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A Fateful Election

Writing in The New York Times, Brent Staples put the matter succinctly: “Republicans are fighting on racial grounds, even when express references to race are not evident.”5

The strategy has had some effect. Lately, Obama has become cautious about his tone and even his body language. He sometimes seems hampered, drained of some of the energy that excited so many young voters early on. When his speeches start to soar as if from the pulpit, he brings them down to the studiousness of the lectern. Yet regardless of how he modulates his style, some people (not just black people) will vote for him because he is black, and some will vote against him because he is black. His opponents—not aloud, but with whispers and winks—have been betting that the latter group is the larger.

I’m betting they’re wrong. For one thing, the choice of Sarah Palin to “energize the base” seems increasingly bizarre every time she opens her mouth. Even among evangelicals, to whom she was meant to appeal, younger voters especially show rising concern about such issues as poverty and the environment, about which Palin cares not a jot; and a growing number of black students attend evangelical colleges, where over the last decade the percentage of blacks has in some cases tripled or quadrupled.6 The old “Christian right” is showing signs of change.

And then, of course, there is the imponderable political effect of the chaos in the financial markets and the recrimination between, and within, both parties in Congress. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fire sale of Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia, the bailout of AIG, and something that looked very much like a run on the banks, the shameless spectacle in St. Paul seems a sideshow that happened a long time ago. What little is left of the campaign will surely include many questions for Obama and Biden, McCain and Palin (if the press can get to her) on subjects such as regulation, public investment in private capital markets, limits on short-selling, CEO compensation, and the like.

In this utterly new context, deriding Obama for having once worked as a community organizer has become petty and beside the point. Yes, he is vulnerable on other fronts—as a chastened liberal whose domestic policy plans can seem vague; as an untested multilateralist in foreign affairs—but the financial crisis has made McCain sound blustery (heads must roll!) and erratic (no debate! OK, debate!) while allowing Obama to demonstrate savvy and calm. The first debate seems to have been more or less a draw, with a slight edge to Obama; and the good news within the economic bad news is that the Republican strategy of racial innuendo has been, for the moment, blunted if not neutralized.

And yet, in another sense, it is regrettable that the matter of race has been pushed off the table. Both candidates talk a lot about change, but the really momentous change in this election year is something that almost no one is willing to speak about except gingerly. Bill Clinton (who had earlier likened Obama’s chances to those of Jesse Jackson and who has been sporadically disloyal since his endorsement speech in Denver) was the only major figure at the Democratic convention to acknowledge, even obliquely, that the party had just nominated the first nonwhite presidential candidate in American history with a real chance to win.

The fact is that Obama, by virtue of being black, has already changed our culture, and changed it profoundly. His opponents, one hopes, overestimate the negative effect of his race. They certainly underestimate its potentially positive effect on America and America’s standing in the world. Let me be personal. In my own teaching, I try to tell the story of American history as a story in which the ideal of universalist individualism has sometimes been traduced but sometimes translated into laudable practice. Over the last few years, the positive side of this story has been a tough sell. Race is still regarded by many professors and students as an omni-explanatory category and an insurmountable barrier to opportunity or even respect. Yet when Obama emerged as the Democrats’ likely candidate, and especially after he gave his remarkable speech about race last March, the atmosphere in my classes changed: there was suddenly a sense that one could believe in a “post-racial” future without being a dupe or a chump.

My daughter, who teaches in a charter school in Harlem, had a similar but more significant experience. Last spring, she felt a surge of excitement among her mostly African-American first-graders, whose young lives are terribly short on hope and shadowed by fear. Suddenly, their sense of the future was enlarged by an eloquent black man whom they saw on TV and whom they heard adults talking about all the time. The grandmother of one six-year-old said to her grandchild, “this time the White House will be the Black House.” She didn’t mean it as a threat of usurpation. She meant that now the American promise might be extended through a black president to black children who could look up to him with pride and a new sense of possibility.

At least till election day, I’m keeping my copy of Democracy in America open to the page where Tocqueville says that while “people often manage public affairs very badly,” when they get genuinely engaged, the engagement “is bound to extend their mental horizon and shake them out of the rut of ordinary routine.” A great many people are engaged in this election, and if ever there was a time for extending our horizon on issues that matter—climate change, an unraveling economy, entitlement spending, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism without destroying civil liberties, and “cultural” issues such as welfare, affirmative action, and abortion—it’s now. Soon enough we will know if Tocqueville was right.

