Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-2009, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

What democratic elections accomplish — presented by Barack Obama
How citizens’ discontent is turned to good use for the progress of rule

How Barack Hussein Obama mastered the path to 44th President of the United States has led to an orgy of admiration for this man. And not only among the American electorate and its opinion leaders, but also among other citizens of the world who couldn’t even vote for him. In addition, the election campaign and accession to power of the first black leader of the world's most powerful state are considered an exemplary testament to the beauty and effectiveness of democracy. And not entirely unjustly, because from the standpoint of efficient state power, this form of state has, in fact, some advantages to offer.

1. Change as an offer to the people:
Hope for a good leader — for a new round of the people voluntarily delivering themselves up to the state

Barack Obama kicks off his candidacy for the highest office in the United States against veteran competitors inside and outside his party. He comes from the Democratic opposition and presents himself from the outset as its most radical representative. He confronts the people with “Change!” as his main slogan, championing comprehensive change without any attributes, without object or goal. In this way, he links up with the widespread discontent in the country, declaring himself its spokesman and advocate. The complete abstraction from any content of this discontent, and from all the reasons for it, that is expressed by the empty formula of necessary change is intentional: it acknowledges any grievance. After all, the trick of this typical oppositional election campaign, which gets by with only one word, is to offer every citizen called to vote the possibility of hearing his own ideas and desires, whatever they might consist in, addressed in the promise of change made by the new presidential candidate Obama. This is what the slogan is good for, and the politician gives appropriate extra help in his speeches. He himself recites all possible bad things that an upstanding citizen can take offense at — bad things that have to provoke all kinds of desires for change. And they are supposed to, since he wants to confirm and reinforce them in order to gather them up and point them in a constructive direction: all discontent is in the best of hands with him! And there is no lack of reasons for discontent offered by the American capitalist world power, as the candidate's campaign speeches show:

  • For instance, the fact that some deserving old people are no longer able to live on their pensions;
  • The fact that millions of children do not have health insurance, and that medical care is unaffordable for many Americans;
  • The fact that more and more decent citizens plunge into poverty, whether they have one or more jobs or none at all;
  • The fact that high gas and energy prices contribute to poverty, and politicians have not seen to new energy sources, environmental degradation, and climate change;
  • The fact that many lose their homes and property because they can no longer pay the loans the “greedy bankers” make their money with;
  • The fact that Guantánamo brings disgrace on the U.S.A., a just war against the Taliban is not being won, while a “stupid war” in Iraq unnecessarily sends soldiers to the slaughter and harms America's reputation in the world.

In Barack Obama’s campaign speeches, these and other facts deplored by the good American citizen are invoked by arbitrarily variable and combinable keywords that call and fetch the discontent of the population, and demonstrate the need for change. No matter whether it is a material worry of a person competing for a livelihood or an example of wounded national pride, everything is welcome for serving up and illustrating the key message, “America must be changed” — a message from a politician's lips that no democratically reared person misunderstands as the prelude to a debate about what is to be changed, and how, but rather understands the way it is meant: as the finale of the political dialogue between the people’s representative and his people.

This ending requires exactly one conclusion, which is at the same time the perspective for solving all problems: that the citizen called to vote believe a President Obama will change America for the better. This is encouraged by the second slogan coming right after the call for change: “we can believe in.” This uses the cooptive first person plural, which raises the discontented citizen to the status of virtual co-agent of change, it being clear from the start how the invoked collaboration is meant. They, the citizens, should believe in him, and participate by making him, Obama, the president who will then guarantee change from the pinnacle of the state. It is therefore only too fitting when the rank and file who have flocked to a campaign event chant the pithy short form of the slogan as a chorus whenever the man with the microphone starts formulating it for them: “Yes we can” — as an acclamation for a new leader and a sign of their willingness to accept the role offered to them. What is demanded is hope, the conversion of amassed and gathered-in discontent into a confidence, as fundamental as it is groundless, directed toward the change of state personnel. This is the formation of political opinion that democracy is so proud of. It works determinedly toward getting citizens to come to a mistaken understanding regarding the reasons for their hardships. All the harm and unmet demands brought about by the workings of the state and the system’s utilization of people are to be blamed on the old government personnel, and are chalked up to the account of “the Bush legacy.” And all hopes and expectations are avidly focused on him, the new hope of the nation. Such a campaign can only work when the human pawns that democratic rule can push around have become accustomed to making another, fundamental mistake, namely, when people do not take the harm to their interests to be a reason to oppose the competitive ‘order’ they continually put up with, but instead think their fatal dependence on political power is cause to bank on more consideration and more favorable treatment by the authorities, and eagerly await suitable offers. The successful exploitation of this stupidity is precisely the campaign strategy of the oppositional presidential candidate, Obama — to make disenchanted citizens renew their ‘enchantment’ and hope for an improvement by, of all things, transferring the continuation of the nation’s business to another political chief, i.e., leaving it to him to control the arsenal of government resources and decide on their own living conditions. This includes their signing on to the lie that Obama serves them as an argument justifying their hope — “America, we are better than these last eight years” — meaning: better than America actually is! They must act as incorrigibly devoted subjects who count on ‘America’ no matter what the cost. Only then does Obama's diagnosis make sense; namely, that they are suffering from the failure of the last president, the antiterrorism one, and not from the vigorous mission of securing the global power of the American nation; and that faith in the new leader is the only realistic way to ‘get change’ — realistic, because he will then have the power they give him; and justifying their hope, because the new one hasn’t had it yet and promises change.


