Editor’s note: Walker Smith, who runs The Futures Company’s Yankelovich division in the United States, has sent a long post reflecting on the 40-year context of Barack Obama’s Presidential victory this week. The conventional wisdom is that blog posts should be short and pithy. But we think that from time to time it’s better to give an argument the space and time it needs to unfold. Walker’s short essay is one of those occasions.
Walker Smith writes:
Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday night was not unexpected. Three weeks out, political pundits knew that Obama had a lead that has never been overcome in modern political history. (Horse race political junkies will enjoy my favorite campaign resource, www.fivethirtyeight.com.) The real drama came an hour later when Obama took the stage with his family to honor this historic moment in his moving victory speech.
Chicago’s Grant Park, the scene of the victory rally, is a beautiful, expansive park bordering Lake Michigan that to this day still stirs up grueling memories for Baby Boomers like me, of the police violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The question that hangs over Barack Obama’s election is whether it really does represents the end of a 40-year cycle of deep political and cultural division, even though his electoral victory was built on effective party-political organisation rather than cutting across party-political lines.
In 1968, demonstrators set up their staging ground in Grant Park during the Democratic Convention for protests against the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies. With characteristic irony, Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin dubbed it A Festival of Life.; instead it became a series of violent confrontations between protestors and police that reached a climax the night that Hubert Humphrey won the nomination with a nationally televised 17-minute frenzy of police brutality in front of the Hilton Hotel. Throughout the violence, protestors chanted “the whole world is watching” to the police, and, indeed, later that night, as Connecticut Senator Abraham Rubicoff put George McGovern’s name into nomination at the convention, he famously denounced the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” His view was subsequently confirmed by the Walker Commission convened to investigate what happened. In its findings, the Commission called it police riot.
Now, four decades later, Obama was preparing to celebrate victory in the very place that, to many of us, was Ground Zero for the culture wars that have defined our lives and our politics ever since. This serendipitous symbolism was not lost on any of us – Democrats all – gathered around the TV. Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that it was time to move beyond the Baby Boomer “psychodrama” born of “old grudges and revenge plots hatched” in the 1960s. Obama wrote that he yearned for those things that “bring us together as Americans.” And here he was Tuesday night, bringing us full circle, ready at last to close that chapter of American history.
As they are today, in 1968 Americans were scared, fearful and uncertain. It is a year that is generally regarded as a pivotal year in American history, as 2008 will surely also come to be regarded. No financial crisis engulfed the nation then, although, unrecognized at the time, the stock market was in the early years of a long bear market that would not end until 1982. Instead, 1968 bore witness to a rending conflict of politics and culture that erupted almost weekly into violence, including the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. These events bred the dread and apprehension that ushered in Richard Nixon as President, kindling an era of conservative Republican leadership at the helm of government that would be interrupted only twice, and with little impact, until Obama’s electoral landslide Tuesday night.
In his speech, Obama echoed the past as he looked to the future. He quoted Lincoln and he made recognizable allusions to ideas and speeches of both FDR and JFK. But he also made explicit rhetorical use of phrasings and imagery from two well-known speeches of Dr. King.
When Obama spoke of that night people being able “to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” he was borrowing from Dr. King’s 1965 speech from the steps of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama at the end of the march that began with highly publicized violence in Selma. King said that day that the wait for prejudice to end would not be long because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In echoing King, Obama, too, was inspiring us to stay committed as we work together for a better nation and a better world.
Similarly, Obama borrowed from an even more uplifting phrase of Dr. King’s when he told us that even though “the road ahead will be long” and “our climb…steep,” he was sure that “we as a people will get there.” These remarks echo very closely the closing lines of the last speech Dr. King gave before he was killed. “I want you to know tonight,” King said, “that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” In Obama’s speech on Tuesday night, there was perhaps no clearer statement of his belief that Americans can rise to the challenges before us and overcome them as a nation, and maybe even as part of the world community.
Obama takes office at a crossroads in American history. Cultural and political observer and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of this on Election Day. Brookes argued that there is a confluence of three eras now coming to an end – the end of the long economic boom that began in the 1980s, the end of conservative dominance in recent American politics and the end of Baby Boomer supremacy in American society.
While there are many problems to be fixed, Brooks foresees the emergence of a new America. America is free to reinvent itself, because, suddenly, the country is unfettered by the forces that have determined the direction of the country for the past few decades. Barack Obama, he believes, is the man for the moment.
This is the kind of promise that has always animated Americans. Yet, there is a dread that weighs upon the American spirit these days. It is seen in the utter collapse of confidence and self-assurance as measured by every poll conducted over the last three months. It is seen in the yearning for leadership and integrity expressed by so many as they left the voting booths on Tuesday. It was in evidence Tuesday night as millions of Americans literally danced in the streets in dozens of cities after Obama’s victory. It was the reason for the crash in retail sales reported on Thursday. Americans are spooked and as a result they have retrenched. Before any new era can be opened, the American verve must be recharged.
This is a tall order for Obama. He invited us Tuesday night to share that vision with him, and for that moment we did. There were no dry eyes in our group that night. Even my Republican friends, to a person, have said that they, too, had a lump in their throats. But Obama’s job is going to be tough.
For one thing, Obama’s victory was not achieved by cutting across party lines. Journalist Bill Bishop has studied and written extensively about the yawning partisan divide in American society. (We’ve blogged here before about his book, The Big Sort.) In his initial analyses of the county-by-county voting patterns across the country, he finds that Obama did in 2008 what Bush did in 2004. Each built margins of victory in their respective strongholds – blue counties for Obama and red counties for Bush – that were large enough to overcome their deficits elsewhere. It’s true that in red counties Obama closed the size of the losing gap that Kerry had in 2004, but Obama won by winning the blue counties by huge margins. Only the rare red county in 2004 actually turned blue in 2008. In short, despite Obama’s unifying rhetoric, his success was created in a highly partisan way.
In fact, America has not made a 180-degree ideological turn. Instead, Americans are just plain worried about the economy, and the state of the economy determines Presidential election outcomes. Ray Fair is a Yale economist who has shown that in Presidential elections the change in the incumbent party can be predicted from the economy alone (using inflation and two measures of GDP: his 2008 assessment is on his website). No surprise, then, that James Carville hung that famous sign in Clinton headquarters during the 1992 campaign – “It’s the economy, stupid.” The economy elected Obama. If this election had been about national security, McCain would likely have won in an electoral landslide.
The wounds of 1968 have not healed yet, and the fears of 2008 loom large. But Barack Obama brings a different temperament to the Presidency. He believes in possibilities because he himself is living proof of the power of those possibilities. He gives other hope and faith in those possibilities when he echoes the inspiring words of American icons; heroes, really. If America is to emerge as a different place, it will not be because America has become something different already. It will be because Barack Obama has the audacity it takes to rally the nation in a unifying way behind a hopeful, confident vision of possibilities. He has begun this already. So far, it’s working. As my friends and I said to each other as we went our separate ways Tuesday night, we must keep faith with what Obama reminds us is our quintessentially American strength, the belief that, yes, we can.
The photograph at the top of this post is from the Boston Globe’s campaign blog, Political Intelligence.