our comparative advantage in innovation is threatened by demands to reform the educational system in a way that more closely meets short term labor market needs. More precisely, the historic efficacy of higher education as a mechanism for upward social mobility and income growth is reaching its limit as developing countries like China and India, with much lower per capita investments but much larger populations flood the global market with skilled labor, making incomes for which ordinary university level education once sufficed accessible only to a tiny elite able to earn monopoly rents on skill and innovation –something which Robert Reich pointed out in his Work of Nations some 20 years ago. This in turn increases pressure for educational reform which, if implemented, will undercut our long term comparative advantage in innovation –as well our capacity to engage in public deliberation regarding questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines.
Fourth, because our comparative advantage in high end innovation is threatened and the monopoly rents on skill enjoyed by broad layers of our population are coming to an end as India and China flood the global market with skilled labor, our position as a low exploitation/high consumption and thus “high road” economy is also threatened. We can maintain our comparative advantage in high end innovation, but this is unlikely to engage the entire population. And if it did, then (in a market economy) the resulting monopoly rents would vanish. In a technologically innovative global free market economy the average wage rate will decline –ultimately towards zero (the point which is reached when all routine labor is automated). We cannot become a pure high-end export enclave like Singapore, for the simple reason that the sheer size of our population would undercut the monopoly rents at which such a strategy aims. That road is open only the city states. Nor can we follow Germany’s strategy of linking high levels of investment with a currency devalued by the partial integration of less developed countries into the Eurozone. The greater level of political integration in the US ensures that development gradually spreads to all geographic areas. And in the meanwhile, less developed areas, which are over-represented (because of the structure of the US Senate) undercut the implementation of such a strategy. Finally, for the same reason, we cannot remake ourselves on the model of India or China, integrating high end export enclaves with an impoverished hinterland. Assuming that it is able to secure its comparative advantage in innovation, the United States will have to find a new way to ensure that the resulting prosperity is shared. And this will require challenging the market allocation of resources —and thus our addiction to the (always illusory, for the vast majority) prospect of getting rich.
The United States understood as a cosmopolitan, civilizationally pluralistic project supported by an outstanding resource base, continued high levels of immigration, and an educational system which prepares people to innovate and engage questions of meaning and value across civilizational lines –and which finds some meaning beyond material consumption– has excellent prospects. The United States as a petroleum fueled white Christian nation with an educational system which trains skilled slaves for the global market is dead.
What I am calling our natural global grand strategy flows directly from a correct understanding of these comparative advantages and challenges. First, we need to secure our resource advantages and improve our position vis-à-vis the threat of resource depletion and climate change by developing new technologies, especially ecologically sound energy sources and transportation infrastructure. We also need to begin to prepare for the impact of climate change on both agriculture and key urban centers, an impact which is probably now unavoidable if not necessarily inevitably devastating.
Second, we need to consolidate our demographic advantage by institutionalizing a policy of effectively open borders, limited only by legitimate security and law enforcement concerns. This in turn requires that we consolidate the emerging American identity as a multiethnic, radically pluralistic polity and not the white Christian nation which so many still imagine us to be. We also need to plan for the eventual ebb of the immigrant tide as other countries resolve the internal problems which lead their most creative people to leave by strengthening support for high investment parenting and childrearing, providing generous subsidies for families with children, free day care and after school care, etc.
Third, we need to consolidate and strengthen our comparative advantage in high end innovation and our ability to create and sustain a civilizationally pluralistic polity by reaffirming our support for liberal education through the university level and our support for basic as well as applied scholarship and research. Clayton Christensen, in a recent article in the New York Times (3 November 2012) argues that there are three types of innovations: empowering innovations, which make complex products and services available to a mass market, sustaining innovations, which replace existing products and services with better but not fundamentally different ones, and efficiency innovations, which introduce no new products or services but simply make the production of existing goods and services more efficient. Empowering innovations, he says, create new jobs because more people are needed to produce the new goods and services in question. Sustaining innovations replace jobs being eliminated by the phasing out of existing products. Efficiency innovations directly reduce the number of jobs.
I would suggest that there is a fourth type of innovation: fundamental innovations which create new civilizational capacities. Both from the vantage point of the substantively rational imperative of authentic civilizational progress and from the vantage point of creating jobs we need to invest first in fundamental, then in empowering innovations. Currently most innovations are directed at increasing efficiency, something dictated by the New Finance doctrine which encourages investors to increase returns first and foremost by reducing costs.
