The following pieces are adapted from comments made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a symposium at the New York Public Library on November 10, 2008, presented by The New York Review and sponsored by the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and Live from the NYPL. A recording of the event is available on our podcasts page.
Early in the primary season a certain number of Americans began to feel an almost inexpressible uneasiness about the direction events were taking. What made this uneasiness so hard to express was that it seemed to belie everything we officially claim—through election cycle after election cycle—that we want.
We were getting what we said we wanted.
For the first time in the memory of most of us a major political party was moving in the direction of nominating a demonstrably superior candidate—a genuinely literate man in a culture that does not prize literacy, an actually cosmopolitan man in an arena that deems tolerance of the world suspect by definition. A civil man. A politically adroit man. Enthusiasm was high. Participation was up.
Yet something troubled.
What troubled had nothing to do with the candidate himself.
It had to do instead with the reaction he evoked.
Close to the heart of the problem was the way in which only the very young were decreed capable of truly appreciating the candidate. Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. Again and again we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn’t understand. In a flash, we were back in high school, and we couldn’t sit with the popular kids, we didn’t get it. The Style section of The New York Times, on the Sunday after the election, mentioned the Obama T-shirt that “makes irony look old.”
Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.
I couldn’t count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people’s babies dressed in Obama gear.
I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade’s war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism—by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions—“convenient” because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, “dangerous” because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.
Some who were troubled by this redefinition referred to those who remained untroubled by a code phrase. This phrase, which referred back to a previous encounter with militant idealism, the one that ended at the Jonestown encampment in Guyana in 1978, was “drinking the Kool-Aid.”
No one ever suggested that the candidate himself was drinking the Kool-Aid—if there had been any doubt about this, his initial appointments laid them to rest. In fact it seemed increasingly clear not only that he would welcome some healthy realism but that its absence had become a source of worry. “The exuberance of Tuesday night’s victories,” TheNew York Times reported on November 6, “was also tempered by unease over the public’s high expectations for a party in control of both Congress and the White House amid economic turmoil, two wars overseas and a yawning budget gap.” A headline in the same day’s Times : “With Victory in Hand, Obama Aides Say Task Now Is to Temper High Expectations.”
Yet. The expectations got fueled. The spirit of a cargo cult was loose in the land. I heard it said breathlessly on one channel that the United States, on the basis of having carried off this presidential election, now had “the congratulations of all the nations.” “They want to be with us,” another commentator said. Imagining in 2008 that all the world’s people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.
I am full of inappropriate friendliness to white people and even suspect myself of being patronizing toward them. Yet I also can’t quite believe that Barack Obama’s time has come, and I revisit on YouTube the countdown to victory in Grant Park, which we thousands watched on a big screen set up in front of the State Office Building on 125th Street. Interracial Harlem was jubilant and the crowd sent up a roar of surprise at pictures of the dancing in Kenya. The emotion of so many on display in streets around the world made me think of the night in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall went down.
I am not saying that Bush, Cheney, and the Republicans are like Honecker and the East German Communist Party, but the two events, November 1989 and November 2008, share the sense that an era has come to an end, that profound and sudden change has taken place, even that something has been overthrown. Germans wept that cold November night because they had at last overcome their history and were unified again as a people and a nation. The tears of Americans in balmy Harlem, understood by people around the world, said that it is not an impertinence to compare the outcome of our election night with the dramatic news that the cold war was over. And while I am not saying that racism in America has come to an end, certainly white supremacy and the lawlessness associated with it have been repudiated; they have been made to depart from power.
The election of Senator Obama to the presidency signals our return to a nation whose government respects law and order. As president, Obama could put an end to the technological banditry of missions over Syria and Afghanistan designed to target our enemies and then to take them out with missiles, as in the climactic scene of George Clooney’s film Syriana. It has actually happened that the target turned out to have been a wedding and US officials denied that the casualties were civilian and then apologized for those casualties once it was pretty clear that they had been civilian. President Obama could renounce shock and awe, the shortsighted policy that resulted from the proposition that a war can be largely won without having to commit ground troops. He could also bring us back to the idea that the Geneva Conventions are a good thing. President Obama will certainly save the Supreme Court and therefore the US Constitution. The integrity of our institutions has been guaranteed, restored.
After so many years of high-handed rule from Washington, the US had become like those countries we tend to pity where the state and the society have less and less to do with each other. The election of Obama halts that deterioration. He has not only reconciled black and white, he has reconciled state and society. I, like thousands, am bound for the Mall this January, because when I went to Washington to protest Bush’s inauguration in 2000, the police managed to prevent us from reaching that destination. The Mall was chained off.
We have accustomed ourselves to such a diminished public life that we are scared that we are asking too much of Obama, making too much of him. We need to be reassured and so President Obama must keep talking. It is thrilling to think that his calm voice and graceful manner were not just for the campaign, that as president he will go on talking to us like this. Overnight, public discourse has been elevated. How small and passé Obama makes Sarkozy and Berlusconi seem, for instance. We are enthralled by his voice and his intelligence, his literary gifts, his awareness of history, and a mystery about him that he is not likely to explore with us.
The Bush-Cheney administration was at war with reality. But the crowds at the inauguration will reiterate what Obama’s decisive victory announced: that the American mainstream has been reconfigured, that we are a diversified nation, however mocked diversity is by the tough guys and the neocons. Many in Berlin never thought to see memorials to the Holocaust victims around the city, something that happened, in part, when the older generation, the defensive, guilty generation, started to die off.
It was, indeed, awful to hear that the ban on same-sex marriage passed in California with 70 percent of the black and 53 percent of the Latino vote, but President-elect Obama at Grant Park uttered the “G” word and acknowledged that gay people voted for him, were a part of his coalition. Maybe this church victory will be short-lived. The visibility of gay people, the rise to positions of prominence of the young who aren’t bothered by this issue, the whole new tone in the country, may help to weaken resistance to gay men and lesbians achieving full rights as citizens.
Time is on our side again, and maybe a great deal of the emotion that overtook us on 125th Street had to do with those who are no longer with us, those who did not live to see this moment. I voted with thoughts of the absent. And we now can feel we are back on the side of History. Signed, sealed, delivered—we’re his, but we’d expect that President-elect Obama would know all about the misgivings that men like Henry Adams and William Tecumseh Sherman had when Abraham Lincoln first arrived in Washington. People were desperate for direction, the air reeked of war, and the new president seemed so indecisive and quiet. Young men laughed nervously in the anteroom, William Dean Howells observed, as “the great soul enter[ed] upon its travail beyond the closed door.” May the spirit of Lincoln continue to guide this unexpected and already much-trusted young black man about to move his family into the White House.