This Democratic victory should be seen primarily as a rejection of the sectarian conservatism of the George W. Bush Administration. There is certainly a mandate to reimpose sensible regulation on the economy, to do something (exactly what is not so clear) about a failing health care system, and to find a way out of Iraq.
Strong Democratic (but not filibuster-proof) majorities in Congress should enable President Obama to move forward with these and other priorities in the first year, notwithstanding a global economic crisis. Indeed, the economic crisis will provide a short-term excuse for continuing deficit spending (under the new administration’s redirected priorities) in order to pump up a flagging economy. It will be time enough to reduce the deficit after recovery is under way.
It was a decisive victory, but not a landslide or blowout. Obama carried several states that have been Republican in recent times, and Democrats also made substantial gains in Congress, for the second consecutive election. The Democratic Party is now, more than ever, a national party, while the Republicans are reduced to regional redoubts.
Barack Obama’s victory ought to be viewed in the context of social and cultural changes in the politics of race, class, and generation. It is hugely significant that a man who is half-black, who identifies himself as black, and is seen by voters as black, could win this election. It is also significant that he ran behind many Democratic senatorial and congressional candidates. That suggests that racism is not entirely dead, but it’s certainly attenuated enough to let him win.
Obama still could never have won in 1932, for example, when race would have trumped the pocketbook for many more people. This time, race was less important than the pocketbook to most swing voters. The disastrous economy could only be pinned on Bush and the GOP, with their doctrinaire free-market, trickle-down policies. It was a year for the Democrats.
It helped that he isn’t too black. Not only is he biologically half-white, he is culturally all white: abandoned by a Kenyan father who later died young, he was raised entirely by his white family, certainly in diverse circumstances (from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia), but not at all in an African-American setting. He literally adopted his African-American identity as a young man. He still speaks like an educated white person and is clearly comfortable in white society. That means lots of white folks, who weren’t at ease with Jesse Jackson, will be comfortable with him.
This election signifies a mortal crisis for the sly racism and xenophobia that has dominated the Republican Party since Richard Nixon and Pete Wilson. It has not been the Republican style, even in the Deep South, to come right out with race-baiting rhetoric like the old Dixiecrats, but they rose to dominance for an entire generation on more subtle appeals to whites’ fears of African-Americans and of nonwhite foreigners.
That’s over with. Obama actually got a higher percentage of the white vote than the average of Democratic presidential candidates, and it is well known that whites will soon be a minority, notwithstanding futile anti-immigrant fulminations.
While the Republican Party has come under the control of hard-right crypto-racists, the Democrats have largely avoided a corresponding shift to the hard left. Only McGovern, in 1972, could be seen as the candidate of the party’s left wing, and we know what happened to him.
The dominant Democratic strategy has been centrist. That hasn’t guaranteed victory over the years, but a leftist strategy would have guaranteed defeat, because twice as many people think of themselves as conservative as those who consider themselves liberals. Don’t even talk about social democrats!
As a candidate, Obama combined the remarkable chemistry of a transformative agent with policies that are remarkably nonradical. It is a marvel of political physics that he could pull it off. Now, he has the possibility of leading a basically centrist Democratic Party through an agenda of serious, but hardly revolutionary change. The fact that his expanded congressional majority will not include a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, means that he will have to find ways of appealing to the beleaguered band of Republican moderates.
The Democrats have a real opportunity for a period of dominance, because their centrism contrasts with a Republican Party that is so much under right-wing control as to be incapable of moving to the center. The Democrats, under President Obama, can begin to redefine the political center in just the way that Franklin Roosevelt did. His innovative and effective policies came to constitute the norm against which Republicans would have to react. The final demolition of that New Deal universe came under George W. Bush, and the people didn’t like the results one bit.
The door is open to a new political era.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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