In a broad discussion of the political circumstances behind Barack Obama’s election victory, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza argues that the US has finally grown up. This is maturing both in the sense of witnessing the election of an individual of African descent and in ending the forty-year Republican neoliberal hegemony, and is a development reflective in no small part of the Democrats’ ability to articulate a campaign true to contemporary socio-political conditions in the US. For while many challenges will face the administration-in-waiting, Obama’s ability to appeal to a diverse range of voters, Zeleza contends, represents an invaluable means of satisfying cosmopolitan Americans’ desire for renewed global respect.
America and the world have witnessed a historic victory in a historic election by a historic candidate. It was an amazing night, exhilarating in its significance and symbolism, electrifying in its sheer pleasure and possibilities, a rare moment when pure joy seemed to transcend, if only fleetingly, the cruel hierarchies and schisms of race, class, gender, and nationality that have stalked and scarred this vast, bounteous land of unfulfilled promises called the United States of America. I was there at Grant Park in downtown Chicago, when the young first-term senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, accompanied by his beautiful family, ascended the stage before an ecstatic crowd of a quarter-million people gathered to bear witness to the rewriting of American history, overwhelmed and empowered by the once implausible and dizzying rendezvous with America's future.
Obama won a landslide victory, and his long coattails carried the Democratic Party to undivided power in Washington. In January the Democrats will control the White House, the Senate – to which they added six seats (4 Senate seats are yet to be declared as I write and if the Democrats win all four they will enjoy a filibuster proof majority) – bringing their total to 56. They also captured 20 House of Representatives seats raising their total to 255 against 173 for the Republicans (the results for seven seats are still pending). Following their traumatic defeat the infighting that had already started within the McCain-Palin campaign in the waning days of the election fuelled in part by angry defections by some leading conservative intellectuals appalled at Palin's selection is sure to erupt into a virtual civil war for the soul of the now rudderless Republican Party.
As I walked to the park with friends, the city roared with excitement I had not seen since I relocated here almost two years ago, car horns honked with musical abandon, the crammed streets danced with history, strangers greeted each other with screams of Obama, vendors briskly sold Obama t-shirts and memorabilia, giddy Obama smiles seemed to be everywhere, together with tears of incredulity. In the park Jesse Jackson cried, Oprah Winfrey cried, and many others cried with happiness unknown for years and decades and centuries since this country was founded as an imperfect union of European masters and African slaves. Elsewhere Condoleeza Rice, the current Secretary of State and her predecessor, Colin Powell, choked with tears, too. Now, a black man was about to speak as the president-elect. It was awe-inspiring indeed.
President-Elect Obama's striking presence and splendid speech seemed to lift the spirits and imaginations of an audience and a nation and a world hungry for change, exhausted from the ravages of the Bush years, indeed the legacies of the destructive divisions spawned by the original sin of slavery and the aggressive reflexes of unbridled capitalism and imperialism at home and abroad. ‘It has been a long time coming’, the newly elected president declared. And the crowds chanted, ‘Yes, we can!’ America had, at last, shattered the racial ceiling to the country's highest office and appeared ready to grow up and return to the world chastened by the calamities in the treacherous theatres of unwinnable wars fomented by misguided unilateralism.
The victory of President-Elect Obama is historic because he is the first African-American to scale to the pinnacle of power in the world's richest and most powerful country. Since the 1960s African-Americans have been breaking one barrier after another in fields ranging from sports to entertainment, academia to the arts, business to politics as mayors, members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, and governors, but the presidency seemed impregnable, a fortified zone for white males, certainly not open to a junior black senator with an exotic name who began his improbable quest twenty-two months ago just a few years after bursting onto the national scene with an inspiring speech at the 2004 Democratic Party convention. His vision of the indivisibility of the so-called blue states and red states – a metaphor for the need for both political and racial reconciliation – struck an instant and powerful chord.
President-Elect Obama enjoys other less momentous but significant firsts. He is the first northern liberal Democratic President since John F. Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were southerners. He won the biggest mandates in the popular vote and electoral vote since President Johnson. Educated at the Ivy League schools of Columbia and Harvard, and a former law professor at the renowned University of Chicago, Obama is an accomplished writer and sharp thinker, a man who exemplifies public intelligence in his preference for mature dialogue with the electorate in a political culture that was becoming dangerously captivated by the blissful anti-intellectualism of a George W. Bush and the banality of a Sarah Palin (who if the post-election Republican bloodletting is to be believed apparently didn't even know Africa was a continent!). And Obama is going to be the first post-baby boomer president, who was only a child when the cultural wars that have wrecked American political discourse and civility broke out, and whose unproductive polarisations he seems to disdain.
