In a particularly trenchant post-election column, author Shelby Steele explained how it was that a candidate he describes as "quite unremarkable" regarding public policy (an amalgam of "old-fashioned Keynesianism" and "recycled Great Society") was able, first, "to project an idealized vision of post-racial America," and then "have that vision define political decency." Once these visions were set, Steele writes, "a failure to support Obama politically became a failure of decency."
In this way, the white voters who became Obama's political base were vested in the success of Obama's vision -- or, rather, in the vision of Obama's success. Longing to "escape the stigma of racism," as Steele calls it, white voters became "enchanted" with Obama because their support for him provided evidence and certification of their own now self-evident state of "post-racial" enlightenment.
But, as Steele further explains, there's an inherent contradiction to this unusual, if not historically unique, relationship. "When whites -- especially today's younger generation -- proudly support Obama for his post-racialism, they unwittingly embrace race as their primary motivation. They think and act racially, not post-racially. The point is that a post-racial society ... seduces whites with a vision of the racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting out of a racial motivation. A real post-racialist ... would not care about displaying or documenting his racial innocence. Such a person would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally."
Bingo. Here Steel demystifies the great and perplexing divide between those who care supremely about documenting and displaying their own "racial innocence" -- and I would put the mainstream media, Obama voters and most politicians including John McCain into that category -- and those who don't. These latter "real post-racialists" see Obama as a man, not an icon, as a politician who emerged from a hotbed of anti-American radicalism, not a sacred totem of enlightenment better suited to a glass case at the Smithsonian than the boisterous tussle of the political arena.
For almost two years, Obama has been, in Steele's words, evaluated culturally. This has resulted in reverential media non-coverage and now post-election judgments and metaphors that are already beginning to defy satire. Of course, Barack Obama didn't end the Civil War, isn't the reincarnation of RFK, and benefits from, but didn't bring about, the long-entrenched social changes that facilitated his political rise. As he now heads to the White House, it's crucial that he finally be regarded as a politician, not a messiah, and as a man, not a moral judgment. Otherwise, the cultural juggernaut he seems likely to unleash will be unstoppable.