Lefties for Obama: The Final Round

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
," 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.

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
," 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
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

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

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

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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