Yesterday's election was one of historic shifts. Here are my observations.
1. First African-American President - From my perspective this is the best, most special aspect of Obama's victory. It marks a turning point that makes possible other turning points. He has accomplished what none of the African-American leaders of my generation have been able to do. Barack Obama was able to transcend race without diminishing its importance. As an African-American of a mixed race heritage, I wonder if his ascendancy would have been quite as smooth without the rise and influence of Tiger Woods. Here another African-American of mixed race ancestry changed the face of golf, opening up the game to people of all backgrounds. Tiger did this by being the best at every facet of the game. Barack Obama reminds me of Tiger in that he is smart, disciplined and focused on precisely what he knows he must do. Regardless of how effective Obama will be as president, and he has tremendous problems before him, he will be a person of global influence to billions of ethnic young people who now know that they are only limited by their imagination and persistence in getting to the top.
2. The Rise of the Younger Generation Voter - Though I have not seen any numbers about the turnout by generation, my impression is that Barack Obama was able to do what past candidates of both parties have not been successful in doing, and that is turning a younger generation's interest into votes. This is more significant than simply the votes cast. It is a statement by my children's generation that they want a greater say in how their country is governed. I welcome that because our political culture had become too narrow, too reactionary, too predictable, and too controlled by power blocks with both parties. This generational cohort is more liberal than my generation. What they want is something different than what they have received from their parents' generation. Whether this is a trend or an historic anomaly is unknown. Barack Obama has branded himself as the symbol of Hope and Change for this generation. And as numerous commentators have pointed out, the specifics are vague which allows for each individual to endow Obama with their own Hope for Change. He has become the personification of their own hopes for the future. Can he fulfill the high expectations that these young people have in him. I don't know. It is a huge burden. The more important question is whether he can lead them to see their own role in civic life of the nation. Being involved with an election campaign is one thing, but contributing to the common good on a regular basis requires commitment and self-sacrifice. My experience with many of these young people is that they love to participate in acts of service. Let's see if Obama can expand their perception of what is possble through their own initiative to give back.
3. The Changing Place of Partisanship and Political Ideology - This election was marked by less partisanship, apart from both candidates running away from George Bush, than in the past. Granted Barack Obama cut his political teeth on being a partisan of the Democratic Left. His principles are similar to those of European Social Democrats. Yet, his campaign was more centrist. John McCain, the maverick Republican, has always been a centrist. He is a pragmatic legislator, not a political ideologue. Some may say he failed to win because he wasn't ideological enough. Others will say that he was ideological in the wrong way, that he misunderstood what this campaign required. However, from my perspective, what I think is the more telling shift is toward the need for a new ideology for governing. Both the Democrats and Republicans did not select mainstream candidates to run. They chose those who would bring change. What is the change they would bring? Most likely, an openness to new ways of solving old problems. While not all negative partisanship was missing from the race, where it did, it was not all together successful, as seen in particular in my home state of North Carolina, as Elizabeth Dole lost her Senate seat to Kay Hagan, primarily, in my opinion, because she ran the same old negative Republican campaign that the North Carolina Republican Party has run since the days of Jesse Helms.
As an observer of these ideological trends, I believe we are at the beginning of a major global ideological shift, and the Left will have to show it is capable of governing, and avoiding the problems their European counterparts created by similar policies, if they are sustain their success yesterday. The most significant challenge will not be whether they can managed the economy, but whether they can deal with global terrorism, and the support it receives from nations that provide us oil and other commodities. On the other side, can the Right retool their message of free markets and small government for a time where the federal government will be looked to solve more and more social and economic problems. George Bush failed to change the Republican Party and its future is in question.
The two developments that I am most interested in is to see who will emerge as the one who will follow Barack Obama, and who will rise to recapture the mantel of Ronald Reagan that has been lost since the ascent of George Bush. Both require new generations of young political leaders to emerge who can follow much in the same path as Obama. Whether you like him or not, voted for him or not, for the time being he is now the measuring stick of the 21st century political leader.
4. The Nature of Change - Barack Obama won his election with a campaign for change. I believe virtually everyone who voted yesterday would agree that change is needed. But the question what kind of change, and at what cost. Is it change that produces greater efficiencies, or is it change that begins on the inside and results in a dramatic reordering of American government and its institutions. My reticence to support Obama was his redistributionist philosophy. I believe it is divisive, ultimately self-defeating, and results in lowering the standard of living of the nation because you can't grow the economy by finessing the tax code. The aim of improving the lives of the poor and the middle class is a noble, worthy one. If Obama is about change, then he needs to address the issue of family structure, the purpose and content of public education, and, in particular, how to change the plight of minority men in our culture.
5. Personal Responsibility - One of the perceptions about Barack Obama as president is that he will open the financial coffers of the federal government to help people. I've heard people on the television, the radio and in person discuss their response to his possible election. Some spoke of closing their business because they could not afford the increased tax payments that they expected under an Obama presidency. Others spoke of working less because the government would provide for them. I think the reality is that each of us has to accept personal responsibility for the welfare of the nation. We do this by taking personal responsibility for our own lives, of our families and our community. If the Hope that people have in Obama is that he'll solve all their problems, then their hope is not realistic, and doomed to disappointment. However, if they understand that in a complex, changing world, they must do all they can to develop and exercise the skills of self-reliance and community service, then the Hope for Change embodied in Barack Obama will find success.
I offer my congratulations to President-elect Obama. May God grant you the humility and grace to lead our nation into an unknown future.