Two grand historical arcs define America – its exceptionalism and its contradictions. And they converged on Tuesday, election night.
Less than a year ago I had lunch in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Harvard academic, former presidential advisor and, more famously, CNN’s election pundit, David Gergen. I had recently had some stardust sprinkled in my eyes by Barack Obama after I attended his rally in Boston when my jaded cynicism was swept away by his soaring and inspirational rhetoric. After I relayed, somewhat breathlessly, my positive impression of the then long-shot Democratic candidate, Gergen said to me “so you think a good orator will make a good President?”
On Tuesday, as Americans embraced the politics of change and hope, they also swopped from one of the most inarticulate Presidents – whose famous battle with the English language connected him to many ordinary Americans – for one of the most articulate – and also arguably the most liberal since John F. Kennedy. That he also happens to be the first black, half African (in the continental sense) occupant of the White House drives this barrier-smashing exceptionalism into realms that would have been, until recently, unimaginable. After all, when Obama’s white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father were married, dozens of American states outlawed interracial unions. However, the successful anti gay marriage ballot initiative in California, whose result was made known just hours after America celebrated the election of its first black President, suggests that the struggle of equality is far from over.
But back to the oratory. On election night, gathered in my current Washington residence were a dozen visiting or detribalised South Africans plus one or two genuine American voters. Only in America could such an emphatic and predetermined victory for Obama be turned into an evening of television drama as the map increasingly changed from 2004 red (Republican) to 2008 blue (Democratic). Shortly after midnight, addressing over 200,000 of his supporters, near the Chicago lakeside, Obama spoke with grace and passion about the greater meaning of his political and personal triumph.
His preternatural coolness, his ease, his fluency, and the trumping of hope over experience, embodied by his election were impressive enough and on display as usual. But there was something more. It was that almost, in a stroke and with millions of ballots to back it up, Americans have turned the page on a racially disgraceful past and on the excesses of the Bush years. Obama’s invocation of the Civil Right’s struggle, of America’s battle with the concept and reality of equality, seemed almost superfluous: after all, in one generation and in one extraordinary individual it appeared as if indeed America had overcome. I looked around our TV room as Obama said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still question the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Up until those words, there had been something of a raucous noise, a teasing of the lone McCain supporter in our midst, visiting journalist Jan-Jan Joubert, and the ususal party background noise. But at the moment Obama spoke, there was complete quiet and very few dry eyes.
But, of course, the Obama campaign had hardly emphasised race at all during his ascent. In fact, the genius of his ultra-disciplined quest for the presidency was that he offered to the majority of white American voters a sort of political equivalent of the Bill Cosby reassurance - which made the TV star the white nation’s darling a generation before.
The contradiction in the excpetionalism was driven home to me last Sunday, as my wife and I tramped around the beautiful Monticello Estate of founding father Thomas Jefferson in rural Virginia. This was the home of the philosopher of the American Revolution, the author of its Declaration of Independence with its invocation that “all men are created equal”. Yet, the official brochure reminds visitors that the same person was also the largest slave owner in Albemarle County. But at least Americans are unblushing about the contradictions in their own history. We were informed that among the 200 Jefferson slaves, was one Sally Hemings – and that the “existing evidence indicates that Jefferson was the likely father of all her known children.”
Virginia, was, of course, the crucible of the American Civil War, which its side, the slave-holding confederacy decisively lost. And on Tuesday, for the first time since I was a seven year-old boy, a democratic presidential candidate prevailed here- and a black one into the bargain.
If Obama’s election binds up, and arguably heals, the most gaping wound of America’s racial past: it does not resolve other fundamental and, far more modern, political contradictions. 9 out of 10 American who voted described their country, and particularly its economy, as “moving in the wrong direction”. By a healthy margin, and ignoring dire Republican warnings that Obama was a “socialist”, or the “redistributionist in-chief” as McCain described Obama, Americans elected as president somebody who is going to tax them more heavily and spend far more government resources on public welfare than was previously thought to be electorally possible. It was only the tanking economy, and the widespread fear and misery it has spawned, which made such an unlikely prospectus a winning political formula. But as Obama surveys a bloated Democratic Congress, a Federal Reserve which has now reduced interest rates to 1% (and has little further room to stimulate the economy), and a slate of programmes and tax-credits which will cost perhaps 500 billion dollars, he might pause to consider the wise words of Gideon Rachman. On Election Day, he wrote in the Financial Times, “the economy has been Mr. Obama’s friend during this campaign. It could become his enemy the moment he steps into the Oval Office.”
Obama’s contradictions, at least, can be resolved from a position of presidential power, to which the Democrats return after nearly a decade. For the Republicans there are no such consolations: a reduced presence in both Houses of Congress; and a once-vaunted party-machine was revealed, in the final days of the campaign to be low on discipline, money and message rendered finally useless by a President of historic unpopularity and a reckless stewardship of both the economy and the national interests.
But that’s all for the future. At a magic moment around midnight on Tuesday, it appeared as though all Americans, black and white, and red and blue, were celebrating the extraordinary self-correcting powers of this enduring, and surprising, democracy.
*Written for the Weekender in South Africa, for 8 Nov. 2008 publication.