By morning light after last night’s dancing in the streets, I am clearly happy but, I need some help, I am also worried. The commentators are talking about how this election has redrawn the electoral map, obviating the red/blue state distinction with which we have grown so comfortable. But Obama is far from the consensus president. The popular vote was much closer to 50/50% than the electoral college results reflected. That is going to make for an awful lot of disenfranchised voters, as Obama hinted at in his victory speech when he spoke of his aspirations to be the President of the people whose vote he had not yet earned.
I recall the vehemence of my feeling, the past eight years, that Bush was not my President, my hopes that the rest of the world understood the distinction between the U.S.’s government and its people, my desire to apologize for our having elected Bush and inflicted him on the world. I fear that 50% of the public may have even more intense sentiments that Obama is not their President. The Republican electorate has been intensely indoctrinated for the past eight years (at least) by the RNC’s appeal to narrow tribal identity. As I have written in the past, I think this is a hardwired part of human nature, an evolutionary consequence of millennia of human organization into small social bands. We are not really adapted to larger societies (as Freud too suggested in Civilization and Its Discontents) and our better natures have always struggled against the ongoing inherent tendency to xenophobia. Republican campaigning, especially under Karl Rove, made a malignant and insidious appeal to this prejudice and fear of the ‘different’, to which a sizable part of the electorate responds instinctually. Obama’s differentness, then, will I fear mobilize a virulent response against not just racial and ethnic minorities but other ‘different’ lifestyle choices, gender preference cohorts, immigrants and minority religious groupings. A minority President further disenfranchises the middle-American demographic. (I noted with relief that Obama was behind a bulletproof shield in Grant Park last night. I am not alone in being concerned for his personal safety and that of his family.)
The shrinking Republican constituency will be if anything a more rabid Right, with the departure of the moderate middle. I fear we will see not a reign of national unity and conciliation but one of accentuating polarization and renewed Culture War. While McCain was quite personally restrained in his race-baiting, he certainly did nothing to discourage his supporters’ xenophobia, as was evident in the audience ‘s catcalls when he mentioned Obama’s name in his concession speech and call for conciliation last night. The bigots and the fundamentalists, who never realized they were pansies of the grandiose world-domination dreams of the Neocons, are I fear a monster without a head.
And I worry that Obama was, in a sense, elected by accident. The coalition he built, from a combination of his charismatic appeal to our yearning for Camelot again on the one hand and on the other his hard-boiled South Side Chicago capacity to build a highly efficient political machine, was one of people of color, the young, the poor, and the highly educated affluent liberals. But what tipped the scales was the serendipitous eruption of the financial crisis, driving a substantial proportion of the middle class, fearful about their earning power, their job security and their shrinking equity, into the Obama camp. I fear it is not a natural coalition, and it will fall apart as the economy continues in crisis. The marginal respond to Obama’s inspiring message of hope, but the middle responds to the condition of its pocketbook and bank balance. And can anyone really deliver on promises to remedy our economic woes, unless it is by a fundamental dismantling of the debt-driven pyramid scheme that is the foundation of American prosperity?
Whoever was to assume office under the current circumstances would face daunting, unenviable challenges. I fear that history will not be kind to the President elected in 2008, nor will the Republicans remind the public how much of the mess was inherited from the previous decade of execrable ineptitude. Is Obama likely to disappoint in other spheres too? Certainly, he warned us in his victory speech that he will not be a ‘perfect’ President. Will we be able to stand the compromises he must make to extricate us from the obscene war in Iraq? The fact that it will not be achieved with any elegance or rapidity? Certainly, from the moment he assumes office, he will have restored an enormous amount of the goodwill of the world toward the United States and inspired an enormous amount of the hopes of the developing world. He certainly will not squander that goodwill and hope in the way that Bush has been so adept at doing. But China and Russia are looming presences especially to an economically vulnerable U.S. And, historically, those regimes have gotten along better with rigid and mistrustful Republican administrations than conciliatory collaborative ecumenical Democratic ones.
As much as the election represents a challenge to the Right, it will also fundamentally shake up the worldview of progressives, who have functioned best when in opposition, defensive and elitist. How to conceive of the electorate as something other than the customary lumpenproletariat which does not know their best interests? Certainly, I am ecstatic that the empowerment and enfranchisement of new constituencies in American society is a genie that once unleashed cannot be put back in the bottle. Maybe, indeed, it is nothing but my own inability to be comfortable in any role apart from that of a disenfranchised sputtering curmudgeon which leads me, in a sort of covert wish fulfillment, to predict that such gloom and doom will come out of Obama’s election. I would look forward to being proven wrong. Comments?