Wednesday, November 5, 2008

These Words I Raise in Praise to All the Things with Little Wings

Lost in the hubbub about last night’s historic win for Barack Obama is the fact that America electing its first black President may well be the most noticed but least interesting change in politics. This is not to diminish the accomplishment, as there is no way the rhetoric of America finally living up to its promise can possibly live up to the fact that America finally lived up to its promise, but there may well be several larger stories that get at least as much play in the history books of our next generation.

First, 2008 will hopefully be looked at as the election that broke the back of the religious right.

Few people realize this, but religious fundamentalism as a political force in America is a relatively new phenomenon that grew out of a similar back-breaking electoral loss.

Everyone (hopefully) knows about the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” election of 1948. What they tend not to realize is that Truman was a weak candidate, the Republicans really thought Dewey would win, and, the Eisenhower years notwithstanding, that election signaled the beginning of the Republican Party’s capitulation to radical religious influence. Nixon didn’t help, especially as religious operators like Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and Jerry Falwell rose to national prominence. More importantly, the Republican Party developed the “Southern Strategy,” which carried Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Bush the Younger in to office on calls for a religious, socially conservative America.

The only time from Nixon until now that the Southern Strategy didn’t work was with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. Both were able to split (or take) the south, probably because they had at least their home states to fall back on.

Obama took Virginia and Florida last night. As I write this it looks like North Carolina is going to go for him, too. These are pretty big inroads and a 40+ electoral vote swing. McCain/Palin pandered to the religious base while Obama/Biden mostly seemed to antagonize it. At least that’s how their attitudes were sold. And it didn’t matter.

Second, the election of 2008 will finally be the night the ‘60s died.

We have a long and not particularly useful history in the United States of voting for Presidents based on their service in the last big war. William McKinley was elected in 1896 as the last in a long string of Civil War veterans pushed in to the top office in the land by the Republican machine. Service in World War II was a big issue from Eisenhower through Nixon. But the weirdest thing of all has been the way Vietnam has held sway over American politics since the 1970s.

We have now heard about a million times that John McCain was a Prisoner of War as if this was all we needed to know. It was the story told over and over and over and over again during the primaries and the general election. We should not diminish his service to this country, but that service does not entitle him to become President. We have too long fought the War in Vietnam to have another four years of reminders.

But the truly weird thing is this: Vietnam did not follow the trend of the Civil War. Bill Clinton was a draft dodger. George W. Bush managed to get John Kerry Swift Boated in spite of the fact that Kerry was an actual Purple Heart Veteran. He simply made the “mistake” of coming back and saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t be over there.” And we’ve been fighting the battles of the tumultuous 1960s ever since. It was all over the 2008 campaign.

Barack Obama was too young to be attacked for anything he did in the Vietnam War, but he was still attacked over things that happened before he hit puberty. It’s why we heard so much about Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. It’s why the Communist wolf-criers did everything short of exhume the corpse of Joseph McCarthy (and by everything short, I mean that pretty literally. I don’t think there was any coincidence in the timing of the various books and programs placing McCarthy as a tragically misunderstood American hero over the last year. This isn’t tinfoil hat conspiracy stuff, either. Obama’s coming out as a major player was 2004 and everyone was speculating on a 2008 Presidential run almost before Kerry lost. The McCarthy stuff I’m thinking of came out last winter at the same time as the run-up to Super Tuesday. And from beginning to end the first salvo launched against Barack Obama involved the word socialism).

The socialism cry was an attempt to extend the Cold War. Ayers and Wright were an extension of the counter to the Civil Rights Movement and the idea of the scary black man that’s so pervasive in much interracial rhetoric. Wright himself seemed to have a harder time than most moving out of the ‘60s, but even his most inflammatory rhetoric was taken out of context. Ayers has become a respected educator and community organizer. Obama’s calls for “socialism,” meanwhile, seem to be a return to the top tax bracket under noted Communist Bill Clinton (actually, I shouldn’t joke. I still know of plenty of people who think Clinton was a Commie and the Antichrist) and a wider distribution of health care coverage that falls far, far short of a universalized, government run health care system.

It’s important to note that the hyperventilation from the right about the dastardly deeds of Wright and Ayers was met with yawns. Every time Palin or McCain said something about them it was met with blank stares or derisive laughter from most of the country. America just doesn’t care any more. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Third, the election of 2008 will mark a sea change in the understanding of American populism.

We have an image of populism in America. It’s Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan flashing silver-tongued words to down-and-out farmers hoping for a break. It’s Tom Joad leading the revolution at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s Jurgis Rudkus preaching socialism to downtrodden workers in Packingtown.

This is the image of populism the Republican campaign attempted to use all throughout the race. It was in McCain’s, “My friends,” Sarah Palin’s, “You betchas,” and all the Joe the Plumbers, Tito the Builders, and hockey moms we’ve been forced to endure. It was the plain-spoken, just folks regular guys sneering at the elitist, pointy-headed, big city liberals.

In 2008, though, we may well have been looking at a brand new populism. It wasn’t the American self-image of the noble farmer any longer. It’s undeniable, however, that 80,000 gathered at Mile High Stadium on the final night of the DNC was absolutely nothing but populism. The quarter million gathered in Grant Park last night was the (so far) high point of the new American populism.

