The day after. Intervista a Marilyn Young

Obama-open-for-questionsUna vittoria senza mezzi termini. Non ci sono altre parole per definire un risultato elettorale che ha premiato Obama non solo in termini di grandi elettori ma anche di voto popolare, benchè la risicata maggioranza democratica al Senato e la situazione di minoranza al Congresso costituiranno un ostacolo da non sottovalutare per il presidente.

Il paventato sgretolamento dell’elettorato femminile e ispanico non si è avverato, mentre la working class del Midwest ha rinnovato il suo appoggio al presidente uscente. Difficile stabilire se si tratti di una scelta dettata dalla piena convinzione o dalla logica del ripiego, a maggior ragione a fronte di una piattaforma repubblicana che prometteva lo smantellamento pressocchè totale del welfare, barriere elettrificate e deportazioni per i migranti, quando non si avventurava in agghiaccianti considerazioni sui diritti riproduttivi delle donne. Cionondimeno, dopo i commenti trionfalistici ascoltati in questi giorni, occorre ragionare a mente lucida su cosa cambierà – e se cambierà effettivamente qualcosa – negli Stati Uniti dei prossimi quattro anni.

Noi lo abbiamo fatto con l’aiuto di Marilyn Young, storica della New York University e autrice di numerosi e fondamentali libri sulla politica estera americana. Nell’intervista che qui pubblichiamo, Young ci fornisce un quadro complessivo dei limiti dell’amministrazione Obama, che presumibilmente caratterizzeranno anche il nuovo mandato. Dal ruolo dello Stato nell’economia alla politica estera, dalla questione di genere a quella dell’immigrazione e della razza, Obama non sembra in grado di imprimere una svolta alle politiche fin qui adottate, che, scrive Young, lo classificano come «center-rightist». Né sembra esserci oggi negli Stati Uniti un’opposizione sociale in grado di modificare l’agenda del presidente, alla luce sia dell’indebolimento di Occupy sia dell’alleanza che i sindacati hanno stretto con Obama pur di non scomparire, nonostante vi siano segnali di una rinnovata esigenza di lotta da parte di alcuni settori del lavoro americano.

Un ritratto certamente realistico, ma che non offre molte speranze. Quanto meno, ha però frenato l’ascesa del Tea Party e del suo uomo di riferimento, Paul Ryan.


Barack Obama won again. It was not an expected victory, but actually it was a large one. In the last weeks, Obama and Romney seemed to be locked in a tight race for the White House, but it seems that blue collars, women, immigrants (the so-called “47%”) strongly endorsed the democratic candidate. How do you see this re-election?

It was expected by those who followed the races closely in the so-called swing states.  There was some anxiety after the first debate, but if one followed the various blogs, in particular those tracking the Hispanic vote and the immense efforts in the swing states, the result was not in doubt.  The media presented it as a tight race and that perhaps made knowledge of the generally content-less but immensely expensive nature of this election more or less invisible.  The cost was $2 billion –an astonishing figure in an advanced country and unheard of in Europe.  More than astonishing, immoral given the numbers of homeless and unemployed Americans who might have been helped by a different investment of those funds.


More than he did in his first term, Obama will have to deal with what «The New York Times» called a “grand bargain” on the deficit. This bargain means a rebalancing of public spending and budget cuts. Without the economic recovery, the fear is that US would head toward a new “fiscal crisis of the State”. How do you think the new administration will reshape the economic role of the State?

I have little confidence that Obama will change his approach.  He is a center-rightist, with strong ties to Wall Street and the financial elite of the US.  He is unlikely to do things very differently this time round, though of course one can always hope.  But if, as last time, his key economic advisers remain Geithner look-alikes, then nothing will change for the better. 

Everyone agrees that economics has been the most important issue of this election. And everyone also agrees that Obama and Romney embody two different views of society. – actually not so much different. Both candidates adopted a technical approach to economic issues. What is the impact of the crisis on the standardization of political styles, as far as the technical problem-solving approach seems to be the only way to get out of the recession? It’s an idea very popular in Europe, where austerity policies are increasingly devoloped according to a technical point of view and legitimized by a “technical language”. To a certain extent, could we say that this is a global trend?

Right.  Not so different – insofar as one can tell what Romney embodies.  He was a shape-shifter; indeed,  a less ‘embodied’ candidate would be hard to imagine.  I rarely – well actually never – attempt to address ‘global trends’ so I can’t answer the last part of your question.  Obama has not, thus far, embraced austerity of the EU variety and with luck that will continue to be the case.  Whether he will approach the next four years with greater imagination, force and commitment to the working and middle classes is less clear. 

Foreign Policy

In a recent essay, published last year in Oltre il secolo americano? edited by Raffaella Baritono and Elisabetta Vezzosi, you highlighted the continuities between Bush and Obama in waging war on terrorism and the struggle for American and global “freedom”. For sure, freedom is a “cluster concept” which includes many different meanings, but you radically questioned the meaning of freedom conveyed by war. At the end of the essay, you “defiantly” asked «What ever happened to freedom?». I  would reformulate the question: What is going to happen to freedom in the next four years?

