The End of White Supremacy:
Much as I didn't want Obama to win on ideological grounds, I am nonetheless thrilled that American voters elected the first black president.
I've spent a fair chunk of the last two decades writing about post-Civil War African-American history (in the context of constitutional history, e.g.), a history replete with segregation, lynchings, intimidation, humiliation, exclusion and so forth. I can't tell you how disgusted I am when I read this history, and I'm not sure that those of us who haven't studied the history really understand the pervasiveness and invidiousness of the mistreatment of African Americans. Just imagine the mentality, for example, of people who not only took part in brutal lynchings less than a century ago, but hacked off the victims' body parts and kept them as souveniers, and created picture postcards that highlighted the victims desecrated remains!
And the mistreatment of black Americans crossed ideological lines. As late as the 1930s, President Roosevelt refused to support a federal anti-lynching law, and liberal Democrats had few if any compunctions about intentionally creating massive unemployment among southern African American farmers and industrial workers in pursuit of New Deal goals they considered far more important. Adlai Stevenson, as I recall, ran for the presidency with two separate segregationist running mates in the 1950s! Just forty years ago, the Supreme Court had to force Virginia to allow interracial marriage. Now we see the son of a black African father and white mother carrying Virginia in a presidential election. Amazing!
Prejudice, of course, hasn't disappeared, not will it disappear under an Obama presidency. But all American ethnic groups have faced prejudice, sometimes severe prejudice, and thrived nevertheless.
What was unique about American post-slavery prejudice against African Americans, as opposed to the prejudice against other groups, was that it manifested itself in a system of white supremacy that dictated that blacks always be placed in an inferior position to whites. In the South, this was formalized under the law by Jim Crow statutes, and also enforced by lynchings and "whitecapping" against "uppity" black business owners and others who "didn't know their place."
Things were never quite so bad in the North, but there was still tremendous resistance until relatively recently among whites to, for example, allowing blacks serving in supervisory positions over whites. Until fairly recently, most construction unions blatantly refused to accept African American members, mainly because they did not want to acknowledge equality with them on a social level.
Obama's victory tells us that in case anyone had any doubt, the ideology of white supremacy is over and done with, kaput. Again, while blacks still face a fair amount of prejudice, there's a big difference between prejudice and a widespread ideology among the majority population that members of a particular group must be kept in "their place," by custom, law, and violence. "Their place," in effect, is now all the same positions whites occupy, up to and including the most powerful office in the land.
So congratulations to Senator Obama, and to America.
UPDATE: I posted this by accident before I was quite finished, so the current version is slightly edited.
Three Positive Aspects of Obama's Victory:
For a variety of reasons, I oppose most of Barack Obama's policy agenda and therefore do not welcome his victory. At this moment, however, I think it appropriate to note what I see as three important positives that will result from his triumph.
First and foremost, Obama's victory is an extraordinary milestone in the history of American race relations. Anyone with even slight familiarity with our history of racial oppression can hardly fail to recognize what an important historical moment the election of the first African-American president is. As a constitutional law professor, I have probably spent more time considering that history than most. The history of American constitutional law is to an important extent the history of racist repression and the long struggle to overcome it. As recently as 45 years ago, most American blacks did not even have the right to vote, much less any hope of being elected to the highest office in the land. Just a few decades before that, in the early 1900s, many southern blacks could not even freely change jobs, because of constraints imposed by state peonage laws, about which co-blogger David Bernstein and I have written in some of our academic work. David, of course, is far more expert on the history of racist law than I am, and I am more than happy to agree with what he says in his most recent post.
Obama's victory will not eliminate the vestiges of racism that remain, nor will it solve the problems of the black underclass. But it is an important symbolic moment, and it should help to alleviate racial tensions.
