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America’s ‘adversarial’ election

MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, November 19 2012

Few countries were as interested in this year’s American Presidential debate as was Trinidad and Tobago. It is not only that we are part of those waves of Caribbeans who have colonised Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn; parts of Harlem and the Bronx are to be seen in Florida and increasingly in Texas, in California or farther afield. There is hardly a family in Trinidad and Tobago without family in the USA. The “boxes” of yore and the “barrels” of today were the constant goodwill ambassadors between the two countries.

There was much more than nostalgia for the excitement of boxes this year. “As the presidential elections barrel towards its conclusion”, wrote Carl O’Brien, “many of the bedrock assumptions of American life – that hard work yields rewards, that responsibility will be rewarded and that a brighter tomorrow lies around the corner – are being shaken.” These added up to the “American Dream.” It could have been written as the “Trini Dream” only three decades or so ago. The flagship of this dream Carl O’Brien sees in the American growth of suburbia. Same here: Gulf City, Lange Park, Cascade, Westmoorings, are the tangible reminders of this. The “townhouses” – a new word in our vocabulary – the apartments and the coveted penthouse, were all part of the Trini dream. A friend of mine put it into context: “I am so proud of my country, eh! When I look at Port-of-Spain, I could be in Miami!”

The Westminster System

Americans are lucky. Carefully kept statistics, the shock of after Lehmann Brothers, the number of boarded up houses with no one to pay the mortgage, the desperate seeking for a job, the Occupy Wall Street movement, announce that all is no longer well with the American dream. There is little talk of this here, partly I suspect because we need the illusion of the American dream. Take the continuing grumble for Constitutional change. The problem, we are told, is the “adversarial” nature of our politics. This is not supposed to be a reflection of the adversarial nature of our society. It is put down to the result of our following the “Westminster” system of government. This American Presidential election was the pinnacle of an adversarial system which had lasted the four years of Barack Obama’s period in the White House.

The New Conservative

Alliance

The day after that first Obama Presidential victory, an American friend of mine was consoling herself that he would be a “one term President”. Congress, with a Republican majority, set out to assure this. The new bumptious alliance of “neo-cons”, Christian Fundamentalists, rifle ownership boys and girls and Tea Partyers, provided the mass base for continuing conflict. Bob Herbert, writing in the Times, reported on the run-up to the health care vote. There was the man seated on the ground with a sign saying he had Parkinson’s. Herbert records that a protester from a Tea Party health rally “leaned over” the man and sneered: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town.”

In Washington, Herbert reports, opponents of the health care legislation taunted (and worse) Black Congressmen and Gays. This was 2010, halfway through Obama’s first term. The video of Romney sweeping aside what he claimed was “the 47 percent who do not pay taxes” was not just the reaction of a wealthy man. In late September it was the turn of science. Paul Broun, a Republican Congressman from Georgia and Member of the House of Representatives’ Science Committee, was reported as arguing that embryology, evolution and the Big Bang theory are all “lies straight from the pit of hell.” The Big Bang theory was discovered by Le Maitre, a Catholic priest as well as a scientist.

These were not the only conflicts. Whatever of anti-Castro Miami Catholic Hispanics, another generation of Cuban-Americans was more interested in the opportunities of contact opened by the Obama administration that with following what has turned out to be the myth of a Kennedy in a missile confrontation. Anyway, Hispanics were more likely to be Mexican than Cuban. And more women anywhere were more likely to be waitress moms than Palin’s soccer moms.

Democracy

All of this is pretty strong adversarial stuff. So far no one has classified it as the impact of the Westminster model. On the contrary: Obama, after this second Presidential victory, underlined that this was, after all, part of the freedom guaranteed by American democracy. He is right. There is only one method of assuring that there are no “adversarial” politics, ie a one party state with as its supreme leader a dictator, backed by a pliant judiciary and a heavily censored media. Even when this is achieved it does not last. This is the lesson of today’s Arab Spring. It was the lesson of many authoritarian regimes before that. Whatever may be said of democracy, however benighted movements and parties, democracy assures a relatively peaceful change of leadership.

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