What an election night! When was the last time that we saw spontaneous electoral celebrations breaking out in city streets, with horns honking and people dancing, hugging, and high-fiving strangers? Part of the celebration was due to the historic nature of yesterday’s election, but I also think part of it was a national release of pent up emotion. It was a catharsis.
A good many American voters are tired. Yes, tired of the constant sense of crisis of the past several years, from 9-11 to the Iraq war to the financial crisis. But tired, too, I think, of the decades-old cultural wars we’ve been fighting. Barack Obama, for many, represents an opportunity to put these cultural wars behind us, to put the 1960s and the Vietnam War in the rear view mirror, and most of all to bury the religious divide and the red state-blue state divide that have been at the center of our politics for too many elections.
So I think Obama won this year for a number of reasons. The low popularity of President Bush and our economic travails, for sure. But it was more than that. His sense of calmness and steadiness and his stated desire to get the country beyond its recent cultural divides were, to my mind, just as important. Americans are ready to turn the page. We are ready for the future, tired of the past, and tired of fighting, and that is why I think the hackneyed old negative attacks just didn’t stick this year. The pages of history are turning before our eyes and the country is thirsty for a fresh start, not only at home but in terms of our engagement with the rest of the world.
The fact that the president-elect is an African American with a name like Barack Hussein Obama just magnifies the symbolism of the moment. It is about the most dramatic symbol possible that the United States is reinventing itself. And don’t discount the power of symbolism. Can you imagine what it feels like today to be a young African American in Harlem or Atlanta or Birmingham, suddenly feeling that anything is indeed possible in this life? Or what it’s like for young Muslims in Cairo or Tehran or Islamabad, now re-evaluating their perceptions and beliefs about the United States? Or to be on the streets of Nairobi or Johannesburg or Jakarta, knowing that the new U.S. president cares about your corner of the world?
The euphoria can’t last and the reality of the challenges before us will soon settle in again. But for the moment, a wave of hope has swept across the planet.
For a sense of the historic nature of what we’ve witnessed, here is a small selection of newspaper front pages. From around the country…
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Orange County, California
And, from around the world…
Johannesburg, South Africa