Obama does everything necessary to use the many discontents among the people to form an electoral mandate to govern, i.e., for his success against the other competitors standing for election, two ‘seasoned professionals’ from the political elite: first his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, then the old Republican Vietnam warhorse, John McCain. And only one thing is necessary: the majority of American citizens must be ‘convinced’ of the prospect — as crazy as it is decisive for the election — that believing in him as the nation’s hope is justified, meaning that he is really serious and means well when it comes to the promised change. Since the democratic sovereign — the people — lose their influence on rule once they have given the president power, they desire credible leaders who won’t ‘abuse’ their freedom to exercise this power. A democratic election campaign is all about serving this desire in order to make it functional for politics. Accordingly, Obama and his political rivals compete to win the trust of the governed. This requires some manipulative efforts, “a game with the emotions,” which public experts say candidate Obama so “perfectly masters”: the harmony that comes about now and then in private life and results from knowing a person, and obviously includes the certainty that this person does not pose a threat to one's interests — this harmony is to be applied to the relation of political power and put to good use for it. To mobilize personal confidence for his installation as the ruling figure, he must first build it. This is a matter of staging his political credibility publicly and with good publicity, i.e., successfully. In this personality competition over who can most effectively beguile the people, Barack Obama, with his “meteoric rise,” possesses some special features, which prove — considered ex post facto — to be decisive advantages.

  • He specifies the issue: Bush has governed poorly, so a turn for the better is required. The alternative that America needs is him.
  • He personifies the change that he propagates. Obama’s somewhat different self-portrayal becomes a special quality that attests his promise of change.[1] He offers the image of a personality characterized by superior competence and determination to effectively overcome the crisis rather than ideological bias. He presents himself as a new type of politician who will remain ‘authentic’ and alter (bad) political habits: who will end the mingling of material egoism and official duties, leave behind the political-party power calculations that harm the public good, foster an honest relationship with ordinary people instead of arrogance and false chumminess, thereby vouching for the sincerity of his “vision” in his very humanness.
  • And luckily for him, he possesses natural amenities that he and his styling advisors do not have to design specially for him, and that are credited to him as advantages by the general public, also for free. He is not only young and good looking. The credibility of his promise of change is finally even guaranteed by his deviant skin color — a characteristic that is normally a competitive disadvantage to those who bear it.. As a black, Obama stands for the underdogs and victims of the system and the will ‘to change things.’ As a black who did social work alongside his elite studies instead of growing up à la Bush as the scion of an American political clan, he is splendidly suited for cashing in on the prototypical American discontent of freedom-loving ‘taxpayers’ with the ‘political establishment’ and ‘those guys off in Washington.’ And as someone who has “risen meteorically,” who has nevertheless has made ‘it’ — that is, a political party career — he can also not be denied the ability to assert himself.

To the extent that popularity with the electorate and opinion polls confirm how much he “catches on” with them, Obama gets the charisma that Bush and McCain do not have. This compliment stylizes the fact of popularity — that state subjects let themselves be personally impressed and enthralled by a politician who lays claim to ruling over them — into the individual characteristic of the person within the statesman: the irresistible magnetism attributed to someone like Obama goes as a convincing argument for being only too willing to be led by him. Thus, the submissive desire for a good authoritative leader becomes the proof of quality and legitimacy for the politician who knows how to serve it so impressively.