With luck, the world will survive the ongoing effort of the US to remain dominant. Having made a horror show of the Middle East, it is daunting to contemplate what may happen when, as promised, the US turns its attention to Asia. Thus far, Obama’s ‘Asian turn’ has been, like so much of recent US foreign policy, expressed in military terms, including the absurd  dispatch of troops to Australia. .  As important as Obama’s China policy, however, will be his approach to Israel and to Pakistan.  Nothing in the past four years gives me confidence that he will have the political courage to deal well with either. 

In the last debate, Obama and Romney talked about China, Lybia, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and other Middle-East countries. What about Europe? It seems that American politics neglects the Old World. Some years ago, Tiziano Bonazzi wrote that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was bound to be «forgotten» by the United States. Is the current state of affairs the fulfillment of that “prophecy”?

I think in this, as in so many of Prof. Bonazzi’s observations about the US, he is absolutely right.

Movements and Labor

In the last year we saw the rise of new movements on the American scene. Above all, from Oakland to New York, the Occupy movement seemed to be a powerful tool to restate issues that were largely neglected in public discourse (rising inequality, labor question, the failure of representative democracy, and so on). Behind “the 99% vs the 1%” motto, there was – and to a certain extent, there is – the Occupy attempt to build a strategic alliance with labor unions and sometimes, especially in the Oakland’s general strike, to overcome the usual unions’ accomodating ways. In the last weeks two strikes hit Wal-Mart, the giant company often accused of providing poor working conditions and permitting labor rights violations. At Wal-Mart and in other places we saw an organizational path beginning from non unionized workers, that, beside asking higher wages, affirmed the issue of power in the workplace. Do you think that the Occupy movement, especially the Oakland’s general strike experience, affected this new resurgence in American Labor.? Do you think that this rise up affected the electoral campaign and will exert influence on the agenda of the next administration?

Less powerful than many of us had hoped.  The slogan was fine and Obama made use of it, especially after Romney’s 47% remarks, but there seems to have been relatively little concrete achievements of the movement.  There remain powerful left-leaning unions (I’m thinking for instance of SEIU) and insofar as Occupy strengthens their hand, that’s a good thing. I think the ‘resurgence of labor’ (and certainly key unions threw themselves into the campaign to re-elected Obama) would have happened with or without Occupy.  The unions realize that their survival is at issue.


Recession hit more women than men, and also more racial minorities than whites. My impression is that during the electoral campaign both candidates didn’t face gender question in its wholeness and complexity, speaking of women in a very abstract and general way. In light of women’s support to Obama, to what degree do you think the new democratic administration will be able to recognize the class and racial bases of women’s condition?

All the pundits say Obama won the women’s vote because of GOP policies on reproductive rights.  I think the Democrats will congratulate themselves on this without shifting their approach in the direction you suggest.  What is interesting is the relative ease with which social issues such as civil rights for gays, reproductive rights, etc. have been supported by the majority of both the Democratic party and American voters whereas anything approaching redistributive economic policies has little purchase.  American remains without real national health care and is unlikely ever to achieve it.  Obama’s health care system, for all its improvements, locks the country even more firmly into the HMO system.    This is an appallingly inefficient and immensely expensive approach to health care and Americans are doomed to live – and die – within it for the foreseeable future.


In the United States of the Obama era, the dominant narrative about race defines the United States as a “race-neutral” country. A narrative that looks like a myth if, for instance, we look at the striking income inequality, incarceration rates and unemployment  between whites, blacks and latinos. How did Obama’s election affected race relations in the US and what could change in the next four years?

Really? Race neutral? Indeed it’s a myth.  I don’t think Obama’s election has changed race relations although perhaps it has emboldened white racists who have spoken more forthrightly and openly than in many years. 


The vote on undocumented immigrants tuition in Maryland brought the DREAM Act back in the electoral campaign. President Obama in 2008 promised to overhaul immigration policies in his first year in office. Congressional Republicans stopped the DREAM act and the economic crisis finally brought it in the backstage. Immigrants, especially Latinos, are supposed to be one of the main actors in the Obama’s victory. How do you think the new President will deal with the big numbers of immigrants, especially those from Latin America?

The Dream Act seems to have saved Obama’s presidency and one would hope that he will acknowledge this and seriously pursue immigration reform in his 2nd term.

What kind of society do you expect to see in 2016? What the US would have looked like under “President Romney”?

I don’t expect any great changes; I keep my fingers crossed there will be no new wars, though I can hardly hope the militarized foreign policy of the US will change very much.  Since one doesn’t know which Romney would have been president and since the thought of Ryan in any high office is too awful to contemplate, I think I won’t attempt to answer your  last question.