At the same time, we need to be honest with the American people about why we are investing in education and research. In an unregulated global market economy characterized by continued technological innovation the wages of most will decline (ultimately towards zero) even as their skill levels increase and that only those able to earn monopoly rents on skill and innovation (maybe 1/10 of 1%) will escape impoverishment. This outcome can be avoided in the long run only by transcending the market order. (The same is true if the impoverished multitudes of the developing world are to escape from the low wage regimes which currently makes investment in their economies so attractive). Unfortunately we do not currently know how to do this. Historic socialism turned out to be a strategy for accelerating a particular phase of industrial development in a certain group of “left behind” or neocolonial societies. It has not turned out to be the strategy for transcending the market order which Marx hoped it would be. And we have not yet discovered a new way. The principal reason to invest in research and education is because they contribute directly to human development and civilizational progress. The second reason is that they provide a way to ameliorate the downward pressure of globalization and technological progress on wages while capturing their potential contributions to human development and civilizational progress. This means modifying market outcomes by directly investing in fundamental and empowering innovations. But even this is unlikely to be enough. We need to make a commitment to an allocation of resources which allows everyone to continue to participate securely not just in production but in the development of their own capacities, in the life their communities, and in the spiritual disciplines of their choosing.
This latter change, in turn, means that the United States is going to have to discover, through its pluralistic engagement with competing civilizational ideals, some new source of meaning beyond economic growth. While the neoliberal claim that income transfers are always bad for growth is unfounded, they cannot be consistently defended if growth is our only aim. And growth itself is not an end but a means. Historically, it was legitimated by the positivistic secular ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, an ideal which has now been largely rejected. Growth as a means of increased consumption is not a civilizational ideal but an abandonment of the human civilizational project in favor of what Plato called the “city of sows.” It is my conviction that we will find this ideal in the deep truth, revealed by our civilizational pluralism, that there are diverse paths of human civilizational and spiritual development, and that most, if not all, are worth investment. Ensuring individuals and communities the room to choose their paths and the resources necessary to follow them is the only way to transform the global crisis of positivistic secularism and industrial capitalist society into the matrix for the emergence of something new and beautiful.
Thus far this analysis has focused primarily on the United States. That is because in spite of its objectively imperial role in the global system, the United States is a distinctive society with its own internal dynamics and imperatives and because it is these imperatives which, largely if not exclusively, drive the outcome of US elections. But the internal logic of the analysis has clear implications for humanity as a whole. The logic of US society –at least the US society which has a future– points beyond any particular identity or interest towards an identification with the interests of humanity as a whole. If the United States is to secure its comparative advantages it will have to cease being petroleum fueled white Christian nation with an industrial economy dedicated to maximizing growth and consumption. Indeed, it will have to cease being any particular nation at all. It will have to understand its own development as catalyst for and participation in the development of humanity generally. It will have to understand human civilization as a participation in the larger cosmohistorical evolutionary process. And it will have to understand that process as a participation in a mystery so great that it can never be definitively named.
In this way, even as the United States, with its recalcitrantly religious population, points beyond any possible white Christian identity, it also points beyond Marx’s secularism towards a strange and surprising possibility: that beyond fundamentalism and secularism Marx’s vision of a society devoted to the full development of human capacities might still have salience, and that the United States, which so long understood itself as the global adversary of that vision, might rediscover in it its own deepest identity. Warren Wagar, in his Brief History of the Future described just such a scenario in which the United States, led by its first “ethnic minority’ President, played a leading role in humanity’s response to climate change and capitalist crisis. Who knows?
Where do the parties stand with respect to this vision and this strategy? The Democratic Party, as we noted above, finds its base primarily among the most progressive sectors of capital (information and technology), in universities and other philanthropic institutions, among the professional middle classes profiting from globalization and information sector innovation, and among immigrants and ethnic minorities. President Obama’s greatest achievement is the development of an effective nationwide electoral mobilizing and fundraising machine, which has increasingly liberated the party from Capital, even as Capital has been abandoning it, and which has given the professional middle class and ethnic minorities’ electoral weight which is gradually compensating for the decline of organized labor.
The Democratic Party program tracks our recommended strategy quite well, even if it continues to be constrained by the party’s (declining) dependence on progressive sectors of Capital and the relatively weak (but increasing) weight of the working classes in the class alliance which it represents. The only area in which the program is inherently weak is on the question of the aims of education and the reluctance to engage in straightforward income transfers to support consumption. This is partly because progressive sectors of Capital and rentierized professionals continue to dominate the party and understand that universal access to liberal education will undercut their children’s access to monopoly rents on skill and innovation. But it is mostly because the people as a whole have not yet relinquished their fantasy of someday getting rich. Because the support of the people depends on the promise of continuing upward mobility, it is difficult for the Democratic Party to be honest about the real function of universities and resist pressures to undertake ill-conceived measures designed to make them more efficient engines of upward mobility and short term economic growth. It is also difficult to be honest that only income transfers will secure generalized prosperity.
