BLACK AMERICANS’ struggle to share fully in the American republic’s promises and challenges is the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world. Barack Obama’s election last night didn’t bring that epic to a close, but it did signal something very new–new not only about Obama, but new also in what’s around him.
That was evident in his magisterial dignity in reaching out not just to those who rejoiced and wept but also to those who were disoriented and in despair over his color or his politics–or both. Can we who supported him reach out that way, too?
Perhaps the most encouraging and telling thing about his victory was that Obama did far better than John Kerry in 2004, not only among white voters generally, but also in the “red” states and counties he lost. He lost them more narrowly than the white Democrat Kerry did four years ago. That’s even more important than winning Virginia and Florida, two of the old Confederate states, where demographics have changed significantly.
Obama made inroads even in areas still dominated by the “good old boys,” thanks to the bad economy and to his own credibility as a contender, but also thanks to the quiet ways the coordinates of our political culture have been changing. Old racial paradigms have been crumbling around him on both the racist right and the identity-politics left.
What about those millions of voters who opposed him? When Obama’s odds looked iffy at the end of the summer, some of my friends who supported him said that if he lost, they’d feel as if they were living in someone else’s country.
But hadn’t we also felt that way, I asked, when bombs were falling on Vietnam under Nixon and gung-ho flyboys like John McCain? Or when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980? Or when Bill Clinton was impeached? Or during eight years under the current Flyboy-in-Chief?
This time is different, my friends insisted, because this time the American people are even scarier than their misleaders. But now that Obama has won, many of those “scary” Americans feel that they’re the ones living in somebody else’s country.
And not all of these conservatives are any scarier than liberals can be themselves–especially if a liberal feared that the republic would be lost to McCain. Some of the people who opposed Obama are feeling that way right now, and, for some of them, there’s as much pained love in their despair as there would have been in yours.
But aren’t the people who’ll consider President Obama an alien imposition only the rich and their corporate minions, the bought politicians, the petty-bourgeoisie, the clueless racists, the intellectually evanescent evangelicals, the rabid ideologues, the “extreme-fighting” lumpenproles, and, of course, the neoconservatives and demagogues who exploit them?
Not quite. I wouldn’t mind, of course, if the kinds of people just mentioned felt that they were living in somebody else’s country and moved somewhere else. But Obama’s own campaign supporters included Louis Farrakhan and other unreliables, not to mention political procurers, panderers, go-betweens, and others whose motives are mixed and who you wouldn’t want to have lunch or a beer with.
I’m thinking, though, of the millions of Americans who I hope, as Obama hoped last night, can feel that this is their country even though they opposed him. Some backed McCain because their fragile but dearly held traditional networks of meaning and support are being shredded and they are blaming the wrong people–not because they’re corrupt or demented but because they’re desperate and have been misled.
And I’m thinking also of Americans who do detest what the Republican Party has become but have such deep reservations about Obama that they decided not to vote at all, or voted for Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, or even Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader.
Consider Rod Dreher, an honorable conservative author and editor, who wrote in the Nov. 3 issue of the American Conservative magazine, “This will be the first year since I was old enough to vote that I will not cast a ballot in a presidential election.”
He couldn’t have voted for Obama, he explained, because he considers life a sacred, inter-generational thread, not to be broken by the state or by individuals exercising “choice.” But Dreher felt he couldn’t vote for McCain, either, even as a “brake on runaway liberalism,” because McCain would have put the country “at significantly greater risk of war” and his campaign “made me even more uneasy.”
Obviously Dreher is consistent in his pro-life beliefs. I don’t share his assessment of the principles and risks, but I respect him for holding to them. We both support a republic that can mediate our differences through non-violent civil disobedience–a place in which conscientious citizens break the law in order to uphold the rule of law, and in which they disrupt civil society, as Rosa Parks did, to redeem it, not trash it as evil. (Without such civil-disobedience in the 1960s, last night’s victory would never have come.)
Consider also Scott McConnell, until recently the American Conservative’s editor-in-chief. So strongly does he oppose the neoconservative foreign policies McCain embraced that he actually voted for Obama. McConnell isn’t inspired by Obama, and he despairs over his domestic policies as much as anti-capitalist leftists do.
But McConnell believes that saving conservatism’s honor from McCain and the neo-cons is so important that he went to southwestern Virginia to work for Obama in the last days of the campaign. I’d never feel at home with the American Conservative magazine, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a country where Dreher and McConnell felt they no longer belonged, and I doubt that Obama would, either. And I doubt that Dreher and McConnell would rejoice at my feeling dispossessed had Obama’s long-ballyhooed “slam dunk” turned into a slough of despond.
The republic needs solutions beyond some of its current partisan and “movement” loyalties. Those of us who won last night must do more than just turn the tables. Like the heroes of the American civil rights movement, who found it in themselves to love their enemies, we have to engage those who are as fearful now as we have been. Don’t gloat; extend a hand.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997).