How did Barack Obama win re-election? The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner recently proposed the notion of the “stabilising class”: not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order – the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change. The key to electoral success in today’s developed states is winning over this class. Far from being perceived as a radical transformer, Obama won them over, and that’s why he was re-elected. The majority who voted for him were put off by the radical changes advocated by the Republican market and religious fundamentalists.
But long term, is this enough? In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great British conservative TS Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its corpse. Something like this is needed to break out of the debilitating crisis of western societies – here Obama clearly did not deliver. Many disappointed by his presidency held against him precisely the fact that the core of his much-publicised “hope” proved to be that the system can survive with modest changes.
So should we write Obama off? Is he nothing more than Bush with a human face? There are signs which point beyond this pessimistic vision. Although his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises they amounted to almost nothing, the debate triggered was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly realist, feasible and legitimate, disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction – how else to explain the panic and fury they triggered in the Republican camp? They touched a nerve at the core of America’s ideological edifice: freedom of choice.
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on November 13th 2012.]