In the so-called charisma of a statesman like Barack Obama, the accumulated discontent of citizens meets a political personality who skillfully exploits it. No wonder that in times of crises and wars, the number of charismatic leaders increases. Obamania is such an ideal case of democratic rule, a prime example of the achievement that periodic elections provide for free. They are a method and an opportunity for resolving over and over again the necessarily occurring disagreement of rule with the economically buffeted and politically harassed majority of the population. Through the offer of a personnel change at the top, their voluntary consent to state power is constantly mobilized, demanded, and obtained anew.[2]

2. Change as a demand on the U.S. political class:
Self-criticism of the world power — for a reorganization of its means of political success

It is not only the bulk of the population that is dissatisfied with the results of state politics, and to whom Obama offers the constructive prospect of electing him in that case. Discontent has also accumulated in broad sections of the political elite who are entrusted with managing state business and who compete over it. For this reason, all the candidates running for election this time demand revisions in the use of power, Barack Obama above all. The change he means does not concern his cashing in on the mood and votes of the electorate, but actually the material organization of democratic rule. This need for change does not have its point of reference in the failing private calculations and aspirations of the common people; its criterion is — the other way around — the success of the American state that the people must serve. And here there is quite a bit wrong, as the opposition candidate’s review has shown. His general assessment —

“Our nation is at war, our economy in turmoil and the American promise has been threatened once more” (Democratic National Convention, August 28, 2008)

— diagnoses a threatening situation for the number one world power, and stands for an equally comprehensive mandate for renewal, which he promises to devote himself to. Of course, the failures and troubles of the nation are for him (like for all statesmen) no reason to scale back the economic and strategic ambitions of the state, but rather constitute a compelling reason to call into question the means and strategies that have been used — by the previous president in office — and to present alternative prescriptions that promise more success. From this perspective:

  • the disaster that finance capital has got itself into, as well as the escalating slumps of the “real economy,” are seen as clear evidence of deficient oversight of speculative business practices in the banking sector, or of much too half-hearted rescue measures;
  • the de facto bankruptcy of the U.S. automobile industry, which banked on ‘outdated gas guzzlers’; the rising oil (and gas) prices; the untapped alternative energy sources; the refusal of a climate policy … all such things, individually and in total, are taken as clear indications of ‘outdated prescriptions’ and ‘missed opportunities to change course’ in economic, energy, and environment policies — of an irresponsible passivity on the part of the state that “makes America vulnerable to blackmail and dependent on its enemies”;
  • the enemy states and terrorists that are still not finished off, as much as the lack of the allies’ support for the war against terror, count as clear evidence of a wrong setting of military priorities and strategies, as well as of a negligent abandonment of the instruments of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, which is why America’s enemies (Iran, Syria, etc.) have not been made any genuine test offers for their voluntary subordination, and America’s friends have been needlessly alienated. And so on.

Regardless of any specific, practical consequences that will follow from such criticisms, Obama makes one thing clear with all his negative findings about the work of George W. Bush: in order to ensure something that is no longer sure — that America can be taken for granted as the beneficiary of globalized competition, and is the leading power that no state in the world can deny the respect it deserves — he will order a change in the ways and means of American policy.

So Barack Obama’s campaign for change demonstrates a second, rule-furthering achievement that is part of the democratic mode of rule. The periodic electoral decision about the new governing team offers the representatives of the political class the institutionalized opportunity for an interim review of the state of the nation that they find at the end of a term of office. Especially the hitherto oppositional politicians, who lack the partiality and the whitewashing motives of the governing team, are virtually predestined to make a critical examination of the applied strategies and prescriptions, as the people’s representatives call the expedient use of the arsenal of political power that they can make free use of. So the professional experts of the national power elite regularly do an internal political reckoning, by confirming or rejecting their measures in the light of the nation’s (unredeemed) ambitions for power. And ‘fresh talent’ and bearers of hope like Obama can — once elected — claim the freedom of a ‘new beginning’, both at home and abroad. This is how the democratic competition of ambitious power-seekers proves its functionality for an effective state.


In a democratic state like the U.S., the winner of this competition — and with that, how much continuity and how much change comes from the next governing team — is determined by whom a discontented people give how much approval to on election day. To be sure, the object of rule — the people — has no say in the what and how of the political changes to be made; this is solely up to the experts managing the state. They, however, have to subject their will to exercise political power to the vote of the people, who then decide according to their motives and their taste which of the alternatives on offer are to get their chance, and which are not. That is a risk for the candidates, but not for democracy itself: every march to the polls ultimately leads — as intended — to the desired empowerment of an administration. This time, the majority delegates their will to Obama. His calculation works out — to make use of the discontent of the population for a revision of the use of power whose sole criterion is the success of the state.. He succeeds in generating a radical change of mood in the country, and in connecting the hopes from below to his program for change from above. So he gets the confidence he has demanded, and thereby the freedom to convert his discontent with the state of the nation into policy.

