Today I was showing my two year old son a picture of Barack Obama, a name Dana knows well, hearing it on the news and in conversation. He also knows the name “John the Cain” (as he says it). While one can’t really explain to a boy almost three what the President does, it occurs to me that today’s children will see the pomp, ceremony and honor of the office given to a black man – and that can’t help but send a positive message to children. My white son will be used to seeing blacks as authority figures, respected and admired in society (and not just for sports and music). That is powerful.
I’ve waited a week before trying to figure out what the election of Barack Hussein Obama means for the United States and the world. Throughout this year, even as Obama battled Clinton, and even as McCain threatened a come back, there has been a sense of destiny about his candidacy. Back in May, in a blog entry entitled “The Obama Revolution,” I argued that his candidacy was changing American politics completely, focusing on fund raising, grass roots efforts, and a move away from the traditional way of running a campaign. However as President, he represents a more profound change. Today I’ll focus on the US, soon I’ll look at implications of an Obama Administration on world politics.
I am about the same age as Obama, albeit I’m white, born in snowy Minnesota, and he’s black, born in balmy Hawaii. When he was born, the marriage of his mother to a black man would have been illegal in almost 20 states. It was looked down upon by most people, ironically because of how the children would allegedly suffer being from a mixed background. Segregationists tried to fight off change in the south, great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, and riots and cities aflame towards the end of the decade showed a country divided completely along racial lines. I think that my generation – those of us who were old enough to understand a bit about what was going on the sixties, but young enough not to get too caught up in the conflict, who represent the first wave of an electorate really able to ignore race.
For all the drama of the civil rights battles, blacks didn’t really win a lot in terms of social status and prosperity right away. Rather, the seeds planted then germinated in the culture, as new generations grew up without the same sense that blacks were strange, scary, and perhaps inferior. Not that differences in culture, language and music weren’t evident. But these differences became interesting rather than frightening.
However, this election goes far, far beyond race. The United States is a country in transformation. There is a generational and demographic change underway which will alter the nature of American politics for decades. Twenty years ago the themes of American political competition were clear. It was socialism vs. individualism, big government and taxes vs. free enterprise, social welfare programs vs. a focus on volunteerism and personal responsibility. In that framework the Republicans patched together a pretty powerful argument: America must stand against socialism, should strive to promote individual responsibility, and focus on the market rather than the government to solve problems. The fundamental concept: freedom.
The Democrats from 1980 onward had trouble countering that. Talk about the real barriers keeping equal opportunity from the poor, or discussion of the danger of the quicklly increasing gap between the rich and the poor, led to accusations of socialism and ‘class war.’ Talking about an active role for government meant taking money from your wallet, and letting bureaucrats use it to try to simply stay in power and pay off special interests.
Yet those 20th century arguments now ring stale. Communism is dead, and socialism is an empty phrase. We’re moving beyond ideology to thinking pragmatically about solving problems and confronting reality. No one wants governmental control a la socialism, but as Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted, the collapse of financial markets in September is to free market capitalism and deregulation what the collapse of the Berlin wall was to communism. Ideology-driven understandings of reality simply do not work. The world is too complex to follow any ideology. Thus a decent pragmatic compromiser like John McCain wins out against the Republicans in the primary who were playing to an ideological base. And when, behind in the polls he and the right turned to bogeymen that would have been powerful in the past – William Ayres, Reverend Wright (to be sure, not by McCain himself, who properly avoided that subject) or just the strange foreign background of Obama – they were met with a collective yawn. WHO CARES!?
Joe the plumber never caught on, in part because his name wasn’t Joe and he wasn’t a plumber, but also in part because that whole focus on “they’re redistributors who are going to take your money” isn’t especially scary when the deregulated system is sucking money out of 401Ks and the economy at a rate few have seen before.
Obama’s election shows that this country is at a crossroads. We’ve fallen into a pit (which I’ve written about extensively in past blog entries) where economically, militarily and spiritually we’ve lost our way. Our core values are eroded, our moral authority lost, and our leaders too quick to use military power, not quick enough to try to work with others. We’ve also put power ahead of people; not just those poor or suffering here and abroad, but even in our military. We’ll pay for top support in the field, but not give soldiers the support long term they need after they are back home and the war is far away.
This gets mocked by the right, those who jeer Obama as “the One.” But given his intellect, ability to build compromise, and the image he conveys to the world from day one, he may be able to help this country move into a different sort of political and cultural reality. Perhaps I relate to him because he is of my generation, and his ideals and rhetoric reflect the views of those of us born in the early sixties.
Those reading this blog since I started posting it in May, probably have recognized that I’m very apprehensive about conditions in the world. I’ve felt our economy was in dire straights long before September, I’ve been concerned about coming oil shortages, and my posts on Spiritual Dehydration and Material Saturation react to what I see as a cultural malaise (we’re having trouble filling ‘the void’). We’re fat, spoiled, used to winning all the time, and have lost sight of what made us great as a country.
With the election of Obama, I realize that Americans at some level share this sense that we need a change, and are inspired by someone who urges us to look for something better. Perhaps he’s just another skillful politician who will disappoint. But somehow I think the American people have made a very wise choice about what is needed as we confront the challenges ahead. Time will tell.