Taking our country back

Obama's victory was a triumph not just for Democrats but for the American spirit and the world.

By Gary Kamiya

Published November 5, 2008 6:30PM (EST)

Today the embattled American people stood, and fired a shot heard 'round the world.

Only rarely does one know that one is experiencing history while it happens. Barack Obama's victory is one of those occasions. This amazing day marks a decisive change, not just in America's politics but in its soul. It announces the arrival of a new America, of a multitudinous, multihued people whose time has come and who have demanded a politics worthy of them. Their voice echoes across the land from Stone Mountain to Seattle, and its message rings out loud and clear: We have taken our country back.

We have taken it back from the mean-spirited demagogues who were willing to tear the American people apart to stay in power.

We have taken it back from the apostles of selfishness who pretend naked greed is noble individualism.

We have taken it back from the deluded hawks who cavalierly sent our youth off to die in a war that should never have been fought.

We have taken it back from the incompetent officials who lived up to their antigovernment credo by bungling everything they touched.

We have taken it back from the reactionaries whose intolerance, xenophobia and religious zealotry have been encouraged by a distorted Republican Party for far too long.

Some will say that this election didn't prove that much. They will argue that considering Bush's unpopularity, the war and the financial crisis, this race should never have been even competitive. They will say the race was tied in September and only an inept McCain campaign and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression tilted it toward Obama. They will say that America is still a center-right country.

But those arguments are like dead trees standing in the path of a spring-snow torrent. A great change has come upon America.

Watching Obama speak after his victory, I was reminded again of the subtle and profound depths of this man. It was a subdued speech, on the surface almost disappointing, but its eloquent restraint spoke volumes about not just Obama's character but what we could call, harking back to another age, his taste. He chose not to mount the messianic pulpit, knowing that if he did he would alienate many Americans. Because of his complex and hard-earned comfort with his own racial identity, he is a self-reflective man, a man of many parts.

We have seen his facets. Obama can parry and thrust with Hillary Clinton. He can be hip with Jon Stewart. He can speak eloquently of race, as he did in his victory speech, without foregrounding his own race. He can reach out to those who didn't vote for him, and his native sensitivity makes his words believable. His rhetoric is soaring but never self-aggrandizing: He is too confident in his own identity to need the fix of adulation. A leader with these qualities, a black man whose racial consciousness is so evolved as to be unreadable, has the ability to take America places it has never been before.

The election of Obama marks a change in what it means to be an American. It is a change that is as true to the essence of conservatism as it is to liberalism, for it has its roots in a generous vision of civic life that both share. And all Americans will benefit from it.

The Obama triumph means the Reagan revolution is over. The antigovernment, antitax, trickle-down, every-man-for-himself ethos collapsed with a whimper during the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush, and Obama's election put it out of its misery. By electing Obama, the American people have emphatically rejected the selfishness, masquerading as freedom and rugged individualism, that has been the calling card of the American right wing since Barry Goldwater. In its place, they are calling not just for a new and expanded vision of government's role in American life but for a new vision of American society.

That vision represents a return to the idea that Americans are bound together by more than just a flag, that we are all part of the same community, and that the strength of a community, like the strength of a family, is measured by its members' commitment to each other. The America envisioned by Obama is one in which the privileged care about the plight of the less fortunate because that care, that solidarity, is an inseparable part of who we are as Americans.

And that solidarity extends beyond our borders, to the people of the world. More than our wealth and power, this is what has made America a beacon of hope across the globe. After 9/11, Bush had an opportunity to reach out to the rest of the world. In his arrogance and folly, he chose to bully it instead. The election of Obama signifies that America is rejoining the world. How telling it was that in his speech, Obama said that America would defeat not our evil terrorist enemies, the rhetoric we have grown used to, but "those who would tear the world down." His is a larger, calmer vision, one that does not play into the hands of terrorists by exaggerating their threat.

One of the many remarkable things about Obama's campaign is that even its slickest, most professional, most Machiavellian messages -- and how marvelous that Democrats should be slicker, more professional, more Machiavellian than Republicans! -- always communicated the man's essential idealism. Obama's 30-minute infomercial is a case in point. That film was essentially the story of three struggling American families. It was crafted to appeal to voters who would relate to those families, and clearly its main purpose was to persuade them to vote for Obama out of self-interest: If Obama helped the families in the film, he could help them, too. But what is noteworthy about the film, and indeed about Obama's entire campaign, is that it assumed that Americans are capable of going beyond self-interest, that what happens to that family in Ohio matters to us.

For a nation starved for inspiration, that implicit call was like water in a desert. For eight years, and for many years before that, Americans have been told that nothing is required of them as citizens except to make and spend money and jump in fear of terrorism when prodded. Those who tried in their personal lives to take steps to alleviate the greatest threat facing the planet, global warming, were derided by Vice President Cheney as practicing "personal virtue." The country was thirsty for more.

And in his speech, Obama asked us to do more. In words that recalled Winston Churchill's famous declaration in the darkest days of WWII that "I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears and sweat," he spoke of "remaking this nation the only way it has been done in America for 221 years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand." He called on us to make sacrifices. Above all, he called on us to come together. "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."

