Barack Obama's stunning victory in Iowa was a moment of national alchemy. It represented an outpouring of righteous Democratic anger, and its simultaneous transformation into hope. That double process -- the cathartic expression of rage, and its purification -- is exactly what Democrats have needed after seven nightmarish years of Bush. It is politics both as payback and as spiritual transcendence. And the fact that it is a black man who is serving as America's philosopher's stone, turning the base metal of bitterness into the gold of forgiveness, is extraordinarily moving. The possibility that our nation's deepest wound, and the source of our political divisions, could also be the agent of our redemption is like a banner appearing in a darkened sky.
"Redemption" is a big word, perhaps too big for the profane world of politics. It is important to remember that the idea of Barack Obama and the reality of the man are not necessarily the same thing. If the senator from Illinois becomes president, he may or may not do a better job than his two worthy Democratic rivals. But there are times when the symbolic aspect of politics is inescapable -- and creates its own reality. Obama offers something neither Hillary Clinton nor John Edwards does: The chance to decisively slam the door on the Bush era, the Bush war and its Democratic enablers, while simultaneously forgetting them. It is a politics of therapeutic forgetting. And after the Bush years, both anger and creative oblivion are necessary.
In November 2004, American voters reelected the worst president in modern history. That election did more than blight the political hopes of half the people in this country, it raised serious questions about America's very identity. What kind of country could possibly reelect a president as manifestly unfit for office as George W. Bush? Why would millions of Americans again endorse an ignorant, incompetent leader who launched a disastrous and pointless war, presided over an administration based on secrets and lies, trampled the Constitution, ran up a ruinous debt, ignored the global environmental crisis, approved torture and secret prisons, and destroyed America's moral standing in the world?
Of course, not all Americans share the same political views; of course, post-9/11 hysteria played a major role. But even making due allowance for those factors, Bush's reelection was shocking. Like an unidentified tumor that suddenly shows up on an X-ray, it cast a malaise over the whole nation. For many Americans, it revealed a foreign entity within the country itself, one even more frightening in some ways than the one outside. We can fight terrorists. But what do you do about your own country when you no longer recognize it?
The Democratic Party should have represented that half of the country that was appalled by Bushism. But the Democrats abjectly failed. Cowed by patriotic fervor and Beltway thinking, the Democrats fell in line behind Bush and his demented war. Only when it was clear to all but the most benighted neoconservative ideologues that Iraq was an unmitigated disaster did mainstream Democrats like Clinton and Edwards speak out.
A price had to be paid for this collapse, and the price was anger -- anger not just at Bush and his policies, but at the timid Democrats who went along with those policies. This anger is cleansing. Those establishment pundits who sanctimoniously tut-tutted about how Democratic voters were "unhinged" by "Bush hatred" failed to recognize that when a cancerous entity invades your body, the healthy response is to attack it. Anger is a patriotic response to Bush's profoundly un-American policies, and to the Democrats who failed to oppose them. It is the white blood cells coming to rescue an endangered organism.
Yet as anyone who spends too much time reading political blogs knows, anger can itself become a toxin, self-perpetuating and self-destructive. It must be expressed -- but then it must be overcome. To fall into a state of permanent anger, of righteous indignation, is to become the very enemy you are fighting. This is the error that George W. Bush made when he launched his Manichean "war on terror," and turned America into a country far more like its fundamentalist enemies than it had ever been before.
Barack Obama's unique appeal is that he allows voters -- Democrats, independents and fed-up Republicans alike -- to simultaneously express their anger and transcend it. As a political outsider, as a black man, as someone who was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, Obama is the antithesis of both Bushism and the mainstream Bush-lite Democratic stance on Iraq. Yet Obama's entire message is one of reconciliation and unity, the belief that even the most implacable foes can come together. And it's his race that seals the deal. As a mixed-race black man appealing to whites without using traditional racial guilt codes, he is the living proof of his own credo. By voting for a black man, whites are voting for hope and change in the future -- but they are simultaneously making a statement that hope and change are happening right now, within their own minds, hearts and souls. They are leaping across the racial divide without a safety net.
Christopher Hitchens has correctly pointed out that there is something sentimental in this act of white racial self-absolution. He also makes another valid point: that Obama is of mixed-race descent, and that automatically calling him "black" reinforces the pernicious one-drop rule. But paradoxically, the fact that Obama is seen as black is precisely what will help America to get beyond rigid racial categories like the racist one-drop rule. As for white sentimentality, Hitchens is too hard on it: The fact is that sentimentality not only can accompany real change but can help facilitate it. Anyone who can contemplate the idea that America could elect a black president without feeling a sense of national pride is cynical indeed.
