A House Divided

To begin with, I am one of those who are positively buoyed by the election of Barack Obama. The challenges he and his administration will inherit are formidable, and undoing the damage of the past eight years may be beyond the powers of even the most talented political managers, certainly in the short term, but at least we can look forward to a government of intelligence, calm and compassion – a government of the best intentions – as opposed to the rule of ideological thugs.

I speak as someone who admires the United States and what it ideally stands for, and who is therefore profoundly dismayed at the damage that has been visited on it by the likes of Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, Rove and Gonzales and Bolton and the rest, from the prosecution of a needless war under false pretences to the reckless abandon that allowed the U.S. financial and credit markets to immolate themselves. The world itself suffers from a weakened America that has compromised its principles, betrayed its own ideals, and tarnished global confidence in free markets. The world does not need an America that behaves with contempt toward its staunchest allies; that not only resorts to the use of military force with capricious swagger, but that does so to the point of jeopardizing its military capability. The world does not need an America that suspends the civil liberties on which it was founded; that condones, outsources and indeed practices torture; that ceases to be an example to emulate and becomes instead an example of what to avoid.

The world needs a strong United States. We need it economically strong. We need it morally robust. We need it mindful of the world beyond its borders and aware of the responsibility that comes with leadership.

Which is to say, the world needs an America that is sure of itself and what it is about; that knows what it stands for and is guided by the effort to live up to that promise; that knows where its own values and priorities lie.

In that regard, although I am both enthused and mightily relieved by the election of Barack Obama, I am less confident about the state of the nation over which he is about to take stewardship, and I don’t mean simply the mess in Iraq and the mess on Wall Street. These are in the end technical political and economic problems that can be managed by dint of decision making. But there may be something more profound going on within the American body politic that no policy shift can address, and that indeed the coming policy shift will only exacerbate.

For all the talk of Obama’s decisive electoral victory – and it was certainly a decisive victory in terms of machine politics and the calculus of the electoral college – the fact remains that as the results came in on Tuesday night, the little ribbon at the bottom of the TV screen that showed the popular vote barely budged from beginning to end.

Despite the near-rapturous enthusiasm Obama was able to inspire across the country; despite a flawless and disciplined campaign; despite outspending his opponent by an astonishing margin; despite the Democrats’ success in registering new voters and mobilizing the vote; despite a shambolic campaign on the part of John McCain that included a cynically calculated choice of a running mate and, especially toward the end, a message to the electorate that said next to nothing about what McCain stood for and consisted almost entirely of fear-mongering … despite all this, Obama was able to carry only 52 per cent of the popular vote. Almost one in two Americans rejected what he had to offer.

This remains, therefore, a deeply riven country. And it’s not divided simply by disagreements over taxation or foreign policy or energy strategy or how best to correct economic dysfunctions – those type of policy differences are part and parcel of democratic politics. Rather, America remains divided to its core, split on fundamental values – split on what it should value. You could see that in the results of the proposition on the California ballot to deny same-sex marriages, overturning the decision of its own Supreme Court. California, I remind you, which went overwhelmingly for Obama, and has been in many respects the most progressive and tolerant of U.S. states on the issue of gay rights, nonetheless chose to restrict the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

That is a telling symptom of a genuinely conflicted nation. It is a nation in which Sarah Palin’s talk of the “real” America (as opposed to the America that does not believe what she believes) still resonates. And I worry that as long as divisions persist within the United States at that level and with that sort of ferocity, no amount of charisma or political wizardry is going to make the nation whole. These are divisions that simply cannot be set aside. They have become the very raison d’être of Palin’s “real” America, which may be a rump within the U.S. body politic, but it’s a rump that amounts to 48 per cent of the population.eg

Carleton University Political Science Dept.  November 6, 2008