Last night was about as inspired as I can recall ever being about American politics, maybe since 1992. The magnitude of Obama's victory, the record caucus turnout and his speech afterwards in particular, made a believer out of me again. Even more than in 1992, it feels like there's something different, possibly transformative, in the political atmosphere. It's not something I can really articulate, but Ezra Klein comes pretty close to capturing my own experience and response:
I've been blessed to hear many great orations. I was in the audience when Howard Dean gave his famous address challenging the Democratic Party to rediscover courage and return to principle. I have heard Bill Clinton speak of a place called Hope, and listened to John Edwards bravely channel the populism that American politics so often suppresses. Some of those politicians mirrored my beliefs better than Obama does. Some of their speeches were more declarative and immediate in their passion. But none achieve quite what Obama, at his best, creates.
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I've heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.
I continue to have reservations. As E.J. Dionne noted this morning about the campaign:
The Republican race has highlighted ideological divisions within the party -- particularly on taxes, immigration and, to some extent, abortion. By contrast, the Democratic argument has been remarkably free of ideology. Democrats have battled more about how to get things done than about what to do, more about style than content.
I suspect Dionne thinks being "remarkably free of ideology" is good for Obama and the Democrats. I'm not so sure. While I've no doubt Obama's calls for bipartisanship are genuine, when you have a candidate from the other party saying things like this, you can be sure that partisanship, and the ideology that underlies many of our political disputes, is still hanging around, demanding an ideologically valid response. Furthermore, while Huckabee's victory last night seemed less impactful than Obama's, the people who drove his vote totals are people with a cohesive, if frightening, world view. Can Democrats with more of a free-floating, post-modern, post-partisan, non-ideological world view win the war, much less the short term battle, against an opposition more passionate about its ideas than its candidates and their oratory?
Some of my caution is driven by the thought that we've been here before. "Here" as in offering up a candidate pledging to rise above the old partisan strife, to put a competent, new energy into governance, and to create a new coalition to solve America's various problems. Jimmy Carter, in 1976, was such a candidate; a young governor from the New South, the unknown, non-establishment Carter came on the stage after the fall of a corrupt Republican administration and a triumphal Democratic Party victory in Congress two years before. Carter, too, got points for authenticity (even if his style was far inferior to Obama's), and his upstart victory, first in the Iowa caucuses (he actually finished second behind "non-committed"), then ultimately over incumbent President Ford in the general election, seemed a promise of a new era being born with a strong majority party to support him in Congress. As with today, Carter promised a new start in international affairs, making America's foreign policy more driven by human rights concerns than real politik; and ridding America's political life of the corruption and lies that had beset its predecessors.
But obviously all of this came to naught. The seeming crash of the Republican Party in the off-year, post-Watergate elections of 1974, proved the New Deal coalition's last hurrah. The true harbinger of things to come was the Reagan insurgency against Ford in the Republican primaries. 1978 brought the anti-tax revolt in California in Proposition 13, and further economic ills, driven in part by rising fuel prices, inflation, and slow economic growth, helping to pave the way for the anti-tax, anti-domestic spending, anti-government regulation, and anti-Democratic and anti-human rights based foreign policy of Ronald Reagan. Instead of a Democratic rebirth, a new conservative Republican coalition was just beginning.
In 1992, after 12 years of Republican presidential rule, the election of another young governor of the New South again appeared to offer a liberal renewal dressed in the garb of a New Democratic Party, less ideological than that of its much maligned liberal forefathers (see McGovern, George and Mondale, Walter), which instead of raising taxes would cut them for the "middle class", and instead of increasing the size of government, would "end welfare as we know it". The anti-incumbent blowing of the wind was further enhanced by the emergence of Ross Perot's independent campaign for president, which seemed to further augment the fact that a New Age of Reform was upon us.
But this was not to be either, as a conservative Republican tidal wave swept away 40 years of Democratic House rule in 1994 and launched a new era of still more regressive politics, bearing its ultimate fruit in 2000 when the Bush restoration was accomplished. And again, after years of corruption and incompetence, Democrats returned to Congressional power in the off-year elections of 2006.
So you'll understand if by these similarities I am a bit skeptical that another post-ideological Democrat is going to inaugurate a new era that dramatically reshapes American politics.
Having said all this, it should be noted that some things about this year, about this candidate, are remarkably different.
Unlike 1976 and 1992, the Republican opposition Obama faces is nearing the end of a generation of control. And unlike either of those years, Obama's election promises to transcend perhaps the deepest divide of all in American politics--race. Also, unlike Carter, Obama is charismatic; unlike Clinton, Obama doesn't carry a range of generational and moral baggage.
As for Obama's lack of apparent ideological purpose, there is a sense in which Obama should be considered the most progressive candidate in the race. Obama is the most progressive candidate, in the most literal and far-reaching sense of that word, among the offerings Democrats or Republicans will have to consider at least this year. By that I mean Obama is the candidate who least appeals to a better age of yesteryear. Even Edwards--who delivered a great speech last night as well--seems to be appealing in his standard stump speeches to an America of yesteryear when workers were treated better and income and opportunity was more equal. Hillary, naturally, is appealing to a more recent past and name, attempting as George W. Bush before her, to draw capital from and restore another president's legacy. The Republican candidates, meanwhile, are also clearly speaking to old scripts, trying to resurrect the images and coalitions of yester-decades's conservative party.
For these reasons, Obama makes me feel like there really is something genuinely new in the air; that American politics is at an important pivotal time in its history afterwhich an Obama election and administration would forever alter the nation's character and outlook.