3. A program to renew a flagging world power

The fact that Barack Obama’s authorization to govern will initiate a new offensive by the American state is apparent — even before the announced “revisions” in all spheres of state activity and regardless of their specific, practical consequences — directly after the election victory of the black president, firstly in his clarification vis-à-vis the American people, and secondly in the reactions of America’s imperialist rivals.

a) A new national exertion is on the agenda

On the evening of his election victory, Obama steps before the enthusiastic masses and commits the people to realism.

He starts off by announcing to the hopeful citizens that with his election a good part of his promised change is already fulfilled. The fact alone that he now stands at the pinnacle of the state proves the slogan, “Yes we can,” proves that we can change America; and so the discontent with the policy of his predecessor is recognized officially and redeemed in practice. Out of the pure circumstance that he, a black from way below, has managed the ascent all the way up to the presidency, he manufactures one big praise of the greatness and uniqueness of the American nation. “Men, women, and children of every race and every faith” can and should admire in him, as the new boss of the U.S., the truth of the American dream.[3] Of all things, the fact that a specimen of a ‘discriminated minority’ is taking over the political management of classes and races for the first time in 250 years — meaning: despite the notorious racism that has been part of American democracy since its birth — is supposed to gladden all those who have been and will continue to be earmarked as the useful masses and class for the power and wealth of this nation. The possibility of advancement that is offered to everyone and that Obama is demonstrating to them is supposed to reconcile them to the bleak reality of the social hierarchy which they will not escape.

Which, incidentally, also clears up one thing: as far as the hard core of the American dream is concerned — being forced to prove oneself in capitalist competition — no change is necessary. In this system, everyone has their opportunity; in any case, they do not get another one!

The necessary change, however, will come. The renewal of this promise on the triumphant evening just gets a different emphasis. The bearer of hope warns against false hopes and expectations in order to avoid disappointment. The people should not fool themselves about the difficulty of the tasks that lie ahead for overcoming the nation’s crisis — and about the fact that they are the ones who must answer for it and face the music when America is out to win, and secure its world power:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America — they will be met …In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned… It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…” (Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009)

The new President emphasizes that the nation is threatened on all fronts. He wants to push America’s imperialist ambitions through all barriers and resistance, and presents this will as the necessity to confront the great economic and strategic challenges that America faces. By invoking the legendary American virtues for success — the selfless hard work and the heroic fighting spirit of the pioneers — he announces that he will make his citizens fulfill their patriotic duty for the renewal of the nation, whether they do so gladly or not:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly … This is the price and the promise of citizenship.” (ibid.)

They should continue hoping, but without illusion: the happiness of every citizen already consists in being an inhabitant of this outstanding country, and they should be willing to pay the price for it! Obama has obtained the approval of the majority, and from now on he will claim it. The “contribution of everyone” is demanded. And as to any objections to the sacrifices that the renewal of capitalism and “our nation’s greatness” require: from now on, they will no longer speak against the government in Washington that is prescribing the necessary measures — after all, Bush is gone. Instead, they will speak against the “faint hearted” who have fundamentally misunderstood what he, Obama, has promised them.