His words revealed the gaping fissure in conservatism's moral vision. Conservatives claim to be the upholders of a threatened traditional morality. But their economic ideology is inherently amoral. Their refusal to see American society as a community implicitly rejects both the Christian injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself," and the oldest moral commandment in the world, the Golden Rule. A party and movement that have rejected the idea that its members should care about their poorer neighbors, or simply denies that the less privileged are our neighbors, is one that has lost its moral compass.

The radical individualism of the right subverts not only its claim to be ethical and religious, but its claim to be patriotic. On what basis can patriotism be established, except on a communal one? Patriotism, if it is to be more than an empty slogan, means making sacrifices for a cause greater than oneself. That moral principle is the same one that underlies governmental policies to reduce inequality, such as progressive taxation. By limiting its vision of community and altruism to military service, the right has hollowed out its own ostensible ethics, and fostered an ethos of selfishness and irresponsibility that subverts the very patriotism and religion whose virtues it so emptily extols. "United We Stand" was never anything more than a bumper sticker under Bush. The party of "family values" embraced an I've-got-mine-Jack ideology that no responsible parent would teach their children.

Americans were aware of this, even if half-consciously. And so Obama's victory in part reflects Americans' deep, if not fully conscious, desire to create a more ethical society, one in which individualism thrives but is not set against conscience, in which capitalism drives the economy but is not allowed complete license, in which patriotism means more than flag waving. A real society. In the words scrawled on a piece of parchment 236 years ago, and which Obama referred to in his speech, "a more perfect union."

Polls show that almost 90 percent of Americans, a record number, believe that the country is on the wrong track. Some of that response is no doubt driven purely by pocketbook issues. But everything we know about the American people -- and the results of this election confirm it -- tells us that their distress has deeper origins. Americans are aware, at some profound level, that they have lost their way. They recognize that this is no longer the country that came together to defeat Hitler, or struggled to overcome the injustice of racism, or whose plainspoken idealism and optimism inspired the admiration of the world. Beneath the neon glitter of our consumer-driven, media-saturated society, beneath the wealth and the spectacle, is a sterility, a purposelessness.

And this is why Obama's victory is a victory not just for the left but for all Americans. The majority of Americans voted for Obama not because he was a "liberal," but because he promised to take America back to what it once was, and carry us forward to where we want to go.

President-elect Obama will face an almost unbelievably daunting set of challenges. He inherits an economy in deep crisis and a nation whose international reputation is in tatters. He must figure out how to responsibly extricate our troops from Iraq, and come to terms with the fact that his hawkish campaign rhetoric about winning a military victory in Afghanistan is misguided. He must take decisive steps to address the transcendental international issue of our time, global warming. He must remake America's decaying infrastructure, using deficit spending to rebuild the country, and raise employment without saddling us with so crippling a debt that we can never repay it. He must tiptoe through a domestic political minefield to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the greatest source of Arab-Muslim anger at the U.S., and the inextricably related issue of how to deal with Iran. He must begin to repair the grievous damage Bush did to the Constitution. He must try to rectify the miserable status of so many black Americans. And he must do all this in the face of a rump GOP that is bitterly opposed to everything he stands for.

No one expects miracles from Obama. It took years for America to dig itself into this hole, and it will take years to dig out of it. But Americans chose a candidate who has the tools to succeed. Forget ideology. Obama possesses qualities that are more important: brains and character. In professional sports, scouts talk about drafting "the best available athlete." Obama was the best available mind. And Americans chose him.

And they chose a black man. All Americans, whatever their political views or party affiliation, should feel an enormous sense of pride today. The bitter legacy of America's enslavement and unjust treatment of black people remains. But Nov. 4, 2008, will go down in history as the day that, on the highest symbolic plane, the Rev. Martin Luther King's dream that one day his children would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" ceased to be a dream and became a reality. Fifty-four years after the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black and white children were illegal, 33 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, and just 31 years after the last miscegenation laws were struck down, a majority of Americans chose a black man to be their leader. How many of us thought that we would live to see this day? The tears and the laughter and the disbelieving exultation across America give the answer.

In his classic defense of free speech, "Areopagitica," John Milton famously 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." After eight nightmarish years of Bush, Milton's words feel like a benediction.

For Obama's triumph represents the awakening of the American spirit, one that runs through our entire history. Eight dreadful years cannot kill it.

It is the spirit that animated the blacksmiths and farmers and clerks of Massachusetts and Virginia and Georgia, the despised rabble who everyone knew would turn and run when facing the British army, but who stood their ground at Concord and paid for a nation with their blood.

It is the spirit that inspired the soldiers, "sinewy with unconquerable resolution," as Walt Whitman called them, who died at Gettysburg and Antietam.

It is the spirit of their president, who wrote a 10-sentence document that, if no other evidence of the United States existed, would prove that this nation had the stuff of greatness in it.

It is the spirit that brought the people of an impossibly diverse, far-flung country together, every American part of the same team, men and women, professors and ditch diggers, a mighty democratic brotherhood that defeated the most dangerous tyrant in history.

It is the spirit that led the Freedom Riders to risk their lives to give their fellow Americans the civil rights they had been shamefully denied.

It is the spirit of hope.

America is in for a long, tough fight. But we can now begin to fight it together.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama