Yesterday I wrote about how I was grieving the loss of the vision I had about where we are as a country. Nowhere was that vision better summarized than in an article David Simon wrote after the 2012 election titled: “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal.” Take a seat because this one is hard to read after the outcome of Tuesday’s election.
…the country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. Some in the Republican party and among the teabagged fringe will continue to play such losing hands for some time to come; this shit worked well in its day and distracted many from addressing any of our essential national issues. But again, if they play that weak-ass game past this point, they are fools…
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance…
Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.
We’re witnessing a lot of mea culpas from people who are admitting they were wrong about this election. Here’s mine: I believed what Simon wrote. I bought it lock, stock and barrel. The “New America” he described was the one I thought had finally arrived. We were obviously wrong.
There is a case to be made that Simon’s declaration was simply pre-mature…that it’s still on its way. If so, then this election and the next four years will simply be a detour on the way to getting there. But I’ve been wondering if the key to understanding why we got that wrong was a failure to recognize the uniqueness of President Obama and the role that played in convincing us that this New America had arrived.
Barack Obama brought a unique set of skills to a unique moment in our history. Perhaps the most important skill set he brought to the table was his ability to inspire with soaring rhetoric at the same time that he was being pragmatic about the details. You don’t find that combo very often in human beings. Usually when we talk about the latter, it is in reference to how he governed. But the campaigns he built were incredibly well thought-out and meticulous.
That combination also allowed Obama to appeal to those who wanted a break from establishment politics at the same time that he pragmatically engaged those processes and people to win elections and govern. In many ways he straddled the divide we see growing today in the Democratic Party between insurgents and the establishment.
He was also young and cool at a time when the millennial generation was coming of voting age, and he was a Black man who talked about “the UNITED States of America” just as racial demographics were beginning to change. More than anything he accomplished, those skills and characteristics were what got him elected in 2008 – and won him re-election in 2012, despite that fact that the opposition was so fierce by then.
Let’s face it…there aren’t a lot of Barack Obama’s out there. Certainly he has his flaws too. But he set the bar pretty high. As a result, people like David Simon and I thought that the country had changed more than it had, while we minimized the backlash that had formed – not only to his presidency – but to the very changes he represented.
No one will ever convince me that we shouldn’t have elected Barack Obama when we did. I believe that his presidency is one of the best things that has ever happened to this country. But what I’ve learned is that it’s not going to be likely that we can repeat the fact that this was a unique candidate at a unique moment in history. During the coming months, we’ll have to figure out what that means in terms of how we go forward. But for now, it helps me understand the grief I’m experiencing over the fact that the New America hasn’t arrived…yet.