b) Hopes and fears on the part of friends in Europe

When it comes to the meaning of Barack Obama’s “convincing election victory” for world politics, the reactions of America’s main European allies are quite revealing. The diplomatic congratulatory messages that governments send from Berlin and Paris to Washington in no way merely amount to conveying joy and great hope of beneficial cooperation with the president replacing the ‘unilateralist’ George W. Bush. The German foreign minister writes an open letter in which he praises “dear Barack Obama” to the skies for wanting “to act in a spirit of partnership and to embark on a new course,” only to inform him of what he, Steinmeier, considers the change to be that Germany and “humanity” are expecting from America. The French president and German chancellor open the Munich Security Conference (which “eagerly awaits the appearance of U.S. vice-president Biden”) with a preventive “joint declaration” that already proposes to the Obama government a new transatlantic agenda with which one can, at last, attack and overcome “global challenges together” — as the condition for a more productive cooperation within and outside NATO. Demonstratively and before any consultation with the new U.S. government, they make clear their positions in all matters of world politics — from the necessary regulation of the competition of financial capital, to the urgent integration of Russia, up to the unavoidable climate protection — and they declare the acknowledgment of their positions to be the “litmus test” for the “ability to act together” and for whether “we can live peacefully in the global age” (German chancellor Merkel at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 7, 2009). With all this, the leaders of Europe show that they know one thing for sure: the democratic authorization of Barack Obama to be president of the U.S., and his program to correct the ‘mistakes’ committed by the former government, by no means signal that America has become modest in view of its current economic and military hardships;[4] rather, they signal the political will of this nation to form a new line-up and assert itself as the superior world power. When the representatives of “old Europe” degraded by Bush now see in Obama “above all, an opportunity” (Merkel) to win more recognition for their interests, then they are announcing their intention to instrumentalize the change in American policy for their European claims to power. And when they at the same time counter the “Yes we can” from overseas with the imploring main slogan, ‘Nobody can walk alone’ —

“No country in the world, even the most powerful, can solve even one of the problems alone” (Steinmeier, open letter)

— and prepare themselves for new demands from Washington, then they reveal their fears: that Obama’s renewal of America promises a world-power offensive that includes new impositions on the allies. They assume that the struggle of the world power against crisis and decline means further cause for conflict and new challenges for them, against which they must take up position and brace themselves. It is no surprise, therefore, when Merkel and Sarkozy supplement their request for “the U.S. and Europe to stand shoulder to shoulder,” i.e., for something like joint world domination,[5] with an unambiguous announcement to compete: “We Europeans need to speak with one voice” (Merkel/Sarkozy, SZ, Feb. 3, 2009) — and “focus and step up” the EU’s military instruments of power. So the European plea for realism rather than hope goes like this: America must be forced into the partnership we expect from Obama.


[1] We leave it to professional connoisseurs of personality cult to determine the personality attributes by which Obama allegedly or really appeals to the young and whomever else. If the press sees things ranging from good looks, “rhetorical brilliance,” and athletic fitness to the “boyish grin Obama so likes to grab people with” (Süddeutsche Zeitung [SZ], Feb. 11, 2009, Germany) to be one good reason after another for electing someone president, then this shows only one thing: how natural it is for politically mature democrats that such questions of taste, or the more or less successful styling of political figures, act as perfectly sufficient motives for giving consent to an absolutely impersonal rule.

[2] Those supporters of the democratic form of rule who are responsible for forming public opinion do not shy away from openly propagating to their readers that the superiority and beauty of this form of rule consist in its function of winning again and again the will of state subjects for a state that is after their service:

“He (Obama) promised change, in truth, however, he conveyed hope. … he unleashed a mass movement, he stirred up enthusiasm … That is the incredible trick of democracy that the election system and term limits for top political personnel hold ready. There’s always a new start, and such a new one as this has been rare … All of a sudden, America feels young again (“Amerikas Befreiung” [America’s liberation], SZ, Nov. 5, 2008)

[3] Obama’s election victory is reason enough for German commentators to join in the song praising the rebirth, sometimes even for the completion, of the American dream, and to admire the nation’s ability to purify itself: “B. Obama is now the final piece of evidence on the way to a post-racist society.” (“Amerika ist angekommen” [America has arrived], SZ, November 7, 2008). Yet the continual emphasis that he was actually elected “as a black” already proves the opposite.

[4] A German commentator claims to make out a new desire for modesty in Obama’s inauguration speech: “Humility, wanting to listen, not only to dictate, … a call for moderation, for self-restraint” instead of “imperial megalomania that didn’t even leave any room for friends” (SZ, Jan. 21, 2009). He wishes — so that friend Germany could be less modest in the future! The same newspaper warns elsewhere about such a misunderstanding, and quotes Obama’s contrary message as evidence: “America will emerge from the crisis stronger than before.” The mixture of optimism and skepticism widespread in a country like Germany tells of the hardships of a nation that lives off its imperialist alliance rationale, and suffers from it.

[5] And this is how German politicians spell out to Obama, the bearer of hope, what they understand by useful cooperation:

Foreign Minister Steinmeier: “Together — that means the U.S. and Europe standing shoulder to shoulder… Together we can continue to shape the 21st century world” (Open letter).
Chancellor Merkel: “Our cooperation must therefore take the following form: we analyze together, we then make decisions together and we act together. This is of the utmost importance in the sphere of security and defense policy.” (Merkel, security conference)

© GegenStandpunkt 2009