Merely fewer than 45 years have passed since the Marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and the laws that broke through the shackles binding African Americans from registering to vote, let alone casting a ballot. Despite the fact that blacks had the "right" to register and vote, many were taxed, cruelly intimidated, or even killed for doing so. Moreover, at that time, a civil rights law had not come to pass for over 100 years. Considering this, just last night the design of history took a seemingly impossible form. What was considered impossible by many just two years ago unfolded right in front of our eyes in our own lifetime in one night. Ironically, a conservative Fox News analyst stated, for our children "this will not be in history books, this will be on the covers of history books."
While the moment that all of us and Barack Obama embraced last night should be celebrated now and through the rest of history, what cannot happen (even though I doubt it will) is a sense of complacency. Barack Obama, seemingly effortlessly, put up a giant pillar of the civil rights movement, and his election is certainly a great leap; however, race relations are far from reaching maturity and the ultimate aim of equality. Much policy progress has been made and should be congratulated, but the undercurrent of racial divide and the dismal state of institutional support for minorities is still prevalent in my eyes. Granted this, last night was not any sort of destination, but was monumental as a launch point for untold civil rights heights. It's so brilliantly inspirational - a black man is now president of the United States of America.
Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King, he is no John F. Kennedy, and he is no FDR. He has not yet proven much at all, if anything. But many people conjure such comparisons only because they see the potential, as well as the probability, that Barack Obama will be such a transformational figure. He won last night because he was a superior candidate with superior policies, and because he was a greater engineer (I'll get to this in a second). The Republican Party brought forth an extremely honorable man with his own policies, but also lost to itself. Despite all the post-mortem infighting that will take place over the coming months that will suggest that John McCain was "not conservative enough" or that Palin was the problem or that George Bush was the deadweight, these are not the reasons for the conservatives' defeat. The party lost for a broader, fundamental, and systemic reason - it was detached from itself. How is a group going to connect with millions of people, rally them to its ideals, when the group is so disconnected from itself? The same goes for any individual. This self reflection has been made or must be made by each of us, as well.
Barack Obama, aside from breaching this historical watershed, did something over the last two years that is equally as important - he altered the philosophy of unity. He did so by engineering two bridges. The first bridge, the bridge to "hope" and "change" is somewhat of a figurative one, one that rests in our minds. Many look to the ideas of hope and change as little more than destinations that are impossible to grasp like a fleeting idea or an electron in a cloud. In fact, many conservatives have struck out these terms as platitudes and "rhetoric" lacking "substance." The problem with such an argument is that Barack Obama did more than just flaunt such ideals, he built a recognizable bridge toward them and thus made hope and change tangible ideals. Millions of Americans believe in and can see a path to such substantial ideas through the message of Obama's campaign. In fact, by ignoring this bridge to hope and change by citing a lack of substance is equivalent to ignoring the substance intertwined in Americans' everyday lives. Some even argue that Obama is merely a symbol. But, can't a leader be both a symbol of transformation and a pragmatic change agent at the same time? Is the celebratory praise, and sometimes tears, following Obama's victory merely a symbol? Are the hours that millions spent to turn the voting machine levers to Obama merely symbols? Obama is more than a symbol, just as the beliefs of the majority of Americans are more than symbols.
The second bridge is the one between conflicting ideals and this one offers an even more usable, pragmatic interface. The obstacle of achieving many goals in this country has been the idea of mutual exclusivity - the fact that two seemingly polar goals cannot be achieved without sacrificing one of them. I was glad to see Obama finally increasingly emphasizing this point in his last lap campaign rallies. For example:
- Why can't healthcare be improved and be made more available to Americans without sacrificing quality and efficiency? The fundamental inkling that this is somehow factually unachievable is what is holding us back.
- Why can't both the lower and middle income classes increase their incomes along with higher classes? The idea that the government can't design a way for the disadvantaged to receive more opportunities while allowing the advantaged increase success is hopelessly cynical and must be shed. In fact, all evidence surrounding the success of the middle class first points to the contrary.
- Why can't a leader sit down to talk about policies with another leader, without simultaneously promoting dictatorship, betraying America, or waving a white flag?
- Can't pro-life Americans and pro-choice Americans come to a road that will reduce the number of abortions in America? Can't the basic rights of gay and lesbian Americans be preserved even in the face of of strict religious fundamentalism? Why must the sanctity of religion come at the cost of the health of a woman, the rising issue of unplanned pregnancy, and inclusiveness and equality for those marginalized in America today?
Conflicting ideas are not merely islands separated by choppy waters; Obama was the first to unveil to the wide masses that there was a bridge between them. Many would consider solutions to the above "pipe dreams"; I have little condolence for such cynics. After all, they have neglected the fact that such "pipe dreams" are what led to America's independence in 1776, inspired civil rights and suffrage movements, and fueled our greatest scientific innovations.
Throughout the campaign and up through his acceptance speech last night, Obama has demonstrated a discipline and maturity that belie his youth and inexperience. He has thus far been transformational both historically and through his philosophy of unity and consensus. However, we have seen merely a portrait of a man. We hope and believe, with good reason, that he will live up to the lofty expectations set on him. While Obama's record is sparse and while running a disciplined and extraordinary campaign and getting elected president are, by no means, achievements meaningful to everyday Americans' lives, regardless of what you believe, in building the two above bridges, the young Obama has accomplished what even the most experienced leaders have been unable to do. Moreover, Obama's victory showed that America has finally grown up.