US Elections: Sensation, Identity & Role

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dr. S. Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour

There are numerous debates about the US elections. Presidential elections in the United States are held every four years and it is a recurring event in the political life of the country. However, this last election is different from previous ones. Some consider this election the most important presidential poll in the United States after the World War II. Why? The reason must be sought in the very different link between the US domestic and foreign policies at the current juncture, particularly in the distinctions between the two main contenders, namely Senator McCain and Senator Obama.

According to what is published in the American mass media, the people of America have no positive and clear feeling about the achievements of George Bush during his eight year presidential term. The US economy is not doing well and internationally Washington is faced with huge challenges in determining and defining its place in the world. Bush’s foreign policy record is not brilliant but has rather caused the biggest software crisis in the history of US foreign diplomacy, namely serious opposition to the American policies throughout the world. He is also leaving behind unfinished jobs such as Iraq for his successor.  The general feeling of the American people is that government policies should change and there is need for a change of this feeling. But it is not this feeling alone that gives importance to this election. It is about identity. Obama’s emergence who is quite different from McCain in terms of race, family and social root, underlines the importance of an identity phenomenon. This election shows that it is no more simple to answer the question “who is an American?” The classic and traditional answer would regard an American a white, Anglo Saxon and Protestant person. Obama is none. He is colored with a tendency to introduce himself as black. He has some Islamic traces in his identity and his middle name is Hossein. He has no military background and is proud of his African and immigrant root.

Samuel Huntington, American political scientist published a book a few years ago called “Who Are We?” in which he discusses the identity transformation in America and speaks of the growing number of Americans with Latin root.

Huntington offers different classifications of America:

1.    An America which is restricted within its national borders;
2.    An America which is imperial and domineering and wants to take over other lands; and
3.    An America which is internationalist and open to other nations through immigration.

McCain is a symbol of US expansionism and Obama a manifestation of universalism. The truth is that in recent decades, the contemporary immigration wave to America has been different in structure from the wave of immigrations of previous centuries which was mainly from Europe to the US. The new immigrants are coming from other continents. These immigrations have transformed the social and identity fabric of the US. In addition to immigration, it must be noted that issues related to women, economic class, racial groups and religious tendencies have generated petty identities in the American community which cannot be looked upon merely with traditional eyes.

But beyond the sensation and the need for identity change and transformation, the present election is also about the US role in the global scene.  Fouad Ajami, American professor of Arab origin at the university of Johns Hopkins, who promotes neoconservative ideas, published an article in September 10 issue of the right wing Wall Street Journal in support of McCain’s administrative and military background and against Obama.     

He said in that article that McCain represented the imperial and domineering America and Obama was representative of internationalist America. Ajami noted that the US was still an imperial republic with military obligations and a military calling. He said it would be impossible to run this universal empire without understanding military power and military record. Therefore, he concludes, McCain with extensive military background is better than Obama who lacks any military record.

Ajami’s comparison between the two presidential hopefuls is correct but his conclusion is totally wrong. The militaristic America under the Bush played a destructive and ungainly role in the international order and McCain is expected to continue the same path. Although there is doubt about Obama’s capability in playing a modern role on behalf of America in the international arena but he speaks of a change of role for Washington.     

Whatever the case, the present US election is set to bring in changes and transformations into the American society, including identity developments and definition of a new role for the US in global arena. Whatever the outcome of the election, its trend depicts the turbulence and fluctuations in the US foreign and international policy.


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