What the presidential election does not (and might) mean

OK, I’ve officially regained full use of my critical faculties, or at least enough that I’m ready to start calling the media on some bullshit. Because something unexpected happened, everyone is scrambling for causes, effects, and the ultimate meaning of an event that many people thought they’d never see. Many of the causes, effects, and ultimate meanings currently being offered are misleading, wishful, or just crazy. Here’s my attempt at a breakdown of some of the myths and potential truths:

What the election doesn’t mean:

1. That we have achieved racial equality in America. You’d think this went without saying but, as htg points out below, that is not the case if you judge by the people being interviewed on American TV.

2. That the upward-mobility narrative of America really works. (The variants of this belief currently circulating among those interviewed on TV are ‘Anyone can be president’ and ‘Only in America.’) Yes, Obama is not a privileged white man whose grandfather and great-grandfather belonged to Skull and Bones. But one of the reasons he stands out is that so few black men have the opportunity to make it to Harvard Law in the first place. An exception does not make the rule invalid; instead (and again, you’d think this went without saying) the exception makes the rule.

3. That America has been reborn as a progressive country. Obama got a bigger percentage of the popular vote than any Dem since 1964, it’s true. But almost half the country was still willing to vote for a party that brought them Bush, the Iraq war and the Washington bailout. McCain is a member of a party with a sitting president more unpopular than Nixon after Watergate. That he got as much of the vote as he did suggests a ideological commitment to conservative values among many voters that overrode everything else.

4. That Obama is safe. I was impressed by McCain’s concession speech because I thought he was visibly trying to drain aggression from his followers; I actually thought he was doing his best to try to keep Obama alive. I doubt his words will have much effect on the kind of people the government has so far arrested with assassination plans, but I appreciated the attempt.

Things the election might mean:

1. When Americans wanted to believe positive transformation is possible on a national level, the thing that most signaled that transformation for them was a vision of racial justice (of a certain kind). That is, electing a black man seems to have offered Americans an indisputable sign that their country had reclaimed its ability to improve rather than decline.

This is an interesting one, and I’d like to hear my fellow bloggers weigh in on it. On one hand, I think there is something positive about this link between racial justice and national progress. It shows that there is some knowledge in the national consciousness that racial violence is at the core of our national history and that the association of America and democratic promise can only persist in the world at large to the extent that we address that history and present-day reality.

On the other hand, though, this belief only acknowledges that violence at the moment of insisting that it has been fixed and eradicated. The statement ‘Finally a black president’ translates to ‘We do know things were unfair but we admit it only now that they’re not.’ Moreover, while there may be something positive about the symbolic equation between racial justice and national progress, #1 and #2 above suggest how easy and problematic it is to substitute a symbol of racial justice for the actual reality of it.

2. The Republicans for some reason didn’t feel able to or didn’t decide to steal this election. I am not sure what to make of this one. Maybe Karl Rove is just getting tired.

3. Some difference in class politics from what many predicted. Someone once defined ‘presidential election’ as ‘a ritual held every four years in which working-class Americans vote against their class interests.’ I wonder if the Republicans might have given some ground here. It does seem that enough white working-class Americans were worried enough about the economy that the Republicans were not able to play race against class in the way that they had assumed they would be able to do. Which doesn’t mean that Americans think differently about race; it may just mean they feel a lot worse about the economy.

The other complicating factor to be considered re: this point is the college-educated vote. This election was the first time that this sector went Democrat since the early 60s. Given the havoc wreaked in the 401ks of middle-class Americans by the Bush regime, the real shift in question may be the allegiance of middle-class voters, who did and do vote in line with their class interests but no longer see those interests as best served by Republican trickle-down economics.

4. Americans want a brainy president. There’s no evidence whatsoever for this one, but I do think people in America are scared, and they would rather have someone at the helm who seems like he can find his ass with both hands and a flashlight. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they won’t welcome the first brain-dead good ol’ boy to turn up once/if Obama gets the nation on track.

5. The Right will be in shambles for a while. I heard this on NPR this morning. The commentator (why oh why do I never remember names??) was saying that he thinks it will be akin to the end of the Thatcher era in Britain, after which it took 15 years for the conservatives to regroup. Please may it be true.




Filed under election 2008, race, Social Justice

2 responses to “What the presidential election does not (and might) mean

  1. htg03

    I don’t want to rain on the great moment in history parade, especially since I’ve never been a big fan of Barack Obama, and I can understand wanting a little sunshine.

    I just can’t shake that feeling that he’s been elected *because* America is so racist and so in need of leadership that they’ve used one of their favored racial story lines, the magical negro (think Bagger Vance, Ghost), to turn Obama into a messiah. Here is a brief analysis of Obama as the magic negro from the American Prospect (http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=01&year=2008&base_name=obama_and_magic) earlier this year:

    “Like it does so often in film, it seems the “magical negro” frame is getting a pass in the press today as (often) white, liberal, well-intentioned writers ponder what it is propelling Obama to the lead in the primaries. In this story though, all of white liberal America stands in as the protagonist. Rather than giving Obama agency — he’s a strong candidate, he has solid experience and good policy, he’s putting out a message that people identify with — it’s about what he shows up to “magically” deliver to white America.

    The limited frames for a black candidate aren’t just confined to the “magical,” however. The several times I’ve seen the candidate speak in person, all the (mostly) white, liberal reporters around me have raved about how he “speaks like a minister” — because they lack much experience with great black orators outside their conception of what a black, Southern minister sounds like, as that’s another of the few acceptable roles granted to black men.

    So while I do think that Obama’s success shows signs of great progress in race relations in America, you don’t have to look outside even the left-leaning press to find screwed up, highly racialized interpretations of Obama’s success.”

    TAP was referring in part to an odious Salon article that endorse voting for Obama BECAUSE he is black.

    I remain shocked to hear versions of this Salon article in the press surrounding his election. I– like I said, not really a big fan– could think of about, oh, one million reasons to vote for Obama, and to believe that he will be a far, far better president than John McCain, that have nothing to do with how electing him will deliver me from something because he is black.

    Again, I hate to be a pisser, but I think we will look back on this time in a few decades and be floored by the racism that surrounded the election of the first black man to the US presidency.

    Me, I’m surprised by it every day.

  2. jke4

    Yes, I think that the ‘See, we can have national progress, we voted for a black man!’ narrative I was talking probably dovetails quite well with the ‘magical negro’ narrative. In fact, it’s as if you are rewarded for endorsing the first by getting the second. Which now that I think about it is sort of how those movies work too–accept the black man and he’ll work his magic for you.

    One place where the racism in apparently positive coverage is particularly clear at the moment is in all the ‘what will Michelle do in the White House?’ stories. There seems to be some underlying sense that clearly a black woman is going to find it especially weird to be in such a classy place.

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