It's hard to deny the excitement of the moment, particularly after driving up Broad Street through predominantly African-American neighborhoods yesterday afternoon as Obama's victory slowly became imminent. At each street corner there were men or women--some black, some white, nearly all young--shouting and gyrating and waving Obama banners at no one in particular, a sort of spontaneous outburst more commonly associated with third world countries than with the USA. It look like the grainy films of May 1948 in Tel Aviv, or a Grateful Dead concert circa 1977, an almost surreal scene rather than the tedium normally associated with an American election.
It seems almost heartless to try and reintroduce some perspective in the midst of such a scene, but let me do so anyway:
1. The above notwithstanding, I don't think Obama is or has ever been primarily about race. He started out with a minority of black voters and almost no support among elected black officials. It has always been generational and cultural rather than racial in nature, although Obama's physical appearance emphasized this difference and may have contributed to his victory. The strength displayed in places like Colorado, Northern Virginia, and the Pacific Coast states, which have modest black populations but large numbers of new technology/younger generation types, testifies to this proposition.
2. A lot will be heard about the end of the Reagan era, the end of conservatism, and so forth. I'm not so sure. The Reagan era, in a literal sense, ended two decades ago: indeed the electoral map of 1996 (Clinton-Dole), give or take a few states, was remarkably similar to the map last night. It was Clinton's own behavior, coupled with 9-11, that made possible the Bush Restoration and put the Democrats back on the defensive. Obama's entire affect--the emphasis on rebuilding American prestige, the kind words for the defeated party, the crispness of his rhetoric and his blue suits--seem designed to look more like Reagan and less like Clinton, Carter, and so forth; and his advisors are reportedly studying the first 100 days of the Reagan Administration as an example for their own efforts.
3. Realigning elections--1860, 1896, 1932, 1968 (1980?)--usually depend less on the result itself than on what the winning party does with them. Roosevelt and Reagan, in particular, are remembered as outstanding presidents not so much because they won, but because of the systemic changes that they engendered once elected. Obama appears to know this, and is moving assertiveley to ensure that his momentum will not be squandered (see above): but it is much too early to tell how this will turn out.
One undeniable benefit of Obama's election will be the perception of American overseas. For whatever reason, American conservatism has never traveled well, and it has become de rigeur for travelers to be assaulted with statements like "Reagan Cowboy!" or "Bush Bang Bang Bang!" in whatever mix of languages happens to available. By contrast Europeans--although often unabashed racists at home--appear to have genuine affection for Obama, and the curiosity, for once, is likely to be sympathetic in nature. The exchange rates, however, remain terrible.
I'll be back with more about the Republicans and some other observations tomorrow.