Second, it is clear that Obama's win will improve the image of the United States throughout much of the world. I do not believe that pleasing foreign public opinion should be the be all and end all of American foreign policy. Sometimes, we can and should take unpopular actions. But it would be wrong to assume, as some conservatives have during the Bush Administration, that the good will of foreign publics is irrelevant. Most of our key allies are democracies whose governments are to some degree constrained by public opinion. If that opinion is more favorable to us, it will make our foreign policy objectives easier to achieve because allied governments will be more inclined to cooperate with us.
Finally, Obama is an incredibly talented and charismatic politician. His meteoric rise from being a little-known state senator just four years ago is the most rapid ascent from obscurity to the White House in at least a century, if not longer. Conservatives and libertarians underestimate his competence and political skills at their peril. Just ask his defeated opponents, including Hillary Clinton. Obama's competence and charisma is of course a double-edged sword. Political competence used in the service of a harmful big government agenda could actually make things worse than they would be under a less skillfull leader. For this reason, I cannot be as enthusiastic about Obama's potential for "greatness" as co-blogger David Post.
However, it is fair to say that Obama is unlikely to commit serious mistakes merely because of incompetence or stupidity. If he adopts flawed policies, it will be because of his ideology or because of perverse political incentives that enable him and his party to reap short-term political gains from policies that cause long-run harm. The latter temptation, of course, is far from unique to Obama or the Democrats, as we have had occasion to learn during the years of the Bush Administration. If Obama's election achieves nothing else positive, it can at least help us get to the point where the election of a black president will be viewed as normal, and that president himself judged by the same standards as those applied to other politicians.
The Return of Oratory:
As (I think) the only vocal and publicly-enthusiastic Obama supporter here on the VC, I more than share my colleagues' excitement over the events of last night. (I think it's telling -- and a very hopeful sign for an Obama presidency -- that even people (like many of my co-bloggers here) who disagree so strongly with Obama on so many important substantive issues found much to be proud of, and much to be excited about, last night. It was hard -- almost impossible, I would think -- not to be moved as the night wore on; even McCain, in what I thought was a deeply-felt and gracious concession speech, far and away his best moment of the last several months, seemed genuinely and profoundly moved by the significance of the moment, and put that across without cant or rancor; a great moment for him, I thought - I suspect I was not alone in thinking "jeez, where has that John McCain been over the last few months?"
Among other things, I'm hopeful that Obama's victory signals a return to serious political oratory. We haven't had a "great communicator" in the White House for a long, long time -- since Reagan. We haven't even really had a "pretty good communicator," and the last eight years were probably the nadir. It's not the guns at his command that, ultimately, gives a US president power, it's how he leads, and how he uses words to communicate with us is a critical component of that. There were two pieces of political oratory last night -- McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory speech -- and they were both home runs; I can't remember that ever happening before. I also thought it remarkable that both men found the same meaning in the events -- both drew from Obama's victory the idea that people can accomplish incredible things here, in the US, if they put their mind to it and work hard for it. I'm really looking forward to Obama's Inauguration Address - we need inspiration, and the guy is pretty damned inspiring.
And the most interesting little observation I heard last night from commentators: Feb. 2009 marks the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and we will have a black man from Illinois leading the celebrations. It's like Adams and Jefferson dying on the same day, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- you couldn't make this stuff up.
Three Good Things About Yesterday's Result:
I was not a supporter of Barack Obama. I did not hope he would win yesterday's election, and I am not looking forward to the s
ort of "change" I believe he has in mind. I hope I am wrong, but I think some really bad stuff is going to happen as a result of Democratic control of the Presidency and Congress. But regardless of how much bad stuff happens in the future, three really good things happened yesterday that deserve note.
