ON the morning after a black man won the White House, America’s tears of catharsis gave way to unadulterated joy.
Our nation was still in the same ditch it had been the day before, but the atmosphere was giddy. We felt good not only because we had breached a racial barrier as old as the Republic. Dawn also brought the realization that we were at last emerging from an abusive relationship with our country’s 21st-century leaders. The festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place — in cities all over America.
For eight years, we’ve been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid — easily divided and easily frightened. This was the toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics. It was the soiled banner picked up by the sad McCain campaign, and it was often abetted by an amen corner in the dominant news media. We heard this slander of America so often that we all started to believe it, liberals most certainly included. If I had a dollar for every Democrat who told me there was no way that Americans would ever turn against the war in Iraq or definitively reject Bush governance or elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president, I could almost start to recoup my 401(k). Few wanted to take yes for an answer.
So let’s be blunt. Almost every assumption about America that was taken as a given by our political culture on Tuesday morning was proved wrong by Tuesday night.
The most conspicuous clichés to fall, of course, were the twin suppositions that a decisive number of white Americans wouldn’t vote for a black presidential candidate — and that they were lying to pollsters about their rampant racism. But the polls were accurate. There was no “Bradley effect.” A higher percentage of white men voted for Obama than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included.
Obama also won all four of those hunting-and-Hillary-loving Rust Belt states that became 2008’s obsession among slumming upper-middle-class white journalists: Pennsylvania and Michigan by double digits, as well as Ohio and even Indiana, which has gone Democratic only once (1964) since 1936. The solid Republican South, led by Virginia and North Carolina, started to turn blue as well. While there are still bigots in America, they are in unambiguous retreat.
And what about all those terrified Jews who reportedly abandoned their progressive heritage to buy into the smears libeling Obama as an Israel-hating terrorist? Obama drew a larger percentage of Jews nationally (78) than Kerry had (74) and — mazel tov, Sarah Silverman! — won Florida.
Let’s defend Hispanic-Americans, too, while we’re at it. In one of the more notorious observations of the campaign year, a Clinton pollster, Sergio Bendixen, told The New Yorker in January that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.” Let us say very carefully that a black presidential candidate won Latinos — the fastest-growing demographic in the electorate — 67 percent to 31 (up from Kerry’s 53-to-44 edge and Gore’s 62-to-35).
Young voters also triumphed over the condescension of the experts. “Are they going to show up?” Cokie Roberts of ABC News asked in February. “Probably not. They never have before. By the time November comes, they’ll be tired.” In fact they turned up in larger numbers than in 2004, and their disproportionate Democratic margin made a serious difference, as did their hard work on the ground. They’re not the ones who need Geritol.
The same commentators who dismissed every conceivable American demographic as racist, lazy or both got Sarah Palin wrong too. When she made her debut in St. Paul, the punditocracy was nearly uniform in declaring her selection a brilliant coup. There hadn’t been so much instant over-the-top praise by the press for a cynical political stunt since President Bush “landed” a jet on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in that short-lived triumph “Mission Accomplished.”
The rave reviews for Palin were completely disingenuous. Anyone paying attention (with the possible exception of John McCain) could see she was woefully ill-equipped to serve half-a-heartbeat away from the presidency. The conservatives Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy said so on MSNBC when they didn’t know their mikes were on. But, hey, she was a dazzling TV presence, the thinking went, so surely doltish Americans would rally around her anyway. “She killed!” cheered Noonan about the vice-presidential debate, revising her opinion upward and marveling at Palin’s gift for talking “over the heads of the media straight to the people.” Many talking heads thought she tied or beat Joe Biden.
The people, however, were reaching a less charitable conclusion and were well ahead of the Beltway curve in fleeing Palin. Only after polls confirmed that she was costing McCain votes did conventional wisdom in Washington finally change, demoting her from Republican savior to scapegoat overnight.
But Palin’s appeal wasn’t overestimated only because of her kitschy “American Idol” star quality. Her fierce embrace of the old Karl Rove wedge politics, the divisive pitting of the “real America” against the secular “other” America, was also regarded as a sure-fire winner. The second most persistent assumption by both pundits and the McCain campaign this year — after the likely triumph of racism — was that the culture war battlegrounds from 2000 and 2004 would remain intact.
This is true in exactly one instance: gay civil rights. Though Rove’s promised “permanent Republican majority” lies in humiliating ruins, his and Bush’s one secure legacy will be their demagogic exploitation of homophobia. The success of the four state initiatives banning either same-sex marriage or same-sex adoptions was the sole retro trend on Tuesday. And Obama, who largely soft-pedaled the issue this year, was little help. In California, where other races split more or less evenly on a same-sex marriage ban, some 70 percent of black voters contributed to its narrow victory.
That lagging indicator aside, nearly every other result on Tuesday suggests that while the right wants to keep fighting the old boomer culture wars, no one else does. Three state initiatives restricting abortion failed. Bill Ayers proved a lame villain, scaring no one. Americans do not want to revisit Vietnam (including in Iraq). For all the attention paid by the news media and McCain-Palin to rancorous remembrances of things past, I sometimes wondered whether most Americans thought the Weather Underground was a reunion band and the Hanoi Hilton a chain hotel. Socialism, the evil empire and even Ronald Reagan may be half-forgotten blurs too.
If there were any doubts the 1960s are over, they were put to rest Tuesday night when our new first family won the hearts of the world as it emerged on that vast blue stage to join the celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park. The bloody skirmishes that took place on that same spot during the Democratic convention 40 years ago — young vs. old, students vs. cops, white vs. black — seemed as remote as the moon. This is another America — hardly a perfect or prejudice-free America, but a union that can change and does, aspiring to perfection even if it can never achieve it.
Still, change may come slowly to the undying myths bequeathed to us by the Bush decade. “Don’t think for a minute that power concedes,” Obama is fond of saying. Neither does groupthink. We now keep hearing, for instance, that America is “a center-right nation” — apparently because the percentages of Americans who call themselves conservative (34), moderate (44) and liberal (22) remain virtually unchanged from four years ago. But if we’ve learned anything this year, surely it’s that labels are overrated. Those same polls find that more and more self-described conservatives no longer consider themselves Republicans. Americans now say they favor government doing more (51 percent), not less (43) — an 11-point swing since 2004 — and they still overwhelmingly reject the Iraq war. That’s a centrist country tilting center-left, and that’s the majority who voted for Obama.
The post-Bush-Rove Republican Party is in the minority because it has driven away women, the young, suburbanites, black Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, educated Americans, gay Americans and, increasingly, working-class Americans. Who’s left? The only states where the G.O.P. increased its percentage of the presidential vote relative to the Democrats were West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas. Even the North Carolina county where Palin expressed her delight at being in the “real America” went for Obama by more than 18 percentage points.
The actual real America is everywhere. It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are.
So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama said in February, and indeed millions of such Americans were here all along, waiting for a leader. This was the week that they reclaimed their country.