Archive for October 27th, 2008

Democratic Gloom and Angst

Even as the news appears as good as it could possibly be for the Democrats and Barack Obama, every Democrat I talk to is nervous and afraid that this one will slip away.   They point to 2000 and 2004, noting that a mixture of negative attacks and a tried and tested get out of the vote effort have been enough to motivate voters in red states to reach, even if barely, the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be racheted up, perhaps with new video from Rev. Wright, or some false but yet believable rumor that will be pushed out at the end of the campaign, without Obama having time to effectively respond.  It doesn’t have to change the whole dynamic, just win enough votes to win the “red” states they need on November 4th.  Indeed, some are convinced that the faked attack on a McCain worker, who claimed a black man attacked her and carved a “B” in her face, was part of some kind of dirty trick.  She’s from Pennsylvania, the state McCain hopes to flip by scaring those in the western part of the state to think Obama is too strange and risky.  Even if they don’t like McCain, perhaps they can be persuaded not to vote for Obama.

McCain could pull it off.  Enough states are close, and enough time is left that anything can happen.   Should gloom and angst pervade the Democratic soul in the wake of all the good news that’s been coming?  No.  But that doesn’t mean they can count on a win.  The GOP turn out the vote machine is tried and true, Obama’s is not, despite the early voting turnout.  It’s good reason to be optimistic that it will perform on E-day, but not proof.

Moreover, as progressives write stories about how the country has changed — that conservatives don’t understand the sweeping change in both American demographics and political culture — deep down they wonder if it might not be wishful thinking.  Has the country really moved beyond the ability of Willie Horton ads or race bating to swing an election?   Is the country truly beyond being worried about the more radical statements by someone’s minister — statements which are normal and in fact quite understandable within the context of the black movement?   I think yes, though it’s still not sure how far we’ve come on that path.  In many ways the Wright-Obama comparison shows the difference a generation can make.

The generation of Reverend Wright was fighting against oppressive and exploitive inequities.  It needed anger to give its movement power, to convince a population to overcome numbing oppression and fight a system that appeared invulnerable.   It worked, their anger and drive led them to heroic acts that destroyed the foundations of the old America.  Obama’s generation recognizes the debt they owe people like Wright, even as they reject the radicalism.  That’s true of the Obama generation overall — the children of the sixties were radicals like William Ayres or the hippies.  They were breaking through an old culture that needed to be pushed aside, and as usually happens in such cases, went far to extreme in the opposite direction.

They won.  The sixties generation changed the world forever.  Their radical agenda was not fulfilled; it was never realistic.  But it gave them courage to fight on.  Now the second step beyond breaking down the old “Leave it to Beaver” world before 1968 is to create a pragmatic, inclusive, and problem-solving approach to achieving the goals that motivated the previous generation.  The generation of the seventies — those who came of political age at the end of or just after the Vietnam war — don’t read from the sayings of Mao, or really get into protests.   Obama is a completely different kind of person than those “associations” that McCain talks about.  Indeed, McCain’s obsession about being compared to George Wallace — a politician most Americans under age 45 have hardly heard of — speaks to his age, and how his mind is still a product of that sixties era.

In other words, stepping back from the intensity of this campaign one sees a country in a long term transition.  From the embedded racism, class division, and cultural homogeniety of the fifties to a modern, diverse, progressive and expressive country of the early 21st century.  Just twenty years ago someone like Barack Obama would not have had a chance to be at this level.  Now he’s raised more money than any candidate in history, has an army of supporters, and could well become the 44th President of the United States.  This campaign, win or lose, is a symbol of the fact that the United States is not the country it was a generation ago.   This campaign is historically significant in any event.

But if in nine days John McCain comes back, Obama supporters should not give in to rage about the system, or the ignorant/bigotted voters (and there are many — though most McCain supporters don’t fit into those categories), or McCain’s dirty tricks.  Yeah, complain about them, build counter arguments, prepare for the next fight.  But American democracy has always had such tactics, and that comes with the territory.  Life is to full of friends, family and every day events to let large political battles lead to anger or bitterness.  If McCain wins, put his feet to the fire to undue the damage of a divisive campaign, and push him on policy.  But life goes on, and in two years we go to the polls again.

Ultimately, the progressives are winning the struggle to remake American political culture.   Conservatives who don’t understand how the country has changed are shocked and amazed that someone they consider so utterly flawed could have made it this far — they believe it must be a media conspiracy or some kind of con job whereby Obama has hypnotised the masses with his images and words so they don’t see him for what he really is.  Win or lose, this election cycle shows that the country continues to move in a progressive direction.  Note how absent issues like gay marriage or abortion are from being even close to the top of peoples’ list of top issues — social conservatism is increasingly on the outs.

Other conservatives, recognizing the changing nature of the world and American thinking realize that their is a place for conservatism, especially to resist changes too sudden, or out of touch with the culture as it exists today.   The worst forms of progressive thinking took the form of ideological certainty: the French revolution or various forms of Communism.  Conservatives can keep progressives from putting their ideology ahead of America’s cultural norms, and keep a focus on keeping the government from becoming too powerful.  Progressives without a conservative counter balance will go too far too fast.  The two sides need each other.   Many on the right get that — I notice that my old boss, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, actually voted for and contributed to Obama.

A last reason Obama supporters should not give in to gloom and angst is pragmatic.  If it is to go wrong, then I say enjoy how it feels for the next nine days to imagine that kind of historic victory.  J.K. Galbraith wrote once that perhaps the crash of 1929 was worth it to give people at least a short period of believing they were truly wealthy.  If this illusion is to crash, one may as well enjoy it before it does.  That’s why I always reject the idea of “expect the worst, hope for the best.”  I want to expect the best, and accept whatever comes.  Gloom and angst are never fun, and there is reason now to have some fun.  We live in the present, not in the past or the future.

And, of course, all the optimistic news may be right and Obama might zoom to an historic victory.  Of course, looking at the state of the economy and the world today, that might end up creating a different kind of gloom and angst!

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