On November 4, the voters gave a resounding, nearly deafening answer to the needling question of pundits who have spent the past two years asking, Is America ready for a black President?
Yes, it is.
Of course, it is possible to overstate the significance of this moment for the condition of black Americans. But it is not possible to overstate its sweetness–and the pure, unadulterated joy that has come from tasting it. The satisfaction is all the greater because three states of the former Confederacy–its erstwhile capital, Virginia, Florida and, it appears, North Carolina–will give their electoral votes to a black man. The word “union” seems stronger and more apt than ever.
Of the some 40 million white Americans who voted for Barack Obama, many no doubt set aside their racial prejudices for the sake of their economic future; many others, however, actively chose to renounce them, and the youngest cohort of voters, who voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, showed they are accustomed to and enthusiastic about a genuinely multiracial society in a way no previous generation has been. Talk of Obama as a “postracial” candidate was always misplaced, but his election does bring us closer to the dream articulated by so many black leaders, all the way back to Frederick Douglass, of a society that has moved beyond race not because racism is ignored but because there is greater opportunity and equality.
This election certainly doesn’t mean racism is dead. Obama was an extraordinary candidate with enormous political talents running in a climate warm to Democrats, against the candidate of a party whose incumbent president boasts an approval rating of less than 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded of any American president. Those were Obama’s built-in advantages. His blackness (and his “funny name”) was something he had to overcome, and he did so brilliantly. In the end, his unique promise of racial reconciliation–from a man whose very existence, whose very blood, testifies to its possibility–worked.
People came together, even in Republican strongholds like Indiana and Virginia, narrowly but clearly rejecting the McCain/Palin message about Obama’s purported terrorist connections and his alleged detachment from the “pro-America” parts of the country. John McCain was gracious in defeat, but nonetheless it is worth relishing the failure of his campaign’s basest tactics, a veritable garage sale of musty culture-war tropes: resentment of “elitists” and fears about race (Nixon); hostility toward issues and a heavy reliance on personality (Reagan); and blatant, almost caricatured appeals to reactionary populism and social conservatives (George W. Bush). That these maneuvers now appear to have backfired heralds a new beginning in American politics. The culture war may not be over, but conservatives must face the fact that over the long term they cannot win it.
It is also worth taking a moment to savor the fact that voters rebuffed McCain’s attempt to stoke their fears by calling Obama a “socialist” because he believes in “spreading the wealth.” The last few decisive weeks of the election really did pit two opposing economic ideologies against each other: the Reaganite catechism of cuts to social programs, tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation against a center-left vision of social investment, access to healthcare, re-regulation and that dreaded word, redistribution. Ideas have consequences, as conservatives like to say, and the consequences of Reaganism have finally proved to be so blatantly disastrous that we have the rare opportunity to build popular support for a progressive governing agenda. That six in ten voters told exit pollsters the economy was their number-one concern, most of whom voted for Obama, should be read as the repudiation of the free-market agenda that it is.
As the conversation turns to the question of a “mandate,” nearly everyone concedes that Obama has one, but there’s already disagreement about what it consists of. He won with a very broad coalition behind him–from the civil rights establishment to the Beltway establishment; from antiwar activists to Colin Powell. The pressure to govern from the center, to try not to alienate the establishment, will be massive. But as in 1933, when FDR took office, the people yearn for bold leadership–and the crisis we are in requires it.
FDR, we must remember, did not run as a radical reformer but was compelled to take dramatic action because of the great traumas and powerful movements around him. The Great Depression, combined with pressure from the popular social movements working outside the administration (including the empowered unions of that time), pushed him to carry out bolder reforms. There’s a powerful lesson in this history for our time.
The small “d” democratic movement that helped elect Barack Obama–the millions of volunteers and organizers, and 2 million-plus small donors–will play a key role in forging a progressive agenda under his administration. We will need this broad and energized grassroots base to overcome the timid incrementalists, the forces of money and power, that are obstacles to change. With solid majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats are poised to provide the Obama administration with crucial backup. Historically, though, we know the Democratic Party’s finest moments have come when it was spurred into action by movements on the outside.
This is where The Nation, along with other independent and progressive forces, can come into play. Unmortgaged to any economic interest or political power, we will continue to make bold proposals, ferret out the truth, expose corruption and abuse of power, and hold our politicians accountable. Working with allies–in unions, social justice movements, independent media and key organizations like the Apollo Alliance, the Campaign for America’s Future, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Economic Policy Institute–we will strive to inject new, timely ideas into the democratic arena. Progressives in the Senate and the House, many grouped around the Progressive Caucus, can provide leadership and a public forum for these ideas.
While we may not agree with everything President Obama does, we recognize that he has the capacity to be a transformative president. The change he can bring will be most lasting and profound if the motto of his organizing campaign–“Respect. Empower. Include.”–embodies the spirit of his administration. That was, in essence, the pledge he made election night when he said, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you.”