Sunday, November 9, 2008

Reflections on the Election and Transformation

I got my opportunity to vote for Barack Obama a second time and I did and he won. For someone who routinely votes for losers, this alone makes Barack Obama’s election a moment to remember. It is relatively obvious the significance of the first black president in the United States, even if he isn’t an “American Black.” The notion that a person of color, regardless of their specific background, has risen to the highest office in the land is truly a historical moment.

Although many of the criticisms of Barack Obama as being more “celebrity” than political candidate may have some truth, in general, I don’t him being any more different than most politicians that aspire to high office. Image often trumps reality—the difference is that Obama’s image is divergent from the conventional images of Presidential candidates. Wealthy candidates from elite backgrounds like the Bush’s carefully craft “folksy” images—nothing new. Of course, McCain’s “selfless war hero” is another standard image. For Obama, his image is of a black man who transcends race--a post-racial president in a country where the spectre of race still weighs upon us like a nightmare. This, combined with his youth appeal, savvy use of the internet, and ability to invoke high ideals, has garnered him “rock star” status.

Of course, celebrity status is often a fleeting thing. Obama’s honeymoon will not last long and may not even survive until January 20th. At which point, Obama will have to find ways to address the many problems he is inheriting, hopefully to do so in a way that helps “main street” as he has promised, helps to preserve and expand civil liberties and economic opportunity, and in a manner that will hold his nascent political coalition together. No small challenge.

Obama’s campaign has promised “change”—exactly what that means, of course, is nebulous. Obama’s plans have been relatively specific, however, executing them is a different matter. And of course, “change” isn’t always good. Many Americans have been living through a change over the past 20 years, a change that was meant longer hours, lower pay, shrinking savings, greater debt and endless war.

Obama has also promised to be a “uniter.” This typically implies that he will “reach across the aisle” and bring Republicans into his administration and attempt to work with Republican Congressional leaders. Although the former seems likely, at least in the short term, the latter I am less sure about. Part of the problem is that being both a “uniter” and an advocate for change may be mutually irreconcilable. If one examines the truly transformative Presidents, “unity” was not their strong suit. Lincoln and Roosevelt created just as many enemies as friends. The challenge is the balancing act between the two. Moreover, “breaking with the past” must mean breaking with the neo-conservative/neo-liberal dichotomy if it is to mean anything—reaching out to Republicans—even moderates, isn’t going to achieve that.

The media has labeled the election of Obama as “transformational.” It truly is in the cultural sense—an African American president is significant because of the long history of racial oppression and antagonism in the United States. And although many, particularly on the right, have argued that Obama’s election is proof that racism is dead, at best it suggests that appealing to white racial identity and fear, an American political tradition, may be waning as an effective political tactic—at least in national contests. But in order for Obama’s election to be truly transformational, the transformation must come away from Washington—it must come in the communities, churches, union halls, and civic groups that have been clamoring for change--a break with neo-conservative/neo-liberal dichotomy of the past 30 years in favor of a new American social contract.

The question is whether Obama will provide the necessary space for this transformation to occur and will support those on the ground who are trying to make those changes. Transformational Presidents historically have been associated with the ascendancy of new voting blocs that have altered the political demographics and discourse for a generation or more. Again, invoking Lincoln and Roosevelt, both were elected in time of turmoil, riding the tide of social change. Both offered themselves as pragmatic moderates, but over the course of their Presidency, became more willing to align themselves with new voting groups and grassroots organizations, even one’s considered “radical” or otherwise untouchable. Obama captured nearly two-thirds of the new voters this election, as well as two thirds of non-Black people of color. This suggests the making of a new Democratic coalition. If Obama, and more importantly his millions of young and politically active supporters, can pull this off, we may be witnessing a political realignment which will shape American politics for the next 30 years—a truly new Democratic Party governed by some sort of post-modern center-left coalition.

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