A country with a terrible history of racism and racist violence has elected a black president. Looking at the ecstatic crowd in Grant Park, Chicago, the moment Obama was declared the winner, one sees with vivid force that many Americans haven't had much of a chance to feel proud of their country for a long time. Young Americans, particularly blacks and Hispanics, yearned for all the affirmations that the Obama campaign has represented, and their joy was manifest and moving in Grant Park, Times Square and other venues across the country.
Equally striking was the rapidity with which one saw a new zeitgeist flaring into life on all the networks — America is a country eager to stand tall once more in the eyes of other nations. Not the nation of stolen elections, of Guantanamo, of renditions, but the nation that elects a black man to the White House. The commentators fell over themselves to repeat the message that America is showing a new face to the world.
What sort of face? I was struck by the first reaction to Obama's victory speech by Rachel Maddow, MSNBC's rapidly rising left-liberal star, who seized on this line: "A new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down: We will defeat you." "I was delighted," Maddow exclaimed, "to hear him say in such blunt terms, 'We will defeat you.'" She went on to snarl against "nihilists," "nuts" and "crazies" seeking "world domination" with all the fervor of a right-wing radio shock jock or, for that matter, Bush or Cheney.
Maddow's reflexive comment was a salutary reminder that it was only a decade ago that liberalism's laptop bombardiers were hustling Clinton into ordering the bombing of civilian targets in the former Yugoslavia. The wisdom, as yet untested, is that Election 2008 is registering as big a sea change in American politics as did 1932 for the Democrats with FDR and 1964 for them with LBJ. Patrick Buchanan, who helped invent conservative politics in the age of Nixon, said mournfully that the Conservative Revolution is over, and George Bush has been the gravedigger.
Not surprisingly, the commentators were eager to stress the bipartisan nature of Obama's victory. "His ability to govern," David Gergen said, "will be in his ability to withstand a stampede (by Congress) to the left." Another CNN panelist invoked the mandate given to "the center-right coalition." Obama, should he espouse any genuine effort toward positive change, will be reminded of this supposed mandate many times in the press, as will Nancy Pelosi and her communist accomplices in the House. Organized labor put tremendous effort into getting a veto-proof Democratic majority of 60 in the Senate and was disappointed. I'm sure that many in the Democratic high command will heave deep sighs of relief at still having Republican obstructionism to blame when labor's objectives, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, get put on the back burner.
Since 1948, every incoming Democratic president has pledged health-care reform, and every one of them has been routed by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Congress can surely beat off any presidential challenges to the Pentagon budget. Obama has promised early action to close Guantanamo and to end torture and renditions, which will be simple ways of improving the Empire's image. In terms of political change, one can invoke 1932 and 1964, but the strongest parallel is really with 1960 and John Kennedy, repository of so many youthful hopes. Of course, it wasn't long before reality caught up with the hopes and overtook them, with deepening involvement in Vietnam and the disaster of the Bay of Pigs. There will be similar bruising engagements with reality in the months ahead and prospects of far greater popular alarm and discontent when the full extent of America's weakness becomes apparent.
"I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election," John McCain said in his farewell remarks. Actually, there was a lot he could have done. He ran an awful campaign. Obama is enveloped in an aura of inevitability, but let us raise a final toast to that vital ingredient, luck. Give me lucky generals, said Napoleon. Never was there a luckier candidate in the timing of economic collapse, the ultimate October surprise, for which I suppose we can really thank Alan Greenspan.
We are in for a season of overstatements. America's racist demons laid to rest? Virginia voted 52 to 47 for Obama, and at the same time voted 64 to 35 for the white Democrat Mark Warner for Senate. Exit polls established that only 39 percent of whites in Virginia backed Obama. As David Swanson remarked on election night, "What put Obama over in Virginia was not the end of racism but the end of support for George W. Bush, whom 72 percent of voters said they disapproved of." Above all else, Nov. 4 was a day of savage rejection of a sitting president and of unbounded joy at the prospect of his imminent departure.