The accession of the Democrat Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency marks a break with a pattern of American politics going back 40 years to the election of Richard Nixon. Most importantly, in the 2008 presidential election a majority has voted to ignore the division of their society into black America and white America.
Electing a black president will not end racism, but Obama with his campaign first for the leadership of his party, and then for the presidency, invited the American people to go beyond racial politics, and on the first Tuesday of November 2008 that invitation was accepted.
African American politicians used to acting and speaking on behalf of their constituency may now be allowed to be simply American politicians. White U.S. citizens showed they could welcome, and even worship an African American politician, and vote him into the highest office.
The Obama victory has multiple dimensions that will have ramifications in every political jurisdiction where electoral politics is practiced. The man has a gift. His oratory ranks him above all but a tiny number of American presidential candidates throughout history. His stage and screen presence cannot be replicated. However, what his campaign did organizationally, through use of the Internet is equally remarkable. Obama was able to connect personally with his party, mobilizing armies of volunteers, no less than 21,000 in North Carolina alone, and collecting small donations on a scale not seen in politics anywhere before. His campaign techniques changed the game from focus groups, and telephone banks, back to politics as citizens meeting face to face.
The 2008 election changed the dominant trend in U.S. politics, the appeal to voters regionally on racial lines. The passage of civil rights legislation by the Democrats, following the 1964 presidential election defeat of another Arizona Senator, Barry Goldwater, at the hands of the Texan Lyndon Johnson, ended the hegemony of the Democratic Party over the South. Richard Nixon invented the southern strategy, a campaign to rally white, largely male voters from the old confederacy to the Republicans, rejected in the South for 100 years, ever since Lincoln waged civil war to defend the Union.
After Nixon won his 1968 victory, only two conservative Southern Democrats, Carter and Clinton, were able to beat the Republicans in races for the White House. The southern strategy was not overtly racist, but for anyone listening for code words for ignorance and fear about black America there was an abundance of rich material to be found in Republican campaigns.
No American presidential race has exceeded a 64 per cent turnout. Recently it has routinely been below 50 per cent. The surge in voter participation signals that the Obama campaign played the music Americans wanted to hear.
The new president represents an America ready to transcend race as the defining social characteristic, an America that wants to bury its past history of slaves working on plantations.
In Montreal a party was held on St. Lawrence to welcome America back to the world. But the Obama victory does not signify the election of an American world citizen president. The incoming president is committed to the American empire. Putting America back on top is his goal, not dispersing America power to a more stable world order based on shared responsibility.
What we can anticipate from the Obama era is a new generation of idealist Americans moving into politics and government. Obama, who started his career as a community organizer, knows that change comes not from presidents, but from people mobilizing for change, and a president that listens.