By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Yes, it is time to hope again.
Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those without a moral compass. Time to expect that ideological labels will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician.
Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation. For years, we have spoken of bringing free elections to the rest of the world even as we cynically mocked our own ways of doing politics. Tuesday, we chose to practice what we have been preaching.
Barack Obama’s sweeping electoral victory cannot be dismissed merely as a popular reaction to an economic crisis or as a verdict on an unpopular president, though the judgment rendered on President Bush is important.
In choosing Obama and a strongly Democratic Congress, the country put a definitive end to a conservative era rooted in three myths: that a party could govern successfully while constantly denigrating government’s role; that Americans were divided in an irrepressible moral conflict pitting a “real America” against some pale imitation; and that market capitalism could succeed without an active government regulating it in the public interest and modestly redistributing income to temper inequalities.
John McCain believed he could win by attacking Obama as a “socialist” who had said he would “spread the wealth around.” But a substantial majority rather likes spreading the wealth if doing so means health coverage, pensions and college opportunities for all, or asking the wealthy to bear a slightly larger share of the tax burden.
“John McCain calls this socialism,” Obama said at a Pittsburgh rally last week. “I call it opportunity.” So did the voters.
Right to the end, McCain and Sarah Palin thought ideological name-calling would work yet again. On the eve of the election, McCain attacked Obama for being in “the far left lane of American politics” while Palin warned of a victory for “the far left wing of the Democrat Party.” This year, those epithets didn’t hunt.
Since 1980, Democrats often chose to accommodate themselves to conservative assumptions. Obama exploded the old framework. He explicitly rejected the idea that Americans were choosing between “more” or “less” government, “big” or “small” government.
He cast the choice differently. “Our government should work for us, not against us,” he would say. “It should help us, not hurt us.” Obama ran as a progressive, not a conservative, but also as a pragmatist, not an ideologue. That combination will define his presidency.
Since the Nixon era, conservatives have claimed to speak for the “silent majority.” Obama represents the future majority. It is the majority of a dynamic country increasingly at ease with its diversity. It reflects the forward-looking optimism of the young. It draws in new suburban and exurban voters whose priorities are resolutely practical—jobs, schools and transportation—and who dislike angry quarrels about gay marriage, abortion and religious orthodoxy.
It is the majority of a culturally moderate nation that warmed to Obama’s talk of the importance of active fathers, strong families and personal responsibility. He emphasized reducing abortion, not banning it. He honored faith’s role in public life but rejected the marginalization of religious minorities and nonbelievers. For large parts of the world, his middle name will be an icon, proof of America’s commitment to religious pluralism.
And Obama not only broke the ultimate racial barrier, but also spoke about race as no other politician ever has. He was uniquely able to see the question from both sides of the color line even as he embraced his black identity. He is not post-racial. He is multiracial. The word defines him as a person. It also describes the broad coalition that he built and the country he will lead.
And the majority Obama built wants the country to be strong but also respected, and prudent in its use of power. Iraq was on the ballot after all: Pew’s final survey found that those who thought the decision to go to war in Iraq was wrong backed Obama by better than 5-to-1; those who thought it right supported McCain by a nearly identical margin.
Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest he intends to do just that.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group