I admit it. For a moment I believed. Walking down Sumter Street during Charleston’s Martin Luther King Day parade, the overwhelmingly white coterie of Barack Obama volunteers chanted: "Obama ’08! We’re ready. Why wait?" Among them was a young man who was "so depressed" after Obama’s New Hampshire defeat that he had dropped everything he’d been doing in Guatemala and flown back to help out. There was also an elderly woman from Florida who had read his book Dreams From My Father two weeks earlier and was so inspired she felt she needed to do something.
Local African-Americans lined the sidewalks, cheering encouragement. Obama’s victory in Iowa had proved that a black candidacy was not a pipe dream. Now a significant number of white people had come to the parade calling for them to make common cause. And every now and then the volunteers went to the sidewalk, shook hands, handed out leaflets and even hugged the locals.
The Mississippi Freedom Summer it wasn’t. But it was something. A moment. A political moment that produced hopeful human engagement. Within half an hour it had evaporated. The parade was over. The white volunteers would not talk to the media without approval, even to explain their excitement. When authorization came through for them to speak their minds, the guy from Guatemala gushed about the coming of a postracial America. Meanwhile, the black people went back to their homes in the poorest parts of town and waited for change.
It is easy to be cynical. But it is the potency and potential of these moments–as fleeting and fatuous as they may seem–that form the basis for much of Obama’s appeal. He points out the ways America is riven and then calls on his audience to take the country to a higher level. Every time his multigenerational, multiracial crowds get together, it seems like they are creating a new reality from whole cloth. "In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities," he told the jubilant crowds in Iowa, "you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say that we are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come."
A few days later, at a conference on bipartisanship at the University of Oklahoma attended by Michael Bloomberg, Obama’s victory dampened discussion of the New York mayor launching an independent presidential bid. "I believe [Obama] is demonstrating, in the support he is getting, that the American people share this concern about excessive partisanship," said Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, who attended.
In and of itself, bipartisanship is a goal that is both inarguable and insubstantial. It is treated as a matter of orthodoxy that Americans crave a more bipartisan approach to national politics. But polls show that on issues they care about, just about half want politicians to seek solutions through compromise. Their ambivalence is not surprising. As a means to an end, bipartisanship makes sense. But as an end in itself, it is a hollow notion unless you define who you want to join forces with and why.