Obama's Iowa victory was one of those rare moments when an abstraction becomes real. In "Areopagitica," John Milton wrote, "Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks." In Iowa, we witnessed the shaking of those locks. Like one of those miraculous reversals in one of Shakespeare's late plays, when a statue suddenly comes to life after standing motionless for years, Obama's victory seemed almost otherworldly -- as if the laws of space and time had been suspended, and a quality as evanescent and fragile as hope had suddenly become real. I am not a religious person, but it was hard not to feel that his triumph vindicated the essence of what I think of as the secular essence of religion, something even nonbelievers can believe in: the possibility of inner transformation. A transformation at once personal and national.
Against Obama's transformative appeal, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards offer their own compelling symbolic narratives. Clinton offers the promise of competence, hard work and commitment to progressive causes -- and the too-long deferred dream of a woman leading America. Edwards offers a slashing, muscular anger and a refusal to turn the other cheek to the forces of reaction and privilege. Most Democrats I know, including Obama supporters, would be happy if either of them were elected president. But neither Clinton nor Edwards holds out the sense of transcendental hope that Obama does.
Of course, "hope" is just a word. And while emotional catharsis is important, in the end what really matters is performance. But on the issues, there are no decisive differences among the three candidates. Those Obama critics who argue that his bipartisan rhetoric means he is the second coming of Joe Lieberman have seriously misread him. Obama is a classic liberal Democrat, whose message of inclusion and unity is at once sincere and tactically shrewd: He knows that a confrontational, partisan black man, even one who refuses to play the racial guilt card, has no chance of being elected president. At the same time, he clearly believes that conciliation is better than enmity. In this regard, ironically, he resembles the husband of his most formidable adversary, who also ran successfully on a "new Democrat" platform of hope and inclusion.
Which means that pragmatically, the decision comes down to effectiveness: Which of the three Democrats would be able to achieve the most?
Those who support Obama argue that he will be able to work more effectively with Republicans and independents than his rivals. Those who support Clinton or Edwards argue that Obama is a political naif who will go down singing "Kumbaya" while being eaten alive by the right wing. His critics also claim that Obama is too inexperienced to be entrusted with the nation's highest office, but that argument smacks of bogus "war-on-terror" fear-mongering -- Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who helped bring us the Iraq war, had decades of experience. It's a false argument in any case: Character and brains count more than decades of cutting deals and shoveling pork through Congress.
The truth is, it's impossible to know whether Obama would be a more effective president than his opponents. The question of whether bipartisan gentleness is more effective than tough confrontation is meaningless, both because there's no single answer to it and because we have no way of knowing how any of the Democrats will actually govern -- for all we know, Obama may turn out to be a harder-edged negotiatior than Edwards. So it's really about intangibles. In the end, it may come down to how one feels about the great divide that was so painfully revealed in the 2004 elections.
In a widely discussed piece in the Atlantic, the idiosyncratic conservative and former outspoken war supporter Andrew Sullivan argued that Obama alone can end the "nonviolent civil war that has crippled America." I don't agree with Sullivan's characterization of that civil war -- his equation of rabid hate-mongers like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly and innocuous liberal groups like MoveOn is wrongheaded and ignores the fact that MoveOn and its ilk came into existence in response to the destructive depredations of the right-wing movement to impeach Clinton. The "nonviolent civil war" was not started by the left, it was started by the right, which could not tolerate the inevitable triumph of moderate secular modernism announced by benign liberals like Bill Clinton. And Sullivan may be too optimistic in his judgment that hardcore conservatives will embrace a liberal, antiwar, pro-choice black politician. But I agree with Sullivan's larger thesis, that the great American divide is bridgeable -- and that Obama holds out the best promise of bridging it.
To be sure, a country that lives by symbolic reconciliation also dies when it is not achieved -- which is why nominating Obama would be a gigantic gamble. The big built-in Democratic advantage in 2008 represents the best opportunity for Obama to win, but it also means that a loss would be devastating. If the young, dynamic, qualified Obama loses to one of the pathetic crop of Republican candidates -- whether it be the unreconstructed Iraq war supporter John McCain, the pathological 9/11 fetishizer Rudy Giuliani, the empty-suit Mitt Romney or the genial but unprepared Mike Huckabee -- the logical conclusion would be that large numbers of Americans were not ready to vote for a black man. In which case, America's symbolic leap forward into a post-racial age of comity would be revealed to be an illusion -- an outcome that would be almost unbearable.
But after Bush, the appeal of throwing the dice is irresistible. If Obama wins in November, a political miracle will have happened: We will have gone from following an authoritarian fool into an insane war to electing a progressive black president, without missing a beat. Can it happen? Who knows? But if America can go down that far into the dark side, perhaps we can emerge just as quickly into the light. And after eight years without it, I don't want to be the one to bet against hope.