Friday, November 7, 2008

The clumsy Obama-Lincoln comparison

I'm sitting in front of a rather intimidating pile of books, mostly about the British Empire in India. The past three months have gone by at an incredible rate. I've never felt so changed, so sovereign from my regularities, emotions and all that jazz.

On to the real issues: Obama's Election


The way in which Barack Obama's election is dealt with in the American historiographical landscape will be unprecedented. It has to be. So spare me, here, and allow me to indulge in a somewhat contrived comparison. Obama's victory speech was littered with allusions to the 'great American' moments. It was moving, but it was also very unnerving. Was it the time to be calling on the past to make a case? Current wisdom tells us otherwise. But I can't really bring myself to be critical. How inspired were you? In any case, in the context of what his election means, it seems almost obvious that he would recall Abraham Lincoln's legacy. In 1860, Lincoln's election prompted Southerners to fight for, and lose, an institution which had enslaved Blacks for nearly two centuries. Lincoln was not an abolitionist- he was not Frederick Douglass, or William Lloyd Garrison. He was a man in a distinct political position, who faced an opponent, very much akin to John McCain. This opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, was after all a professional politician whose middle-of-the-road approach had caused him to fall out of favor with a large section of his own party, swing-voters, as well as his traditional constituency. During the election, Douglas had to pander to the more extreme end of the democratic party, while at the same time trying to convince non-abolitionist capitalists in the 'middle-states' that voting for the 'Illinois Senator' was a death wish. Similarly, John McCain, also failed to appeal to the most powerful constituency in his own party, remaining awkwardly in the middle, unable to make a significant incursion into his opponent's support base. Lincoln was energetic, but not by any means the acknowledged superior. It was his orratorical talents that allowed him to captivate crowds. Were Lincoln and Douglas radically different men? Definitely not. Both were career politicians who negotiated between certain realities, but their own understanding of their ability to shape institutions was different. Lincoln believed he could hold the country together. Again, the parallels seem obvious, McCain and Obama are not as different as their spin-doctors make them out to be. Lincoln and Douglas were both moderates in a time of extremism. The same can be said of Obama and McCain. The comparison is only appropriate because of Obama's own identification with Lincoln in his victory speech. The difference is that the country does not stand as 'divided' as it once did. In fact, Obama won by a much larger margin than expected. If McCain had not picked such an inappropriate running-mate... I don't know... things might have been different. But then again, maybe not.

Anyways, I'm really interested to see how his foreign policy will change. America's Empire of Freedom and Democracy is on the brink of collapse....while some celebrate this potential (myself included), it will not end Imperial behaviour. It will come again, from other corners of the world. It must then become more appropriate to speak critically about China's new role in Africa or Russia's grip of oil-based hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe. It must then, necessarily, become less 'Western' or hypocritical, to speak out against their Imperial slights-of-hand. Because, the West has not 'won' and if Paul Kennedy is right, and Empires collapse under the weight of over-stretch and over-spending, America is headed down a very dark path. What President Obama's agenda implies is resurrecting the moral conviction in America's foreign policy on the basis of a stronger liberal-internationalist consensus. But will that be enough to secure America's role in the world?

Obama? Is that you?