America is no longer a rural nation of noble farmers. We are a largely urban, generally college educated society. Barack Obama isn’t a liberal elitist to most Americans, he is the epitome of the new America to most Americans who went to college as a matter of course, work white collar jobs, and don’t feel talked down to by the Harvard educated Obama because Obama is a peer, is one of us.

The Obama campaign caught fire at colleges and spread across Facebook and Myspace before exploding out in to Grant Park. This is the new American populism, the dissatisfied Gen X- and Gen Yers who finally felt the strength to cry out as one, “Yes We Can!”

Fourth, the 2008 election will be seen as the death knell of Reaganomics.

Barack Obama is not the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story of American rags to riches success. We’ve always had that story, and dragging behind it is always the baggage of the idea that asking for help is somehow un-American. Reagan dominated the American financial thought space for 28 years with “trickle-down” economics and stories of undeserving welfare cases who rode home at night in Cadillacs.

Obama filled the promise of America last night when went from nothing to the highest office in the land. But he didn’t do it on his own. His story includes food stamps and need-based scholarships. His story is the fulfillment of a new America, one that says self-sufficiency is not enough, but that we must build this nation together, lift each other up, look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends.

It’s somehow un-American to spend $20,000 in taxpayer money to send a poor black man to college. Yet it’s somehow very American to spend millions of dollars to incarcerate that same black man when his lack of education translates in to lack of opportunity, lack of employment, and a life on the wrong side of the law. It’s somehow un-American to teach a poor girl about contraceptives or allow her to terminate an unexpected, unaffordable pregnancy. Yet it’s somehow very American to call that same poor girl a welfare queen and only begrudgingly offer her a few dollars a week to feed a child who will end up in that same cycle of poverty and insult.

Fifth, the 2008 election will set the scene for the next American Civil Rights movement.

It looks like California voted “Yes” on Proposition 8. The Golden State’s experiment in gay marriage is over, at least for the moment.

Fifty years from now we might be looking back on this election the same way we stand now and look back at the Montgomery bus boycott, Brown v. Board of Education, and all of the other victories and defeats in the Civil Rights Movement.

And that’s the great thing about Civil Rights. For all of the play that “I have a dream” gets, there’s as much, if not more, power in the image of George Wallace standing on the schoolhouse steps, of hoses and dogs turned on protesters.

Now, to borrow a thought from John Scalzi, we have the enduring image of 18,000 marriages ended in a stroke. It’s an outrage, a focal point. It’s a setback that will hopefully move the machinery of progress and human equality forward.

But for the moment we have something we have not possessed since the tanks rumbled in to Iraq nearly five years ago. The world once again looks to America and from Madrid to Moscow, Santiago to Shanghai, Paris to Pretoria, they see hope. It radiates from Grant Park, Times Square, the National Mall.

Yet hope is not something to be taken for granted. It is, to borrow from Vaclav Havel, that thing with wings, that thing in diapers. It is fragile and fleeting, yet resilient.

John McCain probably would not have been a bad President (although Sarah Palin would be horrible). The thing that no one on the Republican side seemed to be willing to acknowledge, though, is that this is not the time for mediocrity, not the time for complacent ponderances of America’s past greatness. This is the time for hope, for change. Real hope. Real change.

Who knows? The nattering nabobs of negativity may yet be right. Obama might not be prepared for the job, he might be a socialist whack job, he might be a scary black man.

I think he’ll prove the critics wrong. He won’t be the Second Coming, but that’s far from a hindrance. We don’t need Jesus. We need hope. More than that we need the power and mandate to change.

So in 76 days we’ll start to see if our hope is borne out.

But until then, and for all the years after, let’s remember the cautionary words of Thomas Jefferson: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

We need great men, great women, great people, to take the reigns of the nation and guide it through the tough times. But we need to remember, too, that its our job to watch the great ones, to be ever vigilant, and to remind them gently that the highest praise for those upon whom greatness is thrust is that they knew when to hand the power back.


Anonymous said...

Too tired and intoxicated to leave my full thoughts. In short, the religious right is not dead because it always affords two things. Answers, and the option not to think about anything. Don't underestimate either of those in the coming times.

Geds said...

Ah, but I never said it was dead. I just said that the '08 campaign has showed us that the religious right doesn't need to be pandered to in order for a candidate to win.

Hell, word has it that Elizabeth Dole accused her opponent of atheism and still lost her Senate race. And she was the incumbent.

Anonymous said...

That's true. I think the argument I wanted to make is that they were marginalized in this election, because they didn't trust McCain. I still think, 4 years from now, there will be many more Kool-Aid drinkers than there are today, and we could have candidates that make Sarah Palin look awesome. Wait, Sarah Palin already looks awesome- she's just an ignoramus. Nevermind.

Geds said...


My hope is that Obama manages to spend the next four years calming the fears of the fiscal conservatives by, say, being a corporate friendly centrist and not an evil socialist. If that happens the Republican Big Tent will probably rip apart in 2012, since a lot of people who voted Republican were simply less worried about Palin than Obama. I don't think a 2012 ticket that's comparable to McCain/Palin will be possible if Obama turns out to be a steady, strong President.

Bill said...

You do a great job of putting into words exactly what I have been thinking. Thank you, great posts.