Almost a week later, the significance of this year’s election is slowly starting to dawn on me. My initial reaction was a feeling of anticlimax. I was in Rome on election day with only the most tenuous of Internet connections, and in any case polls had not even closed on the east coast by the time I went to bed, so I missed out on the actual deciding moment and had to wait until Wednesday morning to get confirmation of Barack Obama’s victory. And while the training I’ve had as a supporter of the Phillies and other lost causes has taught me that failure is always a possibility, the tea leaves and entrails had been pointing pretty decisively toward the result for the past month, so I wasn’t exactly at the edge of my seat. Mostly, I felt relief that the whole thing was finally over.
But I am coming around to the view that this was, in fact, a watershed moment. Perhaps it was this poster , which kept popping up in Rome over the following few days, that got me thinking. The world has changed.
Holy Shit, We Elected a Black President
In the sheltered cocoon of academia in which I've spent most of my adult life, where everyone pays lip-service to the notion of equality (even if they aren’t all that interested in actually promoting it), it is easy to forget just how big a deal race continues to be in America. And although race alone is not a qualification for being President, it will be hard for anything Obama does over the next four to eight years to overshadow the monumental importance of the breaking of the color line in the country's highest office. The Onion (of all places) captured the staggering significance of this event:
A black president for a nation whose entire history has been haunted by the specter of slavery and plagued by racism since before its inception. That this happened in our lifetime is remarkable; that it happened within 50 years of a time when segregation was still considered an acceptable institution is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. This is an achievement on par with the moon landing.
Skeptics may complain that a President needs to be more than just a symbol, and I agree. But symbolism does matter. Firsts matter. We can never go back to the unstated assumption that the White House is an exclusive club for old white guys. Everyone from unreconstructed segregationists to black militants now has to adjust their understanding of the world to include the fact that a black man can be elected President of the United States.
Welcome Back, America!
Conservatives are dismissive, if not outright defiant, of world opinion, but many of the most urgent problems America must face (terrorism, the environment, the financial crisis) are global issues, and we will need friends around the world to address these problems. The damage the Bush administration did to America's reputation abroad is incalculable, but this election gives us the chance to turn the page on that legacy and begin again, if not with a clean slate, at least with the benefit of the doubt. In my interactions with Europeans the last few years, the most common attitude I've encountered has been less hostility than bemusement. We've been that guest at the party who’s being rude and belligerent and whom everyone figures might actually be a little bit crazy and hopes will just leave before things get nasty. By electing Obama, we have signaled to the world that we have regained our senses and are ready to behave ourselves again. With any luck, they might even welcome us back.
GOP Will Eat Itself
This is the point on which I am least certain, given that I seem to be chronically out of touch with the mainstream of American politics, but I am cautiously hopeful that this election was the death knell for the current incarnation of the Republican Party, by which I mean the curious alliance of big business plutocrats, evangelical theocrats, and jingoistic militarists which seem to have constituted the party since at least the Reagan administration. This has always struck me as an unlikely and fragile coalition, bound together more by mutual hatred of ‘liberals’ than by anything else, and the backbiting and recriminations already spilling out from Team McCain suggest that defeat will not bring them closer together.
As for the electorate as a whole, it remains to be seen if there's really been a ‘realignment’ of the political map or just a temporary shuffling. The pessimist in me keeps pointing out how many things had to tilt in the Democrats' favor to produce this victory: an unprecedentedly unpopular outgoing Republican president; a major economic disaster only weeks before the election; a poorly organized and often contradictory campaign on the part of John McCain. On the other hand, most of those factors are in fact the direct result of cherished Republican policies (trickle-down economic strategies, rampant deregulation, international belligerence) which demonstrably failed under George W. Bush, so it does seem plausible that Americans have finally put two and two together.
I am especially encouraged by the fact that Republicans tried just about everything in their usual bag of campaign tricks (accusing their opponent of being elitist, of pandering to criminals, of being unpatriotic, of being a socialist) without success. And the naked racism and xenophobia that started bubbling out in the waning weeks of the campaign (Obama the secret Muslim, Obama the terrorist, and so on), while dispiriting to see, I think actually dragged out into the open some of the more shameful sentiments that have been fueling the Republican base for some time. People will remember the smears and the ugliness for a while, and as long as they do, it should be harder to deploy them again.
So here we are. The world has changed. Changing the world has not made our problems go away, but it just might be the first step toward solving them.