This has been a historic election because it represents a potential realignment in American politics, a reversal of the Republicanisation of America, which I wrote about on this site immediately after the 2004 elections. The Republican Party's anti-civil rights southern strategy and political stranglehold over national affairs has suffered a major, maybe even historic, defeat. President Johnson clearly understood that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally enfranchised African-Americans, the Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation. If the Republican era emerged in the late 1960s out of the fragmentation of the liberal Democratic coalition, which had been dominant since the catastrophe of the Great Depression, this election has been a referendum on the modern Republican era, and may usher a new epoch in American politics. The victory of President-Elect Obama and the Democratic Party represents a repudiation of this period in modern American history, the demise of the Republican agenda that has held sway for four decades, notwithstanding brief interludes under the Democratic administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The Republican political and electoral hegemony – the marriage between neoliberalism and neoconservatism – created under Richard Nixon, consolidated under Ronald Reagan and crushed under George W. Bush reached its destructive apotheosis. The Republican dream of creating a permanent electoral majority collapsed under the onerous weight of hubris, lies, incompetence, and crisis. The Bush administration, arguably one of the worst in American history, squandered any superior Republican claims as custodians of the economy, national security, and moral values. The economy slowed as budget surpluses left by the Clinton administration turned into huge deficits, national debt doubled to $10 trillion, the rate of job creation declined while the ranks of those without health insurance increased, and wealth was distributed upwards with regressive tax policies that widened the gap between the rich and the rest. The economy finally cratered in the Wall Street meltdown of last September, which accelerated the slide towards recession and unleashed fears of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Suddenly, bankers and other high priests of capitalism became converts to the virtues of state intervention as they stretched their greedy hands for a public bailout of nearly $1 trillion.
In the meantime, the overstretched military was bogged down in two major wars including the long, costly and bungled war in Iraq launched under false pretences. Unilateralism, combined with the shameful scandals of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, had left the United States more despised than feared, more vulnerable to terrorist assault and global censure and irrelevance than ever before. Compassionate conservatism was buried in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina that showed the gross incompetence of the administration, the callousness of the roosting chickens of neoliberalism, and the explosive mix of race and class. Personal and political shenanigans including corruption, cronyism, and contempt for the law exposed the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of many a Republican leader, and their party's cynical manipulation of social issues from abortion to gay rights as divisive wedges in the unfinished cultural wars of the 1960s.
With such a tarnished record and a widely loathed president (one who suffered record low approval ratings), the Republican Party's chances of winning the elections were severely compromised. Such were the depths of the president's unpopularity that he was virtually quarantined from the campaign; hardly any republican candidate wanted to appear in public with him, not even the Republican nominee, John McCain. But there was no let up from the Obama-Biden and Democratic National Party campaigns, which relentlessly tied the Republican candidates and Senator McCain to their party's and president's records. The public heard the message that a McCain administration would represent the third term of the Bush presidency.
Senator McCain did not help his own candidacy by his rightward drift as he desperately sought to solidify support among the Republican base that had eluded him during the primaries and for much of a political career built on the vacuous label of ‘maverick'. The longer the campaign ran, the more the candidate became unglued and the electorate saw a grumpy old man given to erratic behaviour, dishonesty, condescension, a sense of entitlement, and bad judgment. He changed his message with impetuous frequency pandering to populist fears, rightwing pundits, racist paranoia, unfavourable polls, and unpredictable events, with no consistent narrative, no clear indication of what a McCain administration would entail beyond pursuing the discredited Republican mantra of national security, low taxes, and divisive patriotism.
This was revealed quite glaringly and alarmingly in his inept response to the financial crisis and his self-serving fictitious suspension of his campaign, and most damagingly by his reckless and cynical choice of the clearly unqualified and overzealous Sarah Palin, who succeeded in firing both the Republican and Democratic bases and dragging the ticket down as her negatives piled the more her ignorance and fanaticism were exposed. The more the public saw the two campaigns – the McCain-Palin ticket and the Obama-Biden ticket during the crucial presidential and vice-presidential debates – the more the latter took the shine for calm competence, for steady and safe, even inspired, leadership.