With respect to the other challenges facing the country, the principal constraints are external to the Democratic Party coalition. Republican control of the House will make it all but impossible to make needed investments in ecologically sustainable energy sources and transportation infrastructure and support for high investment parenting. It will also be difficult to get authentic immigration reform, though the Republican Party is likely to divide on this question. There is also real danger that pressure from finance capital and political stalemate between the two parties will force more draconian action on the debt and deficit than is consistent with long term development.
The Republican Party, by the time of the 2008 election, had been transformed largely into a vehicle of the most backward sectors of Capital, especially in the extractive sector, supported by a broad coalition of “left behind’ elements across classes that had fared poorly under a regime of globalization and information-sector innovation. Since then, the party has improved its position with Capital, largely as a result of the turn of one sector of Capital after another to a strategy focused on efficiency investments –when they are investing at all. This amounts to dis-investing in Civilization. It has maintained and even consolidated its base among the “left-behind,” largely by presenting itself as the defenders of the “white Christian nation” variant of American identity. Concretely this has meant a draconian stand on immigration, which effectively cost the party the Latino vote and vocal but not very effective advocacy for conservative social policy (i.e. opposition to abortion, gay marriage, etc.).
As we have argued in earlier articles, the depth of the current civilizational crisis makes it impossible to speak of a “ruling class” in the classical historical materialist sense of a class defined by its position in the relations of production which exercises largely uncontested hegemony over the social formation. This is because apart from a compelling and shared civilizational ideal, such hegemony is impossible. Only a few sectors of Capital –the most progressive—are currently trying to rule, and they are able to do so only in the context of an increasingly broad popular and progressive alliance. The Democratic Party is the natural and historic vehicle for this alliance and the really important debates in US politics will be fought out inside the Democratic Party, between its properly capitalist, rentierized petty bourgeois, and working class elements. These struggles will be over both substantive questions (the extent of the party’s embrace of the “natural” US strategy outlined above) and strategic questions. It is of particular importance that the party learn the lessons of the auto industry bailout and consolidate its electoral position by acting the improve the position of white working class voters, especially those hurt by the collapse of the housing market.
The Republican Party will most likely undergo a period of soul searching as it tries to come to terms with the collapse of the “white Christian nation” strategy which has served it so well since 1968. This will be difficult since there is currently no way for it to become a stable majority party. Its best hope is to return to a variant of the strategy pursued by liberal Republicans in the post New Deal Era, when they accepted the need for a welfare state but argued that it should be administered as much as possible through intermediate institutions and with as little bureaucracy as possible. The result was the development of some very creative policy proposals (e.g. negative income tax for low income families) which deserved implementation but presented no credible threat to the New Deal majority. “Liberal” Republicanism was above all socially and culturally liberal and based in the liberal Protestant churches (a reason for its decline). Adaptation of such a strategy to the present period will likely mean adopting a “social conservative but juridically tolerant” stance which fully accepts pluralism and just insists that it include the possibility of following a socially conservative ideal. Modifying the market order through the institutions of civil society, rather than the state remains a fruitful idea, though it is by no means foreign to the contemporary Democratic Party, especially its Clinton and Obama wings, which have largely captured the political and policy terrain once held by liberal Republicans. So this is not a strategy for a Republican majority. But then I am a Democrat … What it does is to suggest how the Republican Party might play the role of a loyal and effective –and procivilizational— opposition rather than an obstructionist and anticivilizational cabal, and ensure its own meaningful survival in the process. The Republican Party of the future –if there is to be one—needs to be a party of Red Tories.
There are many, no doubt, who will regard this analysis as too optimistic. Let me be clear that there are grave dangers ahead and that it is by no means certain that the Democratic Party will be able to complete the transformation it has begun and lead the United States in an even deeper transformation. And it certainly will not do this without conscious leadership from real visionaries, who are few and far between in the electoral arena. There is a continuing important role for those of us who have been called to speak the truth as best we can, even when it is uncomfortable, and who take a much longer durée approach than any electoral organism ever could. But things look much better now than they did two or even four years ago. The victory of 2008 has been confirmed and we are ready to take the next steps.
Let’s be sure we do.