Beyond the orgiastic and very noisy speculation on the CNN electoral team (a supposedly ‘radical’ change was being witnessed, a remarkable ‘departure’), one might have thought that Barack Obama’s victory was total and comprehensive. In truth, it was neither, and 47 per cent of voters who favoured McCain should confute the pundits on that. While it is true that the pendulum has swung to the Democrats in both the White House and Congress the United States remains bitterly divided. A man of Obama’s background and ethnicity alone does not dispel that.
Electoral commentators like packaging voting blocs and picking trends. The Latino is meant to vote or note vote in a particular way. African-Americans, likewise. Ditto the white voter in Kentucky or Arkansas. When they don’t, such trends might suggest radicalization, or a revolutionary change of heart. While the first African American (mixed, mind you) in US history is something that is remarkable, the structural problems remain.
Divisions are washed away by the gush that has been streaming forth in media outlets and public commentators. Everyone who is American is ‘proud’ (at least many of them are), and such a figure as Obama aids that. He is, to use that rather clunky term ‘transformational’. Such a language of transformation is heavily lathered with such things as David Gergen’s references to Martin Luther King, and the instinctive reference to ‘America the good and the great’. Obama’s victory, if nothing else, allows Americans to claim that their state is more democratic than it is, and more tolerant than it might be.
On a closer assessment, the divisions are far more pronounced than any coherent notion of unity. The only true individual to be thumped on election night was Bush. McCain’s loss is a barometer of Bush’s record, and it was something he never really overcame. He was always starting from behind, desperately trying to disassociate himself at key intervals in the campaign. Obama’s victory was half assured by relentlessly bracketing the two.
The divisions are also easily obscured by the electoral college votes, which give the impression of a fairly comprehensive wipeout of the Republican opponents. But nothing like the word ‘mandate’ can be used here. Obama will seek change, but he will have to prove very convincing, using every avenue of bipartisanship available to him. While the procedural element of passing legislation will be rather simple (the dream of a majorities in both houses helps that), there are many Americans who are deeply suspicious about the Senator from Illinois.
Politics is less a science than a mysterious art form. Obama has finessed a brilliant victory, but a far from conclusive one. The concession speech by John McCain said it all. It implied a movement towards pragmatism (a cabinet position in the offing in the new administration perhaps?), but it was also a plea to accept Obama’s election. The crowd at Phoenix wasn’t so sure. ‘Yes we can’ is Obama’s creed, and America seems a bit wiser. But large questions remain.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. firstname.lastname@example.org