One reason that many on the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton is that his rhetoric, at his best, promised something more than incremental reform, a promise summed up by slogans like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”.
Given the political realities of the US, and the obvious fact that Obama is instinctively a pragmatist and centrist, it was never likely that this would translate into radical policy action in the short run. Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction.
I plan to talk about the specific issue of nuclear disarmament in more detail in a later post. The bigger point for me is that after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. Centrist pragmatism provides nothing to match the enthusiasm that can be driven by fear and anger, as we have seen.
What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.
Over the fold, I’ve set out some thoughts I have for goals of this kind. At this stage, I’m not looking for debate on the specifics of these goals or the feasibility of achieving them (again, more on this later). Rather, I’d welcome both discussion of the general issue of what kind of politics the left needs to be pursuing, and suggestions of other goals we ought to be pursuing
- Ending extreme poverty in the world. There are still a billion or more people living on less than $US1/day. If the developed world allocated 2 per cent of its income to poverty relief and development aid, instead of about 0.2 per cent, it would be possible to end the worst of poverty
- Ending and reversing global warming. It’s still possible to stabilise global CO2 concentrations somewhere between 450 and 550 ppm by 2050, if we get concerted action in the next few years. After that, assuming plausible technological progress, it would be possible to gradually reduce concentrations, ultimately back to pre-industrial levels
- A decent opportunity in life for every child. This would begin with much more intervention in early childhood for those at high risk. Then good quality schools and a commitment to universal high school completion (or an equivalent in apprenticeships and other kinds of technical training). Finally, an entitlement to a post-secondary education or some equivalent aid to establish a small business. (More on the economics of this to come).
- Reversing the growth of inequality in most developed countries over the past thirty years (I’ll argue for the feasibility of this later on).
Writing this kind of thing, I can sense the feeling that it’s naive/utopian/pointless. But I think it’s precisely this kind of feeling, hammered into us by years of retreat that we need to overcome.