What does it all mean?
A month and a half ago, McCain was ahead in the polls. Sarah Palin was electrifying conservative audiences, and the Mac was on top of his foreign policy game. What happened? Did Obama suddenly prove himself worthy? Did Sarah Palin make some unforgivable gaffe she hadn’t made already?
No. The markets took a nosedive, and Obama immediately jumped ahead into a lead he never lost.
Americans distrust those in power when times are hard, and it seems that as the election came down to the wire, that’s what mattered most. It was not “Change We Can Believe In,” but sup-prime mortgages that determined the course of the next four years.
Then again, that’s not so different from what we’re used to.
The decisive moments in most elections aren’t usually the ones we’d want them to be. Would Bill Clinton have won in 1992 if Ross Perot hadn’t played spoiler? What about Katherine Harris, butterfly ballots, Ralph Nader and the Supreme Court in 2000? Or 2004’s Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth? Most elections have similar x-factors. They seem entirely random, but they can shift the race — and the way we talk about it — in dramatic ways. Think about it — we’ve been talking about “Red-state religion” for eight years, but would anyone have been making a fuss over the impact of “values voters” if ballots in Palm Beach, Fla., had been shaped differently in 2000?
In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of talk about youthful energy in politics, the power of rhetoric, the rise of evangelical Democrats, the conquering of our racial history, the liberal media bias and the rejection of various Bush-McCain doctrines. Neo-conservativism will be pronounced dead on arrival, and de-regulation will become a bad word on Capitol Hill. Perhaps those are good changes, perhaps not.
But will this be reflective of a larger shift in American ideals? What would have happened if the bottom had dropped out of the Dow today instead of two months ago? We might be talking instead about the crucial factor of Obama’s inexperience, a new direction for the Republican Party under Maverick Mac and the role of implicit racism in news coverage. We’d be heralding a new age of American interventionism and trumpeting the resilience of capitalism.
Obama has won in the popular and electoral votes, and this will likely be taken as a mandate for his policies. But things could very easily have turned out differently if Wall Street had waited a few more months to collapse. Let’s face it: Obama’s victory was accidental.
So what does that mean for the nation? Bush’s victory in 2000 was just as arbitrary, yet, unsurprisingly, the news media manufactured an evangelical revolution. Some people have “values,” we discovered! Bush, too, entered that mindset — smug from the beginning, he again declared a mandate for his policies in the extremely close 2004 election, and advocated all of them with a profound arrogance that served neither his agenda nor the country very well.
In the aftermath of this momentous election, whispers of revolutionary change will abound. The nation’s first black President. The death of the Reagan revolution. But when the dust settles, let’s keep it in perspective and hope that Obama holds on to the humility he has preached. His victory was partially because of his message of hope, partially because Americans aren’t as racist as they used to be and partially because people are sick of Republican policies.
It was also, in large part, because of chance.
Americans don’t want Bush’s arrogance to be replaced by Obama’s, and neither do I. One of the biggest dangers of any election season is our tendency to draw these narratives about paradigm shifts, as if 49 percent of the nation didn’t vehemently disagree with the outcome. True, one of the main things that people like about Obama is his bipartisanship; even if Obama’s steps to reach across party lines are largely symbolic, they are better than the stark boundaries drawn by the last administration.
We must hold him to this commitment and challenge him to do even better. And we must hold ourselves to the same standard. Relish your victory, Democrats, but use it wisely. True victories in politics are won with understanding and compromise, not with arrogance.
Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.