Cynicism turned into farce as Joe the Plumber was discovered and elevated into the putative everyman of white America, the bulwark against Obama's redistributionist economics of ‘welfare' and ‘socialism', codes in Republican thinking for undeserving racial minorities and Democratic profligacy. Joe the Plumber's proverbial fifteen minutes of fame came after earlier charges that Obama palled around with domestic terrorists seemed to leave no traction; indeed they appeared to backfire for their meanness and irrelevance. The choice of Professor Bill Ayers, a 1960s radical, as Obama's terrorist comrade revealed the unfinished cultural wars of the 1960s, especially the bitter struggle over Vietnam in which the two, McCain and Ayers, represented the lingering conflict between the soldier and the anti-war activist.
But it would be gravely mistaken to attribute the historic victory of President-Elect Obama and the Democrats simply to a vote against Senator McCain and the Republicans. Their victory is a tribute to their own actions and agency. Senator Obama has been a historic candidate because of his personal and political biographies and the organisational novelties of his incredible campaign that crushed the formidable Clintons in the Democratic Party during the primaries, a contest that prepared him for his epic battle with the ruthless Republican campaign during the presidential elections.
As I have written in several commentaries on this site, Senator Obama has been a compelling candidate because he represented better than virtually all his opponents the quintessential American of the 21st century at a time when the country becomes more diverse and undergoes profound changes in its demographic, economic, spatial, social, and ideological dynamics. This is to suggest that there are different Obamas that appeal to various constituencies among the electorate and the imaginaries that collectively constitute this exceedingly complex and fascinating country. This is what, in part, lies behind his amazing political attractiveness, his charisma, the Obamania that has gripped the United States and the rest of the world.
There is Obama the black man, who embodies the dreams of African-Americans for full citizenship and redress from a long history of exploitation, oppression, and marginalisation. The fact that Obama is not a descendant of enslaved Africans, explains the earlier discourses around him in black communities as to whether he was ‘black enough’, which disappeared as soon as he became a credible electoral hope for the race during the primaries beginning with his stunning victories in the Iowa caucuses and on Super Tuesday. It also accounts for his popularity among many whites comfortable with a black man untainted by the unrequited memories of slavery and looking for redemption and a post-racial future.
Obama as the son of a foreigner invokes the cherished migrant narrative of American history in which non-African-Americans tend to see themselves as descendants of brave or heroic migrants who often came with little and prospered in their new homeland and left their offspring with the possibilities of the American Dream. Thus, the migrant narrative serves to ennoble American history, sanitising it of the indelible stains of the forced migrations of the enslaved Africans, while also providing a convenient mode of distancing between the historic and new African diasporas in this land of overlapping diasporas.
The biracial Obama, the offspring of a black Kenyan man and a white Kansas woman, appeals to people of mixed race whether those from contemporary interracial marriages or from much older unions who are tired of the one-drop rule and anxious to embrace their dual or multiple racial heritages. The biracial identity was given official recognition in the 2000 census, a reflection of the fact that the US is moving away from its historic black-white racial system into a multiple racial system common in parts of Latin America and Africa, and in keeping with the country's growing diversity as a result of increased migrations from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. As a biracial, Obama escapes exclusive black appropriation and identification and is more acceptable to whites than a typically ‘black' candidate would have been.
For their part, recent African immigrants identify with Obama as one of them, a beacon of hope for their own offspring, a man whose life trajectory offsets the pains and perils of migration and affirms its opportunities and promises. This explains the enormous enthusiasm Obama's candidacy has generated among the new African diasporas many of whom for the first time began to actively participate in the American political process. President-Elect Obama's victory, it is safe to predict, will lead to more African immigrants in the United States to become citizens, to the strengthening of the often fraught relations between African-Americans and the new African immigrants.
Obamania extends to Africa itself and especially Kenya, the homeland of the new President-Elect's father. People across Africa have been following the elections with unusually avid interest. When Senator Obama's victory was announced celebrations broke throughout Kenya and elsewhere on the continent. Indeed, the entire world seems to have been electrified by this historic achievement, which has earned the United States some of the goodwill, the moral capital, it squandered so recklessly under the Bush years. The President-elect's global appeal springs in part from the fact that he is transnational in a way that none of his competitors in the primary and presidential elections were: he was brought up in Indonesia and has personal relatives scattered on several continents. The world has invested in Obama hopes of a more benevolent and multilateral America. For cosmopolitan Americans anxious for global respect, Obama offers an invaluable ticket to the world.