Joan Didion

Midway through August, before the Democratic and Republican conventions, Chris Matthews made an offhand judgment on MSNBC that pretty much summed up the political mood in which the country found itself: “I’ve seen this election before, I think it was 1988.” He was referring of course to what was supposed to have been the certain 1988 victory of Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush, and to the ways in which a political party, most reliably the Democratic, can get overtaken by its own enthusiasm for being victimized; but what he said resonated beyond the concerns about Senator Obama’s candidacy just then beginning to surface.

It resonated because what seemed striking about the long and impassioned run-up to this election was not how different it had been—but precisely how similar it had been to previous such seasons.

We had kept talking about how different it was, but it wasn’t.

On a single mid-September morning these phrases would appear on the front page of The Washington Post : “stocks plummet,” “panic on Wall Street,” “as banks lost faith in one another,” “one of the most tumultuous days ever for financial markets,” “giant blue-chip financial institutions swept away,” “banks refusing to lend,” “Russia closing its stock market,” “panicked selling,” “free fall,” and “the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen.”

These were not entirely unpredictable developments.

For at least some months it had been clear that we were living in a different America, one that had moved from feeling rich to feeling poor. Many had seen a mandate for political change. Yet in the end the old notes had been struck, the old language used. The prospect for any given figure had been evaluated, now as before, by his or her “story.” She has “a wonderful story” we had heard about Condoleezza Rice during her 2005 confirmation hearings. “We all admire her story.” “I think she’s formidable,” Senator Biden said about Governor Palin a few weeks ago. “She has a great story. She has a great family.”

Senator Biden himself was said to have “a great story,” the one that revolved around the death of his first wife and child and taking the train from Washington to Wilmington to be with his surviving children. Senator McCain, everyone agreed, had “a great story.” Now as then, the “story” worked to “humanize” the figure under discussion, which is to say to downplay his or her potential for trouble. Condoleezza Rice’s “story,” for example, had come down to her “doing an excellent job as provost of Stanford” (this had kept getting mentioned, as if everyone at Fox News had come straight off the provost beat) and being “an accomplished concert pianist.”

Now as then, the same intractable questions were avoided and in the end successfully evaded. The matter of our continuing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and our looming engagements throughout the region had been reduced to bickering over who had or had not exhibited “belief in the surge.” “Belief in the surge” had been equated with the “success” of the surge, and by extension of our entire engagement in Iraq, as if that “success” were a fact rather than a wish. Such doublespeak was rampant. The increasing destabilization of the economy was already clear—an average of 81,000 jobs a month were lost all through the summer—but discussion of how to resolve the bleeding still centered on such familiar favorites as tort reform. This word “reform” kept resurfacing, but the question of who exactly was to be reformed was left to be explored mainly on The View, by Barbara Walters.

The leading candidates duly presented their “health care solutions,” not one of which addressed the core problem, which is the $350 billion a year it costs, according to a Harvard Medical School study, to cut in the commercial insurance industry. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we were assured, had run into trouble not because of the systematic deregulation of the financial industry, the delinking of loans from any imperative to get them paid off—but because, according to Governor Palin (who had apparently missed the briefing at which it was explained that neither entity received government funding until the recent necessity for bailing them out), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “too big and too expensive to the taxpayer.”

Time got wasted in the familiar ways. The presence of Barack Obama in the electoral process allowed us to talk as if “the race issue” had reached a happy ending. We did not need to talk about how the question of race has been and continues to be used to exacerbate the real issue in American life, which is class, or absence of equal opportunity. Instead we could talk about what Barack Obama meant by “lipstick on a pig,” and whether it was appropriate for him to go off on vacation “to some sort of foreign, exotic place.” The “foreign, exotic place” in question was of course Hawaii.

  1. 5

    Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race,” The New York Times, September 21, 2008.

  2. 6

    See Amy Sullivan, “Are Evangelicals Really Sold on Palin?” www.time.com, September 6, 2008; and Elizabeth Redden, “Christian Colleges Grow More Diverse,” InsideHigherEd.com, August 15, 2008.

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