What did I learn from my recent US trip? That there were more surprises than the predictable. It has helped to break some myths about Americans. It is not such a perfect melting pot after all. On the outside, the society looks like a flawless piece of mosaic. A closer look at the surface exposes its cracks and rough edges.
US faces difficult racial and religious polarisation due to the complexity and diversity of its people. To a certain extent, the US presidential election results mirrors this polarisation. Only about 34 percent of white Protestants and 26 percent of Evangelicals voted for Barack Hussein Obama. On the other hand, almost 78 percent of Jewish, 73 percent of other faiths and 75 percent unaffiliated (including non-religious) voted for him.
Those who originally argued for the Bradley effect were accurate to the extent that the effect was negative – more African Americans and lower middle class voters came out to vote in unprecedented numbers for Obama. The first African American president elect obtains 43 percent support from all white voters primarily from those below 40 years old. Many still voted according to their racial and religious belief.
But unlike other similar societies including ours, there is a healthy check-and-balance in the American society. Tired of the being pushed to the far right by the fundamentalists and religious conservatives during the 8 years of Bush administration, the moderates fought back to take control of their lives.
Some may argue that it took failed wars, a crumbling economy and race to bring out the best in Americans. Yes, the candidacy of an articulate and intelligent African American did inspire many young Americans to transcend race. However, it is inaccurate to say that Obama won because of a growing economic crisis and the colour of his skin alone.
Obama’s positive campaign has inspired many Americans to stand up and fight for the change they wanted. He provided hope and leadership when the country is craving for both at such critical times. Obama is charismatic but not to the point of being eccentric.
At the time I left the country, more job cuts are going to be announced. So far, 1.2 million jobs were lost since the beginning of 2008. Retail shops around Boston, Washington DC and other major cities are half empty despite the end of spring sales season. My host, a lecturer, at Colorado Springs told me that going for a burger outside will make her think twice. She is a middle income earner. Soon, such attitude will spread to the rest of Americans especially those who are trying to keep up with their mortgage payment.
What does the economic meltdown means to the normal Americans? Many are now beginning to question the surging cost of war. US government is spending close to USD 10 billion a month to fund its war in Iraq. At home, the financial sector does not look steadier despite the recent USD250 billion direct capital injections into several large financial institutions to ease off credit.
Now, the automotive sector is running out of cash especially General Motors and Chrysler. Thousands of employees have been laid off. Pink slips are pilling. The government is expected to announce another USD50 billion to rescue the automotive industry. With pressure surging to create more jobs, the new president elect has promised to invest USD15 billion into initiatives to develop renewable and green technology. He has promised tax cuts and rebates for 95 percent of the population.
However, with its national debt hovering at the highest percentage to GDP since 1800 the government will be constrained in many ways. Obama and his economy team may have to find innovative ways to improve the economy because there is little room left to fund big projects without enlarging the already huge debt of almost USD10 trillion.
Over the last 8 years, the US suffered the “old China syndrome” thinking that it is the centre of the universe. It had taken several unpopular and divisive measures back home and abroad. Bush’s unilateral approach has left the US with very few admirers. In turn, President George HW Bush is the most unpopular president in the modern history of his country.
Finally, the Americans have awakened from their slumber only to expose how nervous the society has been since the financial crisis started last year. Almost 81 percent think that things aren’t going well for them. More than 63% of them said economy is the most important issue. Predictably, Americans are worried about deteriorating quality of life, jobs moving abroad, rising inflation and public safety. Through these uncertainties breed a steely consensus – send the Republicans out of Washington DC.
According to a US Repubican party media strategist, Alex Castellanos, the era of big power projection and frantic federal spending is going to be replaced by an ‘era of meaningful life’. This era appeals to Americans who want to do something meaningful like saving the country. Obama was able to mobilise millions to support his cause to save US from the ‘broken politics’. Under Obama, the 44th President of United States of America, enters the communication age of government.
Perhaps the 4th November is only the end of the beginning of a reform movement but most importantly many Americans who dared to dream had lived their dream to see the election of the first African American as the President of US of America.
We too can dream the American dreams of a better future, more equitable society, end of institutionalised racism and bigotry and a more dynamic Malaysia. Yes, we can.
Khoo Kay Peng