The Great Election of 2008 is over. Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States.
Now is the time to ask what this election was about.
Here’s what this election was (set ital) not (end ital) about: Barack Obama. It was not about his record: He didn’t have one. It was not about his views, which are radical in the extreme. It was not about his associations: Americans didn’t care about Wright, Ayers, or Khalidi. The media didn’t want Americans to know about Obama. Obama didn’t want Americans to know about Obama. And Americans didn’t want to know about Obama.
This election was not about John McCain. No one cared about McCain, except the liberal media that nominated him president after one win in New Hampshire.
This election was not about President George W. Bush. Bush was used as a punching bag by both sides -- and by election time, he was completely irrelevant.
And this election was certainly not about the issues. In the general election, Barack Obama campaigned as a centrist, titularly abandoning his more extreme positions to do so. He lied about his policies. And no one cared.
This election was about one thing and one thing only: Americans’ puerile need for unity through self-congratulatory, cathartic membership in a broad, transformative political movement.
For eight years, Americans have been engaged in hostile politics. And after eight years, Americans were sick of it.
That isn’t to America’s credit. Hostile politics -- hard-fought political conflict over the issues that matter -- is not a bad thing. It is precisely the sort of messy republicanism the founders embraced. Early elections were replete with mudslinging, character assassination, brawls and scandals. They were also replete with some of the most substantive debate on policy ever put before mankind.
Apparently, we’re no longer interested in the dirty business of politics. We’d rather feel ourselves part of a high-minded movement. Not the sort of movement that espouses particular policies -- not the antiwar movement, or the pro-life movement -- those movements are too divisive. We want to be part of a movement that is solely about us.Barack Obama was the vessel for that movement. He was an utter cipher. But he embodied the need of the American public for unity by hearkening back to the ultimate unifying feature of American life: third-grade slogans. He spouted Hope and Change. He told us, “We’re All Americans.” He told us, “Yes, We Can.”
From any other politician, it would be ridiculous drivel. From a black candidate, it was inspiring. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson didn’t talk like that -- they spoke the language of division. Because Obama spoke the language of unity, he had to be a moderate. So went our logic.
Barack Obama had us from the moment he said, “Hope.” In that moment, Obama accomplished two simultaneous transformations. First, he transformed himself into a moderate. Second, he transformed himself into a messianic figure, the object of our longing: the physical embodiment of America’s progression beyond racial conflict. If America wanted to move beyond conflict, what better way than to embrace a candidate who could end all racial conflict?
And the Obama campaign subtly played on this theme. They implied that if we voted against him, we were engaging in racial hatred; some supporters even implied America would undergo a race war if he lost. That’s the last thing we wanted.
Barack Obama told us that we could do Something Larger simply by voting for him. When he said, “Yes We Can,” and we followed by screaming it, chanting it, shouting his name in unison, we were Doing Something Larger. We were uniting.
America has always recognized that unity for its own sake is useless at best and dangerous at worst. Unifying behind a mysterious charismatic figure promising transformational change may make us feel good, but it is a betrayal of the open and honest governmental debate our Founding Fathers sought and so many Americans have fought and died to preserve.
Americans think they grew up during Election 2008. They think they moved beyond the past. In one way they did. In another, more important way, they regressed dramatically -- to a time before politics mattered. In the next four years, there will be plenty of growing up to do.