President-Elect Obama's historic victory owes much to the extraordinary prowess of his campaign, whose organisation is probably unmatched in American history. He and his managers built an electoral machinery of hope and audacity that was unprecedented in its innovativeness and reach by combining old-fashioned grassroots community organising, political rallies, and digital mobilisation from the Internet to cell phones in a seamless web of recruitment, networking and empowerment for campaign volunteers and supporters, voter registration drives, and fundraising. The results were astounding: they out-organised and out-fundraised the McCain campaign as they raked in more than $600 million from more than 3 million donors and opened thousands of offices across the country.
The fabled Republican electoral machine that had outperformed the Democrats in election after election with its Karl Rovian tactics of fear and voter micro-targeting was no match to Obama's Chicago boys. In the closing weeks of the election, save for the so-called blue-state of Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign was fighting offence in the so-called Republican red-states. Obama flipped nine of the red-states: Colorado and Nevada, and New Mexico in the West, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio in the Mid-West, and Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the South. It was a rout: McCain did not flip a single blue state.
The superior organisation, steely discipline, and strategic astuteness of the Obama campaign were complimented by the charismatic leadership, soaring eloquence, and unflappable temperament of the candidate himself. As the electorate got to know him better, Obama eroded any doubt they may have had about his readiness to be commander-in-chief. Ironically, it was the more experienced and better-known McCain who increasingly appeared indecisive and unreliable as the campaign unfolded. Obama's leadership qualities became particularly evident during the presidential debates and in the thoughtful manner in which he appeared to respond to the financial crisis on Wall Street and the rumbling storms of recession. As McCain frantically shifted from one campaign gimmick to another and ratcheted up negative attacks on Obama, the latter stuck to his message of hope and his focus on the economy. Little of the mud thrown at him by the McCain-Palin campaign and the Republican National Committee in the waning days of the campaign invoking the selective and once incendiary clips of Reverend Wright seemed to rattle his self-composure, to stick on the teflon-coated Obama.
Campaigns and leaders, however good they might be are, in the end, only successful if they respond effectively to their times. This, ultimately, is the explanation of Obama's historic victory. His campaign and candidacy captured and responded to the fierce urgency of a country in transition and crisis; the shifting racial, generational, gender, and class dynamics in the ecology of American society and politics, a proud nation of over-consumption gripped by dreadful economic fears as the unregulated chickens of neoliberalism have come home to roost. There was the growing diversity and decomposition of the binary racial system noted earlier; the rise of post-boomer and post-civil rights generations, including Obama himself, who were impatient with or oblivious to the cultural wars of the 1960s; growing familiarity among whites with professional and highly successful blacks in many walks of life, and the development of less racially polarised social spaces and encounters, notwithstanding the persistence of racialised social inequalities and injustices most savagely manifested in the growth of the prison industrial complex. This is why Obama won every demographic group except for those aged 65 and older.
In short, the class restructuring of the African-American community and the society at large facilitated by the civil rights movement and settlement of the 1960s helped pluralise blackness and disentangle it from the homogenising pathologisations of segregation. This is the context that made an Obama victory possible, but also means that his victory does not entail the end of racialised class inequalities for African-Americans. His election does not herald the end of racism, some aspects of which could even increase as the wider society prides itself in its historic achievement and abandons efforts to ameliorate the historic effects and contemporary manifestations of racial inequality. In electing Obama America has indeed grown up, but a post-racial future remains a distant mirage. However, there is no denying that many whites and blacks will see themselves differently.
As I walked with the ebullient crowd from Grant Park in the unseasonably pleasant air of this historic night back to my car parked a couple or so miles away, I thought of the two other occasions I had experienced similar euphoria. The first was in April 1994, when like millions of people around the world, I sat glued to the television and watched South Africans cast the yoke of apartheid into the dustbin of history as Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first democratically elected president. The second was also in 1994, in May, when I returned to my homeland, Malawi, after seventeen years of self-imposed exile from the Banda dictatorship, to witness the country's first post-independence democratic elections, which the opposition party proceeded to win.
On those two previous occasions, like last night, the future seemed brighter than we had dared imagine only a few short years before. But the structural weight of the past soon cast its shadows on this future. The challenges ahead for President Obama are immense indeed: to rebuild the economy, repair the welfare state, heal the divided nation, rejoin the world without squandering this brief moment of global celebration of America's democratic self-renewal with imperial arrogance and misguided wars. But for now, one could be forgiven for basking in the glory of the moment, in Obama's incredible victory, in America's Mandela moment, which was unimaginable until it actually happened.
* Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is Professor of African Studies and History, Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of more than twenty books and winner of the 1994 Noma Award and the 1998 Special Commendation of the Noma Award for two of the books.
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