I followed the recent US elections at an intellectual as well as at an emotional level.
At the intellectual level, I surveyed the full range of positions that both the candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, represented. I have friends on both sides of the spectrum and so I tried to be as fair in my assessment as possible, over and above the rhetoric of all the biases that were being thrown at us by the various newspapers.
I thought that the unlike in the Bush-Kerry and the Obama-McCain elections, this time both sides represented very credible alternatives, and both sides represented the same amount of risks if the US went down one path and not the other.
I did think that Romney, given his corporate background, would have been able to make some very sensible decisions, even borrow from Obama’s line of thought and make them palatable to Republicans. But two things made me really worried about a Romney presidency. Firstly, I thought that the military lobbyists had already got to Romney, evident in the blank check he was willing to give military spending during the various debates.
When I was in Washington during the time of Bush’s second Iraqi invasion, I had sat in dinners where I heard Republicans saying that “… the war would cost $67b a year… and we can afford it.” I had thought to myself then why would anyone want to “afford” a war. As it turned out, $67b a year ballooned to something completely unsustainable. The idea of affordability was wrong footed from the very start.
The war lobby in Washington is alive and well today. The same lobby which in the Bush years, worked through vice president Cheney and his Halliburton connections to milk the system quite blatantly. Connections and waived procurement rules ballooned military related spending for everything from tissue paper to F16s. To hear Romney offer unilaterally to expand military spending, when no one was asking him for it, made the alarm bells ring in my head.
The second thing I had become afraid of listening to Romney was the way in which he wished in the shale gas prospects to reduce the price of gas on the streets, even before it had been drilled. This was to me a demonstration of the moral weakness of America, the desire to spend something before it was even earned. Shale gas is not a panacea to the American energy problem. It is just buying time while sustainable alternatives were found. To offer it as a means of reducing the price of gas momentarily was very shallow.
Obama had managed to alienate almost the entire corporate and banking sectors with his Dodd-Frank and other initiatives in the past four years. I was told that from a poll, about 70% of bankers were rooting for Romney. There was so much that Obama did to alienate large institutional pools – the civil service at the very least, the military and so on – that he waded against the tide when it came to their support during the elections.
I also thought he spent too much time taking advice from over-rated people like Larry Summers, whom I see as a self-serving bully hiding behind a pseudo-intellectual veneer. Investment banks should have taken haircuts on their failing trades in his time.
I thought that Obama’s position of taxing the rich and liberalizing the middle class was sensible. Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich heralded the era of private equity and hedge funds because the rich profited from capital gains. The next twenty years were all about the rise of financial services as a percentage of the economy. It was also the step that took the rich away from the real economy. Today the big need is to liberalize the middle class to spend.
But on the day the results were announced, I remembered that my emotional response was much simpler. It was one of relieve. The black man won again. As I examined my deep-set reason for feeling this way, the main reason is that I have become so very tired of a world determined by what I now call the “white westerner”.
Let me explain. I think that in today’s world, the idea of western civilization encompasses both whites and non-whites. Western civilization has in its DNA a proselytizing element in it. It colonized other civilizations, it propagated its languages, its religions, its forms of government. The Americans exported their democracy as if it was a religion, wishing that all others will subscribe to it.
Well, all of that has come back to roost now. All of us who subscribe to any form of European or English speaking western education, social influence, ideas, feelings, thought, are today “westerners”. Both westerners and non-westerners think like westerners to the collective problems we face in the world today. We use the same data, the same logic, the same emotions, the same instincts to respond to the issues around us and more importantly value the same outcomes.
For a long time now, the “white westerner” has behaved as if western civilization belonged only to them. It no longer does. It belongs to all of us who feed this civilization with the ideas and philosophies that keeps it growing and subjugating all other civilizations, even our native civilizations, to the periphery.
Both white and nonwhite westerns find our own validation in the ideas we now share. For me to now think and function as if I am inferior to the white man is way too tiring. A pretense not worth keeping. I am not only his equal, I also contribute to the ideas that define him.
In the past four years, the way in which the white westerner tried so very hard to invalidate their own president was really very tiring to watch. They tried to say he was not American. Not born there. Not one of them, despite him having won an election on their own terms. Obama came to represent the part of western civilization that was not acceptable to them. It was important to them for him to lose, so as to preserve the exclusivity of their own identity.
A one–term Obama term would have institutionalized the “non-white westerner” as an aberration, as a concession that the “white westerner” could give out of the largesse of his enlightened kindness to the people in the periphery. There were a few such aberrations on the sidelines at about the same time. People are not going to remember Vikram Pandit for what he did for Citibank, for example. His story is written into the footnotes.
It was important that they could not say “see, we gave you the chance, you failed, and now let us get on with how it’s done.” The history of Western civilization would have moved on a completely different track if they could. A full two-term Obama would make it difficult to deny him statesman appeal whose views will be as valid as that of Clinton’s, Kennedy’s and Roosevelt’s.
That main stream is what is being redefined today. Mainstream means the lowest common denominator shared by the people who define the core of a society. The election results showed that a Republican party congress comprising more than 80% well-dressed upper middle class white people can no longer be mainstream. It might be counter-revolutionary, even militant, but not mainstream anymore.
One day, a white Republican will win the US election again. But this “white westerner” will be in touch with the full import of the word “westerner”. He will be in touch with the middle class blacks, the Latinos, the Indians, the Chinese who are also now also “westerners”. These are not people who are asking to be treated as minorities. They are asking to be part of the national conversation, not just in the US, but any western society in which they belong.
Such a president will not have to “reach out” to them, as Romney tried to do, especially in the last minutes of his campaign and failed terribly. The fictitiousness and the disconnect were too glaring. He will have to be one of them, having grown up with them, lived with them, shared ideas with them and still white and still Republican.
It is tempting to think that the Democrats are nearer to this new reality than the Republicans. But examine closer and you will find that there are more new Republicans than there are new Democrats. Blacks, Indians, Chinese, even at governor levels who subscribe to the western values of the core Republicans. I thought Republican Colin Powell demonstrated that rational bipartisan mind in a clear way right through the elections.
The cosmopolitan nature of the Democratic party was defined in the 1960s and if the Republican party manages to renew itself in time for the next election, it will make the Democratic Party look dated.
The fact the old definitions are breaking down does not mean the new ones will be vague or all inclusive. Some pessimists in the US media labeled this year’s elections as the most racist ever. What the “white westerners” are refusing to accept is the fact that the idea of “western” civilization is becoming even more inclusive than it ever was, and they are the only ones rejecting the notion.
Just how ingrained the rejection of this idea is was evident in the parade all through this election. The factual inaccuracies in Romney’s script about Obama’s record were clearly written by advisors who had lost all sense of objectivity.
After the election, the Wall Street Journal headlines said “Obama narrowly wins the elections.” Wait a minute. 60% of the popular vote is not narrowly. Respectable businessmen like Donald Trump childishly tweeting his consternation for all the world to see. The parade was really funny to watch.
Western civilization without the input of the new westerners was turning really ugly. Criticisms of Obama was not measured against the farcical behavior of a string of white predecessors. The Bushes, Alan Greenspan, corporate figures from Mike Milken to Sandy Weill and Hank Paulson. All monumentally more responsible for what the US is today than he will ever be.
Western civilization on this trajectory was on a very clear track. Live beyond your means, leverage everything, take responsibility for nothing, don’t blame your friends, feed your friends, steal from tomorrow’s gas, the other guy’s economy is in a worse state. Not that these traits are not found in third world countries. It’s just that the white westerners do it with such style, we think they are fashionable.
This is not to say that Western civilization is in its death throes. This is exactly the thesis of this essay. That it is in a period of redefinition, and the people who are the last to understand this are the “white westerners” themselves.
Egyptian civilization lasted 2000 years before it went into a long period of decline over about 1000 years. Chinese and Indian civilizations have survived by being insular at the core and accommodating in the periphery over a 5000 year period. These are not civilizations that set out to shape the world, even if they do.
Western civilization, in its current form, after the dark ages, is only 600 years old and it is not insular. It is wide open to redefinition and it proselytizes vehemently. It’s antecedent Greek civilization survived only 1600-1800 years, but it too borrowed its knowledge heavily and lent heavily to subsequent civilizations.
This is not to say that a more inclusive future can be brighter. The mistakes will be different. While Western civilization can have a shared cosmopolitan base, the primordial instincts of its parts can be disconcerting.
This is where spending time thinking about what the new shared lowest common denominator will be in the US will help all of us figure out how the future will unfold. It will certainly be manifested in the renewal of the Republican party itself.
In my mind, US society is a frontier civilization, continuing to redefine the boundaries and nature of human society. It does this inelegantly, displaying all the ugliness of its primordial ethnic instincts for all the world to see. But they get there eventually, ahead of everyone else.
Actually, this ability to be redefined and morphed is what makes western civilization able to dominate all other civilizations on this planet today. The culture of greed and self-centeredness of American society has morphed so far away from the origins of Western civilization as a communal civilization in the Mediterranean basin.
It borrows and steals from the language and essence of other civilizations so as to continue dominating. The environment, for example, was native to other more benign civilizations long before Westerners finally got to the green movement to propagate sustainability as if it was their idea in the first place.
But the white westerner is intellectually sentimental in the way the Chinese, for example, is not. He moves from idea to idea as if each one is a religion. From Keynes to Hayek to Friedman to Minsky. Why should Reaganomics hold sway like a religion in the first place? It served its purpose in its time and place, but what can we take from it, apply to our current realities and move on? There are variations more suited to today’s economy that need to be discussed and implemented dispassionately.
But politicians, not just in the US but everywhere, toy with past knowledge like a cat toys a dead lizard. There is very little intelligent conversation at the national level in the US today because every idea is treated like dogma. Dogma is the politicians collateral. It is the same in all countries. It uses crude and childish language (“fiscal cliff”) screaming across the newspaper headlines, and we lose nothing to ignore them.
Yet, out of these immature ways, western civilization, as defined in America, will redefine itself and dominate the world for some time yet. Even if it carries the “white westerner” along with it, kicking, screaming, misbehaving and refusing to play with the black man.