“We know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”
-Barack Obama, last night
Please note, this is the 2008 speech.
It may be true.
Perhaps the best is yet to come, but the real question is what the best will look like. There is a reason, beyond SuperPACs and Citizen’s United, why this election was so acrimonious. Not in the rhetoric, but in the sentiment. Any student of US history is very skeptical of the histrionic and predictable assertions that a certain campaign is nastier than any before. This is almost never the case. What has been easy to see this year is the visceral dislike for President Obama, especially in the peculiar corner of the world in which I live.
The American electorate is not known for being subtle, but the instinctual command of what has been at stake shows that culturally we miss very little, even if we don’t know that we know it. American exceptionalism has been built upon economic and physical growth since long before we were a country. By the French and Indian or Seven-Years War New England was building (for example) the best ships in the world. By 1770 the average standard of (white) living in the American Colonies was the highest in the world. That being said, it’s interesting to think that it took a further 150 years, until the end of World War II, for us to have the largest GDP on earth.
This model of success, which it is easy to forget netted us no more than a few transient decades at the top, is at an end. What Ed Abbey called the ideology of the cancer cell is both increasingly less possible as a road to success itself and more and more obviously does not engender a kind of success which many people would want to be a part of. Hyperbolic rhetoric aside, we Americans are at a crossroads, and we need to figure out how the pursuit of happiness is going to work in decades to come.
Mitt Romney was never a plausible presidential candidate, and I’ve long held that no believable GOP candidate surfaced this go around because the smart ones (Daniels, Thune, Christie, Bush, etc) realized that they would have little to no chance of winning against President Obama. What is plausibly frightening about Mr. Romney is that flip-flopping aside, he seems to genuinely believe in the economic core of cancer ideology. Class politics is more complex in the US than almost anyone cares to admit, but it exists and is increasingly virulent. Not only does a trickle-down, unexamined meritocracy not work, more and more folks are realizing that it violates the ideas behind the Constitution.
The most frightening thing about this election is, of course, that this conversation did not happen. We as a country danced around it in the process of debating inane topics such as whether government can create jobs, or whether government should provide health care. President Obama knows all this, and knows the conversation we need to have. He also knows that it won’t be productive to blindly wade into that debate, all at once and without discretion. That is good. The question is how thoroughly and courageously he will be willing to engage on the small things which, added together, are the only way to create substantive change. Some of this change will happen in the way most cultural shifts do, with time and people dying. As the Eisenhower generation moves out of positions of influence, their rapacious grasp on a particularly chest-pounding interpretation of American exceptionalism is not something which newer generations will repeat, simply because of the decade into which they were born. But their legacy will be powerful, and accelerating the letting go of cultural delusions is noble work. We have this morning the people of Maine to thank for just such a thing.
I have confidence in Obama, just as I did five years ago when I first endorsed him here. But that confidence has been shaken. Romney would not have gotten as near to success without unforced errors on the other side. If history is any guide, second terms tend to loosen the strings of doubt and encourage presidents to do good things. I hope that remains the case.
And all dark rumination aside, I can take comfort in the fact that Dennis Rehberg will not be going to the Senate. The douchebag.