The first and by far the most important is the election of the first African-American as President. I won't spend as much time as my co-bloggers David and Ilya did in their posts last night, but I whole-heartedly endorse their analysis. It is only because we have made so much progress on the issue of race in this country that we can afford to glide over the enormous significance of the event that this progress made possible. African Americans were kept as slaves for over 150 years, followed by a brief period of liberty that was snuffed out by an organized campaign of rampant and cruel terrorism that culminated in 100 years of racial apartheid. I am old enough to remember what pervasive social prejudice against blacks looked and felt like. It matters more how
Barack Obama was elected than the fact he was elected. Barack Obama's election in a campaign in which his race worked in his favor
, and no palpable
racial opposition emerged, is amazing to behold just 50 years or so after the formal end of Jim Crow. Until yesterday, there were millions of good hearted Americans who felt like marginal citizens in the land of their and their ancestors' birth. Barack Obama was not nominated to high office by a benign President, as were Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. He was elected President by a majority of the American electorate. No matter what racism survives and racial politics continue--and continue it will--the felt relationship of African-Americans to the United States irrevocably changed yesterday. The same would be true with the election of a Jewish president, but to a much lesser extent because--despite the virulent antisemitism that has existed here--many American Jews consider the U.S. to be their Promised Land; an attitude that the history of African Americans makes all but impossible for them. I urge those readers who believe that the forthcoming Obama administration poses a genuine danger to liberty, as I do, to pause for a moment and savor the importance to the American story of what took place yesterday. This gain cannot be gainsaid.
Second, Barack Obama's election yesterday represents the end of the Bush-Clinton lock on the Republican and Democratic parties, which is a very good thing for both parties. Whatever his accomplishments--and I credit him for policies that kept American soil free of terrorist attack since 9/11--George W. Bush's Presidency was bad for the cause of liberty and for the Republican party. I won't enumerate all the reasons why since they are legion and obvious. I want to focus instead on the end of Clintonism in the Democratic Party. Without Obama, there would be Hillary and Bill for years to come, and it is good riddance to both. Family dynasties--including the Adams father and son--are not befitting a Republic, except the banana kind. True, President Obama's policies as President will likely be far worse than Bill Clinton's, though the good parts of the Clinton Administration happened after the Republicans took control of Congress. Regardless of whether that happens again, or whether Obama is a worse President than Hillary would have been (which is likely), finally ridding us of the 20-year Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton cage match was a second good thing that happened yesterday.
Third, John McCain will not be President of the United States. Denying the ultimate political reward to a politician who was so principally responsible for gutting the freedom of political speech, and continuing the assault on the electoral process that was begun after Watergate, is justice. Even many of those who preferred McCain to Obama would acknowledge that McCain would have done many of the same bad things as President they fear Obama will do. When this happened, Republican opposition would be divided and muted, and responsibility for the bad effects of these policies would necessarily have been shared by both parties. The election of a Democratic President, Senate and House will place responsibility for the coming "change" squarely where it belongs. A whole generation of Americans have yet to experience the joys of one-party Democratic rule. I sincerely hope that this experience will be better than I expect it to be. I want only the best for this country. But if it doesn't, then Americans will know who to blame in a way they would not if John McCain were President. Now is not the time to discuss all the ways that this responsibility will be deflected or denied. The point is that this will be much more difficult than it would have been with John McCain as President. (Of course, I would have made the opposite claim has McCain been elected: At least Barack Obama will not be President of the United States.)
One final thought. In the discussion that has already begun about how the Republican Party needs to change to adjust to this election result, one consideration is overlooked. Much will depend on exactly what the Democrats attempt, accomplish, and the results thereof. These cannot be reliably foretold in advance and are less clear today than they ever will be again. If the Democratic Party forthrightly assumes the mantle of the Party of Government, this will present an obvious political opportunity for the creation of a Party of Liberty in opposition. Not that I am predicting this. I am just saying that it would be in the political interest of Republicans to become that party, which makes it somewhat more likely that they might do so if a critical mass of Republican activists and leaders can point the way.
I do not believe in historical inevitability. Whatever opportunities may be created for Republicans will not automatically be recognized and seized by them. My only point is that we cannot know today the exact nature of these opportunities because we do not know exactly what the Democrats will do next and how. The point of this post, however, is that no matter what may happen in the future, three good things happened last night.