The stakes are high in the US

Obama's victory is far from certain - and a Romney win would have far reaching effects.

It has been election season in Europe recently. Incumbents of all political colours are feeling the backlash from electorates dissatisfied with stagnant living standards.  Merkozy has been replaced by the more frosty Merkollande; in German Lande and British local government voters have given the national incumbents a kicking and in Greece the up-coming rerun of the inconclusive recent ballot could be a defining moment for the eurozone crisis. Yet for all this, the most important election of 2012 may be across the pond, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

As the US, along with much of the developed world, grapple with fundamental questions about which economic and social policies will best secure widely shared increases in prosperity, the outcome of Presidential election could be of profound importance.  Indeed, as Theda Skocpol – Harvard professor and formidable authority on US politics – puts it in IPPR’s new journal, Juncture:

“I think the 2012 election is going to be one of the most riveting, most hard-fought no-holds-barred elections in US political history – and that says something.”

Part of the excitement stems from how close the vote looks set to be.  Any casual observers in Britain who assumed the election would be straightforward for Obama need to think again. Yes Romney has been bruised by having to slug it out in the Republican primaries – and yes the Democrats will attempt to cast him as out of touch (he recently described $374,000 as “not very much” money). But the polls have been tightening recently and the outcome is far from certain. The economy, while growing, does not look set to take off any time soon. And to make matters worse, the benefits of what growth the US economy has experienced seem to be unevenly shared out.  It looks likely that Romney will seek to focus the election almost entirely on the economy in the hope that cold economic winds will blow Obama from power.

The election is also, in the view of Theda Skocpol, a “turning-point election”. As well as shaping up to be closer than you might think, the implications of this election could be felt by Americans for decades to come.

Why so? An Obama win could mean the entrenchment of progressive changes, however modest, in US politics: healthcare reform, a reappraisal of the principle that the wealthiest should contribute more through their taxes and support for state investment in promoting growth. Few expect a radical turn from a President who has become known for his caution more than his boldness. But in time, by defending these important progressive principles and institutions, the electoral base for further Democratic success could be considerably strengthened. Critically these gains could then be fused with and exploit underlying demographic changes which will see the emergence of a younger and more diverse electorate, potentially giving the Democrats a big long-term opportunity to shape US politics. As Skocpol puts it, a second term for Obama, would “allow a transition to incorporating younger people and a more racially diverse electorate to blow winds into a centre-left Democratic party.”

In contrast, were Romney to win the White House – carried there by the current old, white Republican base and more centrist voters dissatisfied with slow economic growth – he could destroy the institutions and policies which provide the bedrock for Democratic Party support, before looking to reform the Republication Party and broaden its electoral appeal. In the words of Skocpol:

“… there are forces on the right who understand that they are close to their last chance – to use an American football analogy, it’s in the final two minutes and they have got to get that ball down the field and score a touchdown. They understand the importance of this election much better than the befuddled people on my side. They understand that if they can destroy or eviscerate healthcare reform, if they can change Social Security and Medicare for future generations then they can turn afterwards to making an appeal to the growing Latino population and to the younger generation around somewhat more free-market principles. After this election they’ll have to change – they’ll have to give up some of their ‘dead-endism’ over their opposition to gay marriage for example. Republican elites already understand that. But by winning they could very well buy themselves five to 10 years to make this shift, because they’ll be associated with whatever economic recovery occurs and they will have destroyed policies that could have built political identities and coalitions which they understand would have been a threat.”

For many Democrats – and progressives around the world – Obama’s victory in 2008 pulled at the heart strings. But four years on, the optimism of “yes we can” will be hard – perhaps impossible – to revive. Yet 2012 looks set to be a more important election to win – with long-lasting and fundamental implications.

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking, the first edition of which is out this week. See www.ippr.org/juncture for full details.

Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war