[I just posted this as a comment to the thread below, and then decided it merited a post of its own. Let this be my way of saying goodnight on this great day for America, and the world.]
This is richard, burnt out after a long day. Thanks for all the comments. What we saw today was a tectonic shift, an entire new paradigm (pardon the cliché) of what America is, what it stands for and all that is possible when you give people freedom and democracy. I have a lot more to say, and will try to put up a post tomorrow summarizing all that I believe this election means. Simply put, the notion that America is a wonderful place, unlike any other on the planet in terms of hope and opportunity, has been restored.
I saw the great Chris Patten speak last weekend at the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, and he confessed that despite his reputation as a conservative, he was a proud “Obamamaniac” (he actually used that term). He explained it very simply: “Obama has made American politics respectable again.”
I want that to seep in. Something happened under Bush that we hadn’t seen before, something terrible and ugly. It wasn’t new or unique to Bush; indeed, it was Richard Nixon who first sowed the seeds, but it was under Bush that it blossomed and fully reared its head. And that is the tactic of not just pointing out where you and your enemies disagree, but to question the essence of their character, and to tie them to the most anti-American of forces. Nixon’s smearing of “the pink lady” Helen Gahagan Douglas was the first ominous sign of a whole new type of smear: claiming that your opponent is a Communist; in recent months, it was a terrorist-sympathizer, a sleeper-cell Muslim, a socialist-communist-Marxist. This evil technique lay dormant for some time after Watergate, but it never was abandoned. It relied on a fantasy, a big lie, but it worked wonders. Ronald Reagan’s stories of “welfare queens” (who did not exist) who were living high off the hog thanks to welfare, was an offshoot of this tactic of creating imaginary enemies and tying them to your opponent. Willie Horton was another example, playing on unspoken racist fears and creating an association of the opponent with madman black rapists and murderers.
It was only under Bush and Karl Rove and, inexplicably, the once-honorable McCain that this tactic reached its zenith. Just as with Willie Horton, the GOP spin-monsters created a psychological association between Obama and Muslim terrorists, marxists, vote fraudsters and even white terrorists or yesteryear. Just as with “the pink lady,” this was all nonsense, a total lie, and the Rove machine knew it. No matter; it worked wonders before with the Swift Boat Veterans and, irony of ironies, with the smearing of McCain himself in 2000.
That was a long way of describing why Patten’s words were so stirring. America has finally rejected big-lie smears. The most wonderful thing about this entire election has been that Obama turned the tables on the liars and rumor mongers, not by fighting fire with fire but by simply taking the high road. He never shouted or lost his temper, he never let the inane stories faze him. Instead he stuck to the issues and showed for the first time in years that a politician can speak to the public without invoking bogeymen or scare tactics, that he could communicate with the people at their level, about the real things that matter to them, not straw-man issues and murky allegations. He made politics respectable again. He changed the face of American politics and showed the world we are not a nation of self-deluded automatons who can be swayed to insanity by the snake-oil salesmen. And that leaves American politics in a very different place than it was just a few months ago. We can already feel it – America longs to be a kinder, gentler nation once again, to be respected by the world as a leader and a role model, not as a bully and a torturer.
I am not in America now, of course, but I urge you to see this post to get a feeling for just how palpable America’s joy and relief are. A great burden, an agony, has been lifted. We can breathe again, we can see light and we can have hope. As most of you know, Obama wasn’t my first choice, but I have seen what he can do and I am impressed. A shame that he now has to face the staggering mess Bush leaves in his wake, but I think most of us realize he can’t work miracles. He is not a messiah and no one except the right ever said, sneeringly, that he was. Let’s savor the victory for now, and then brace ourselves for a lot of hard, painful work that will need to be done to complete America’s transformation into a real country again, a country in which we can disagree with others without calling them terrorists or traitors, and in which we face the fact that we are all in this together. “God bless America,” as the somewhat hackneyed and overused expression goes. Somehow tonight, despite its inherent mawkishness, it seems appropriate.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.