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Lefties for Obama: The Final Round

Ira Chernus

My column "Lefties for Obama" evoked a storm of criticism from readers who see no real difference between the two major parties. "Lefties for Obama: Round Two," listing a bunch of issues where some real difference seems apparent, got a somewhat better reception.  Since I see a trend here, and since desperate times call for desperate appeals, I'm moved to offer one last round of Lefties for Obama.

This one is for those of you who live in battleground states and still say that, when it comes time to make policy decisions, the two parties will almost always act as one.  OK. Let's suppose that's true.

But the President of the United States does a lot more than make decisions about specific policies. He (or she) is an immensely powerful symbol, doing more than any other person to set the mood and tone of political life for the whole nation, as well as signaling to the whole world what the USA is really all about.

Symbolism and mood-setting are a huge, though often overlooked, part of the president's role. On that score, there would be such a huge difference between a President Obama and a President McCain, it seems impossible to overlook.

The biggest difference of all is the most obvious one: race. Though any mention of race opens one up to the charge of "playing the race card," there are some more or less objective facts to be considered. 

Racial barriers have always been the social foundation of American life. We have had so little class consciousness because we didn't need it: The economic as well as social hierarchy has been pretty firmly shaped by racial distinctions since the first British immigrants set foot on North American soil. White superiority has remained etched in the stone of our social structure. Even the tremendous gains of the civil rights movement made only relatively small dents in that stone.

But just the sight of a black family moving into the previously oh-so-White House would be by far the biggest step ever toward smashing our historical legacy of racism.  The minute that the Obamas enter the White House might do more to change the tone of American life than everything else a President Obama could do in four, or even eight, years.  

And it's not just about race. The racial barrier is merely the most firm and towering of a whole set of barriers that keep some Americans down, while those on the "right" side of the barrier can rise to the top of the socioeconomic ladder.  You know the list: gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and all the rest. 

The huge crack in the racial barrier symbolized by a President Obama would be a revolution of literally incalculable magnitude. An African-American president would make it seem not just legitimate, but inevitable, that we will move much faster to dismantle all those other barriers. That would be a major blow to conservatism in this country, regardless of what policies an Obama administration did or did not pursue.

On the other hand, the symbolic message of a McCain victory would be unmistakable: White privilege triumphs again. White privilege would seem more unshakeable than ever.  By extension, all the other oppressive barriers would seem equally unchallengeable. All the gains made by movements for social and economic justice since the ‘60s would be set back. By how much? No one can predict. But the national mood would feel stuck firmly in the past, with all its injustices.

Yes, that's unreasonable. But symbolism always is. There's no way to stop such irrational psychological effects from taking their toll. 

Speaking of the ‘60s, look back to the symbolic impact of John F. Kennedy. Though the 1960 election was virtually a tie, Nixon and his conservatism were quickly forgotten for a few years. From his first day in office, JFK symbolized a mood of youth, change, and new beginnings. Though none of his policies offered any radical change, the mood was stronger than the policies. Many factors contributed to the radical tone of the late ‘60s. But without the symbolic impact of JFK, it's hard to imagine that decade turning out as it did.

When Nixon made his comeback in 1968, the election was again a virtual tie. But again the loser was quickly forgotten. Though a Humphrey administration might not have differed much from Nixon's own policy, the tone was dramatically changed. Instead of the wishy-washy mood that Humphrey symbolized, a nasty, take-no-prisoners, Nixonian law-and-orderism came to dominate American political life.

When Nixon fell, Ronald Reagan was ready to take his place. Once again, even those who see little difference on policy should admit that there was a major difference between the tone of a Carter and a Reagan. Once again, it was the symbolic difference between a mood of somewhat flexible boundaries, signaling at least the possibility of change, and rigid boundaries keeping the oppressive hierarchies firmly in place.

Every presidential election since the ‘60s has really been a choice between those two symbolic styles. And there is no middle ground. It's a winner-take-all contest. The loser pretty much disappears.

On September 11, 2001, for example -- just nine months after the Supreme Court robbed Al Gore of the presidency he had actually won -- no one paid the slightest attention to him. All eyes turned to George W. Bush, making him the single most important person shaping American life for years to come.

True, the once-mighty Bush has now fallen so low. But in that respect, too, he is the most potent symbol of the prevailing mood about our public life. Gore's impressive successes in the last few years, culminating in a Nobel Prize, are still just a small blip on the radar screen of American politics compared with the tremendous scale of Bush's failures. 

In the same way, if Obama loses he won't disappear. He will still be a senator and a contender for the 2012 Democratic nomination. But everything that he symbolizes will disappear, or remain just a small blip, totally overshadowed by everything that McCain -- and Sarah Palin! -- symbolize. 

Don't forget that if the 73-year-old McCain wins, it will also send a message to the American public and to the world that someone with all the appalling qualities of a Palin is acceptable as President of the United States.  The bar for public office will be lowered so far that we may as well just throw that bar away and let anyone at all take charge. And the kind of crude, redneck conservatism signaled by McCain's choice of Palin will be legitimized, while the thoughtful consider-all-the-possibilities style of Obama will fade back to the left-hand margin of society.

Yes, these are all very intangible considerations compared to the hard facts of a war in Afghanistan or multi-billion dollar bailouts for the corporate sector. But intangible mood plays a great role in determining how much the public will stand for the conservative policies of the Republocrat ruling elite and how much the public will consider progressive alternatives.

The story of American political life since the Nixon presidency has been pretty much the same:  On specific issues, the public is usually well to the left of the ruling elite. But the pervasive mood of conservatism -- the fear of moving or even questioning the familiar boundary lines -- makes the public afraid to stand up and demand that its will be turned into policy on those specific issues. That can't begin to change until there's a widespread perception that the political center is moving back to the left.

An Obama presidency would not guarantee any progressive improvements, unless we the people demand them forcefully enough. But the day Obama steps into the White House would signal that the political center is moving back at least a bit to the left. That symbolic message would begin to open up real possibilities for change that we could capitalize on, if we know how.

The symbolism of a McCain presidency would move the center even more to the right and insure that the conservative tone of American life would continue for years to come. It would force us to use all our energy, not to work for positive change, but just to respond to emergencies and try to prevent the very worst excesses. We've had eight long years of that. Do we really want another four, or more? 

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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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