Post-Election Tortured Thoughts

the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

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?

8 comments

  1. abby

    Never having been accused of optimism, I am cautiously so, now. I’m happy with the result for the obvious reasons. In support of parts of your concerns, news reports show that the election may have ultimately hinged on Republicans staying away from the polls. The predicted record turnout may barely become that, but the partisan distribution of that turnout is something like 7-9% points in favor of democrats – far from the traditional 50-50 split. So, no universal American mandate. No sudden coming together of all Americans. I do however, buy into the potential positive misreading of this in the rest of the world, which could be one of the great consequences. Of course the jury will remain out for some time.

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  2. deezee

    Perhaps I am naive, but I feel far more optimistic than this, and I believe optimism can be a powerful force for change, improved relations, and beyond.

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  3. Charles

    Uncle’s comment is a link. It leads to Sam Smith’s detailed reminders of all the things that had many progressives worried about Obama. All Obama supporters should take a look.

    As a Texan, I find myself walking around thinking about the fact that one of every 4 or 5 people I encounter here (23% according to a recent poll) sincerely believes and is frightened about the fact that we have just elected a communist/Muslim/terrorist to the presidency. I guess they must feel even worse than I did in 2000 when the Supreme Court appointed a D student/untreated alcoholic and cocaine addict/Christian extremist/failed businessman/incompetent Governor/spoiled, rich, pledge-torturing frat-boy to the presidency.

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  4. Adam Shinbrot

    Not to suck up to the proprietor (and why would I?), but this is the most incisive, insightful, and just plain thoughful things I’ve read in a long while. Which means of course that it echoes many of my own thoughts ;-), but Eliot said it better and far more completely than I could have. I wouldn’t change a single word.

    Except maybe to append the thought that there was a lot of hope when Carter was elected, too, and many of the forces that destroyed him are in play here and now, too.

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