Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Take on the Election

I think you would have to be made of wood not to have been affected by last night's results. Even though Obama's win was largely expected and as the evening went on, clearly inevitable, there was something electrifying and moving about the official announcement of his victory. The elated reactions of people throughout the country and around the world were spontaneous, genuine, and overpowering, akin to the jubilation one typically only sees expressed by the winners of epic sporting events.

For blacks, there was obviously special significance in the election of a black man to the highest office in the land and the most powerful position in the world. They are justifiably proud and amazed at this event and I think all of us can celebrate the progress it represents and the hope it offers that a crippling blow has been struck against the plague of racial prejudice. But I am dismayed by the narrative that has taken hold in the media in which Obama's election is viewed first and foremost as a milestone of racial progress. Yes, the racial aspect of Obama's victory is important. But it is, in my view, a footnote to something broader and more profound.

Last night's cathartic outpouring of joy and goodwill came primarily because Americans are preternaturally optimistic people, famously unwilling to accept life as a tragic enterprise. The past eight years have put the squeeze on our optimism as first we endured the shock of an attack on our shores and then struggled with how to respond. We found ourselves lead into wars and then forced to confront both the barbarism that war engenders and the challenges that a siege mentality presents to the liberties we claim to hold dear. We saw the trendline of our political discourse - already dropping as a result of the contentiousness of the Clinton years - accelerate sharply downward, resulting in a bitter and poisonous climate in which we became dangerously balkanized into irreconcilable shades of red and blue. Our differences were exacerbated, in my view, by an administration that found it politically expedient to amplify them by fanning the flames of fear.

In the midst of the political tensions and ill will spawned by the "war on terror," we experienced the emergence of problems of unprecedented scope that seemed not only to threaten our way of life, if not our very survival itself, but to elude any conceivable political solution: intractable wars, global warming, rising inequity, increasing economic anxiety, skyrocketing health costs, decaying infrastructure, porous borders, etc., etc. It all combined to coat our core optimism with a thick shellac of pessimism and to make us angry, bitter, and cynical.

In the midst of this came the long agony of the Presidential campaign, during which we were constantly subjected to the exasperating superficiality of the he said/she said, who's up/who's down trivia that passes as informed political coverage. Honorable people suffered the ritual humiliation to which we subject citizens who aspire to public office and our serious social and political problems were reduced to disingenuous slogans and distorted caricatures. As the campaign approached its denouement, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of McCarthyite labeling and character assassinations at the very same time that the tidal wave of the financial crisis threatened to plunge us into another Great Depression.

Thus as election day came, we were a people sorely in need of a jolt of positive energy. Mercifully, the result was clear and decisive - no stupid hanging chads or Supreme Court refereeing, no suspicions of vote fraud or conspiracies. Suddenly, the full realization hit that an ugly and divisive chapter had come to a close and America's suppressed optimism burst forth in a collective spasm. We suddenly saw Obama as what he is - a young and immensely talented man who perfectly represents the classic American success story; a politician who won by appealing to our hopes and not our fears; a man who despite his clear mandate, reached out immediately to those who did not vote for him; a President whose election sent shock waves around the world, reassuring friends and foes that America remains a place where amazing things are possible. This was bigger than a landmark in racial relations, bigger than a mere swing of the political pendulum, and bigger than the passing of the torch to a new generation. It was reassurance that democracy can still work and that the ideals that we so often and hypocritically betray can still find expression in special ways.

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