by Jeff Siegel
At a food writers conference several years ago, I listened to a 20-something editor discuss segregation in the Southern restaurant business during the 1950s and 1960s with what seemed like a shrug and a shake of the head. “It’s just so hard to believe that something like that could happen,” he said.
I was ready to rush the stage and pound some sense into him. Last night, the American people pounded some sense into me.
The cornerstones of the American political system for the past 60 years have been the Cold War and civil rights. Everything that has happened, from Vietnam and Martin Luther King to the war on terror to the GOP’s southern strategy, has revolved around those two issues. And last night, a new generation of voters said those things don’t matter any more. They said that the United States has new priorities, and they don’t involve anything that those of us who are older than 45 assumed were the natural order of things.
This is not to say that racism in the United States has vanished, or that the world is automatically a safer place. It means that the assumptions we made for 60 years — and that our political leaders made — are obsolete. The 52 percent of the American people who voted for Barack Obama said race wasn’t an issue and that we can no longer look at the world in a good guy, bad guy, we’re right, they’re wrong way. They said there are other options, and I’m proud of them. I’m shocked and surprised, but that’s my failing for not seeing that there were other options.
Sen. John McCain’s campaign failed so badly because he didn’t see this, either. He ran a campaign that would have been perfect against Bill Clinton in 1992 or Michael Dukakis in 1988. But this is 2008, and today’s voters don’t care about that stuff, don’t care about labels like liberal and conservative, red state and blue. They want results, and you can’t blame them for that.
The Republicans are in a fix, reduced to a regional party that is woefully and stunningly out of touch with most of the country. They are victims of their own excess, a party that has played the race card and the God card and the patriotism card for so long that the only voters they have left are the true believers. The GOP totals in the South were George Wallace-like: 60 percent in Alabama, 59 percent in Louisiana, 59 percent in Arkansas, 56 percent in Texas. And most Republicans, if the talking heads I heard last night were right, have no idea what hit them.
I am no fan of the new president, and I don’t know that he is up to the challenge. I am a progressive who believes in social justice, and this may well make me as much of a fossil as McCain. The U.S., apparently, has evolved past political stances like that. But I watched the crowd at Grant Park last night, and I saw how young they were and I saw the tears in their eyes and I saw how much they wanted to believe, and even a fossil like me could see we’re better off than we were before.
To see a review of this blog's coverage of the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:
(The photo of President-elect Barack Obama shows him during a campaign swing in Florida; the photo is by Alex Johnson of Ft. Lauderdale, FL via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see the beginning of Obama's victory speech in Chicago, please check below.)
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by Jeff Siegel