There can be no beginning without an ending. Everyone seems to agree that Barack Obama's victory marks a new chapter in American political history. What is not so obvious is that it ends not just one era, but two.
First, of course, Obama's victory brings the movement toward racial equality that grew out of the Civil War to its logical political conclusion. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, by guaranteeing every citizen equal protection under the laws, institutionalized modern liberal democracy as we know it. But its promise remained long unfulfilled. Women did not achieve equal citizenship rights with men until 1920 and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. And it would take until 1965 before the Voting Rights Act made it possible for African Americans to put the ideals of the Fourteenth Amendment into actual practice throughout much of the South.
It is one thing for African Americans to have won the right to vote. It is another for an African American to win 52 percent of the national vote. It has been only 43 years since 1965. That one country could experience so much racial progress in so short a period of time is testimony to its resilience and openness.
Still, the forces that have long opposed racial justice and equality in this country are by no means dead. The single most disturbing aspect of last night's election is the transformation of the Republican Party into the party of the Confederacy. Yes, Republicans remain strong in states such as Wyoming and Idaho, and Obama won Virginia and is leading in North Carolina. But both these latter two states flipped to the Democrats because they contain large numbers of white professionals who moved there from other parts of the country and because blacks came out to vote in such force. Long-time Southern whites, by contrast, opposed Obama--those in the Deep South most of all. Despite having lost the Civil War and having been instructed by the laws of the land to treat members of both races equally, large parts of the South resisted--and they continue to resist.
Fortunately for Obama, and for the rest of us, the senators and House members elected from these die-hard regions are in the minority, incapable of stopping a Democratic president from pursuing his agenda. In addition, their numbers will continue to shrink as companies move in looking for cheap labor and their kids move out looking for better opportunities. Some holdouts in the Old South may never give up, but it no longer matters. Not long ago, these kinds of people, driven by their parochial obsessions with racial superiority, ran the country. Now they will be a remnant. Perhaps they will be able to control the Republican Party for the next electoral cycle or two, but the white South has finally lost its privileged position in American political life; Jesse Helms's Senate seat is now held by Kay Hagan. Like all those who lose their privileges, especially those who never earned them in the first place, they are unlikely to show much grace, despite the effort by John McCain, in his concession speech, to point the way. Obama would do well not to try to win them over but to ignore them. They have for too long been a malignant force in American political life, and we should not miss their passing.
The second era to close with Obama's victory is the one that began with the Newt Gingrich-led attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, one of the most irresponsible acts in U.S. political history. It was Gingrich, and not Karl Rove, who will ultimately be viewed as the man who perfected the kind of polarizing politics that Obama insists he will end. Gingrich and his many followers had persuaded themselves that Clinton's election was illegitimate, and they brought to American politics a level of extremism so far outside the boundaries of consensus politics that it worked for a short period of time. We have been living with the poison they unleashed ever since.
The era launched by Gingrich has ended in part not because Obama beat McCain, but because he first defeated the Clintons. Many of us, myself included, now recognize that Obama's victory was made possible because Hillary roughed him up in the primaries. We owe her that, just as we owe both Hillary and Bill thanks for campaigning on Obama's behalf. But, even if Hillary had won the nomination and the presidency, the ugliness of the impeachment fight would have found a way to return--repressed and covert, perhaps, but no less ugly. It is not just that we needed a new face. We also needed a new name. All this is unfair to Hillary Clinton, but no one ever said that politics was fair.
Even more importantly, Obama defeated the politics of polarization in the general election--and he did so convincingly. By calling Obama every name in the book of dirty politics, McCain and Sarah Palin soiled themselves and left him clean as a whistle. Obama does have a policy mandate: He has promised to tackle health insurance and to bring the troops home, and he must try to deliver. But he has a political mandate because of the way he campaigned: The major theme of his speeches, from the early ones to the victory oration last night, is that we can do better than a negative politics of attack-and-respond. That other senator from Illinois fought the Civil War. This senator from Illinois ended the culture war.
Not completely, of course, for there is still the issue of gay marriage, a cause evidently lost in California last night--in large part because so many African Americans, inspired by the Obama campaign to vote, voted against it. Yet, as a nation, we are at our worst when we fight over culture war issues; if she did nothing else, Palin proved that. To stop doing so, we need appeals to our better nature. None of the other Democratic candidates could have done a better job of urging us to redeem ourselves than Obama, because none of the other candidates was black.
Race has long been our major division, and all our other divisions play off its script. From the culture war's first manifestation in the guise of a Nixonian emphasis on law and order, through debates about teenage pregnancy and promiscuity, down to affirmative action, the culture war was a replay of earlier conflicts between black and white. Whether tensions were fueled by Southern politicians denouncing welfare or Al Sharpton threatening disruption, those who made race central to their outlook did not mind a little polarization here and there. This is where Obama's coolness became essential. It took someone whose race was once a symbol of being at the bottom to lift us all over the top.
The debate will now center on how Obama should govern. On that question I would rather follow his lead than give him advice, at least for now. He has not only won an election, he has put us in touch with our history. There will be plenty of time for the criticism later. We are still reeling from an administration that played to our fears, never acknowledged its mistakes, ignored our best traditions, and shredded our moral values. We deserve a moment to feel proud once again. Barack Obama has offered it. What more could one ask for in an election?
This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.