Published: November 7, 2008
BARACK OBAMA’S victory marks the end of another magnificent chapter in America’s experience of democracy. But rather than being seen as a radical transition, it is best viewed as part of an ever-evolving process that began with the election of George Washington in 1789. To interpret it as a foundational change, ushering something new and unknown, is to diminish the past, to unduly singularize Mr. Obama’s achievement and to raise unrealistic expectations about his presidency.
Mr. Obama owes his victory, first, to his gift of leadership and personality: the hybrid cool of his charisma, his cathartic power to mine unity from difference. But his triumph depended on voters, first prone to see his candidacy as exotic, to recognize it as something that could (and would) only happen here. That they did stems in large part from the founding fathers’ clear vision of the ideal makeup of a democracy: an inclusive electorate, political participation and political power sharing.
This was a vision that terrified as much as it fascinated the conservative men who were often amazed at what they had signed on to in 1787: a revolutionary “charter of power granted by liberty,” in James Madison’s nervously triumphalist prose. So they promptly ensured that it would only very slowly threaten the political hegemony of older white men.
Three groups, in particular, were excluded from the process: blacks, women and the young. The history of American democracy can be read in good part as the struggle of all three to become fully included in the process. The 2008 campaign was remarkable in the way all three groups worked together to realize, finally and fully, the ambivalent vision of the founders.
Most important to the Obama victory was the long struggle of black Americans to be incorporated in the public sphere. That entailed not just the dismantlement of Jim Crow but the election of black officers at all levels of the political system. The sheer presence of significant numbers of blacks in positions of political authority was as much the cause as the consequence of the profound change in white political attitudes. Colin Powell’s flirtation with a presidential run was a critical point in this shift in white attitude, effectively priming the nation for the possibility of a black candidate. But so too were the appointments of blacks such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.
And while disdained by most social scientists, the cultural dimension of black public incorporation also prepared the way: a white population that venerates Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, its youth steeped in hip-hop, has already gone a long way toward accepting a black leader in the highest office of the public sphere, even if whites are reluctant to do the same in their segregated private lives.
Of equal importance in explaining Senator Obama’s triumph, however, are American women. This campaign was, in a remarkable way, a condensed re-enactment of the entire intertwined struggle of blacks and women for political inclusion. White women first rejected their confinement to the role of virtuous motherhood in the private sphere of the early Republic by championing the very public struggle for the abolition of slavery. In much the same way, the modern second wave of feminism was facilitated by, and partly modeled on the black civil rights movement.
Black achievement has always presaged female advancement, not always from the noblest of motives: if blacks could vote, enjoy protection from discrimination and run for office, so should women. Hillary Clinton’s forceful campaign, however important, pales in comparison with this historic American tendency in explaining why a female president is now a near certainty and not long off.
But women have always repaid the debt. A quiet but momentous change took place in the 1980s that was just as important as the civil rights movement in explaining Barack Obama’s victory: the epochal shift in the voting behavior of women who, for the first time since enfranchisement, voted in greater numbers, and more progressively, than men. In raw demographic terms, the most important factor in explaining the Obama victory was women voting by a 13 percent margin in his favor, while men were almost evenly split. President Obama would neglect this base of support at his peril.
Finally, there is the much discussed resurgence in the youth vote. Here, again, change is best viewed as a critical moment in a pre-existing process. American youths have long voted at distressingly low levels, although the turnout of eligible voters between 18 and 29 surged moderately between 2000 and 2004, from 36 to 47 percent. While Tuesday’s exit polls are showing only an incremental change in this rate, Mr. Obama had a powerful impact on youth activism, deploying young Americans in voter mobilization ground operations and in the game-changing use of the Internet for voter outreach and campaign finance.
Young voters went 2-to-1 in Mr. Obama’s favor on Tuesday. Their advocacy in the Iowa caucuses was likely the decisive factor in his all-important victory there. The most lasting effect of all this may be a permanent shift of the youth vote toward the Democratic Party, although one can certainly expect the Republicans, who made successful efforts on campuses in the Ronald Reagan years, to mount a challenge.It appears, too, that the intense bonding of younger Americans with the youthful Mr. Obama initiates the transmission of power from baby boomers, who have for so long consumed the nation’s assets and attention, to a younger generation from whom so much has already been taken, in social security and resources.
To view the election of Barack Obama as notable only as an example of breaking through a racial barrier is to misunderstand the greater flow of our ever-more-inclusive democracy. America has, at last, delivered, in creating the most sublime example of democratic governance since its invention in Greece 25 centuries ago.
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Alan Davidson is the author of the Free report
"Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your
Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a
available at www.throughyourbody.com
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