It’s not every day you get to witness historical events in the making, much less participate in them. Last Tuesday, however, millions of Americans awoke with a feeling of excitement and a sense of duty; in turn, many went to bed with tears in their eyes and a sense of hope for the world. For the first time I can recall, there is a notion that nothing is inevitable, that the levees holding back the tidewaters of the American Dream are bursting open.
Suddenly it’s become possible and permissible to wax poetic about the promises, problems, hopes, and contradictions of our country without coming off as post-ironic, snagging the ire of the cliché police, or drawing a crowd of Toby Keith fans.
I don’t mean to suggest that we’re entering a golden age; I don’t entertain the belief that Barack Obama will deliver us to a land of milk and honey. But I do feel that the just-finished political campaign has put in full view all the colors, cracks, and seedy patterns of American culture glossed over by years of politics-as-usual.
If, as Ralph Ellison once wrote, “a conscious awareness of values describes the condition of the American experiment, and very often much of our energy goes into finding ways of losing that consciousness,” then this election has played host to many more values than once thought possible (and desirable) to accommodate in the depth and scope of an election-year dialogue.
Amid a state of war and an economic downturn, the pattern of thinking and doing once taken to be “good enough” is now neither good nor enough.
It’s little surprise that Obama capitalized on a message driven by vague values like “hope” and promises like “change.” In a stultifying political climate where the tactical realism of professional politicians matched uncannily with the distrust and cynicism of American voters, Obama shined a light in the dark, proclaiming like the little train that could, “Yes, we can.” His biographical message, planted in two best-selling books and driven home in campaign advertising, proclaimed that the unlikely is possible, that a man from a background as diverse and as ridden with complications as the nation which bore him, could rise to lead it for “the change we need.” Though downplaying his intellectual background, Obama showed an unusual prepossession with expertise and a conviction that in matters of public concern, rational debate should trump the feelings in one’s gut.
Though initially mocking his younger challenger’s cri de guerre for change like a wizened Cato guarding the old Republic, John McCain also realized, if a bit too late, that it would take more than the old prescriptions to find acceptance as a modern-day political medicine man. He also attempted to infuse his campaign with a message of “change” and played up his hard-earned credential as a “maverick,” hoping to bank on a message of nontraditional politics by calling off a part of the Republican National Convention to meet face-to-face with a storm that never quite materialized and (almost) jetting off to Washington to personally intervene in the unfolding economic crisis. His quixotic daring never caught on as a convincing new form of political practice, but his selection of Sarah Palin almost did. Heralded as a reformer who “fought special interests, the lobbyists, the Big Oil companies, and the good ol’ boys network,” Palin brought to front-and-center a powerful re-envisioning of Jeffersonian democracy. She warred against the status quo with no-nonsense, down-to-earth messages that challenged the idea that one must be informed to have opinions, or that one must have a basic grasp of the world to lead its most powerful country.
Moving forward, the political terrain will be uncertain and hazardous, but there will be more possibilities for the direction of our national trajectory than anyone could have imagined even just a year ago. With the culture war climaxing but eclipsed by the threats to American capitalism, with the war on terror stalled and confused, no one can say what options are off the table.
If our country is to surmount the many problems it now faces, it will have to confront, not ignore, the meaning and value of its place and future in the world.
Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.