Happy New Year! Or, Happy New Year? There’s plenty of support for both the exclamation mark and the question mark. Never in living memory have so many dramatically new dynamics converged on the dawn of a single new year. By the same token, for each new dynamic now unleashed, something old had to die off.
The New President
Barack Obama promised change, and the electorate cried out “Bring it!” Despite a boatload of potentially crippling factors (he was Black, new to national politics, not part of the Democratic power elite, not wealthy enough to fund his own campaign, etc., etc., etc.), Americans saw in him someone who could lead in a time of deep and toxic divisiveness both at home and abroad. And the more they saw of him, the more comfortable they became with his strengths of intellect, character, poise, and savvy. By November, the man who at the outset seemed an unlikely and risky choice for voters now seemed as if he had always belonged in the Oval Office.
What died? Most notably, a deeply held conviction (held in sadness by many, approvingly by others) that the U.S. would never elect a Black person as President. Dashed. Obliterated. Gone forever. Good riddance.
The New Respect
The election of Barack Obama boosted respect for the U.S. globally. Not just “internationally”, but also in that part of the globe called the United States of America. People stand a little taller, feel less anguish about government, show far less divisiveness. Even Republicans show respect for Obama’s intended policies and his choices for key positions that display a keen sense of “pragmatic liberalism”, using savvy insiders who can make things happen in D.C. With polls showing approval ratings of nearly 80%, unheard of for a President-elect, it appears that over half the people who voted against him are nonetheless supportive of his early efforts.
What died? In a word, hubris. The arrogant and self-satisfied drive for both a permanent partisan political hegemony at home and a fearsome swath of military domination abroad has been put to rest. Not annihilated, of course, as such impulses always press for resurrection. But for now they are moribund, and that is good news for all people of good will.
The New Politics
The 2008 campaign was conducted in ways that have forever changed our politics. For the first time the internet mobilized millions of grass-roots campaigners and hundreds of millions of dollars. And the American people resoundingly rejected the politics of fear, turning a deaf ear to scary scenarios and whispered innuendoes. After many years in which it was unclear whether our national soul had fallen asleep or not, this nation’s big heart and fair mind came roaring awake. But the very same internet techniques which mobilized Obama’s millions stand at the ready for those who might appeal to the darker side which we also harbor and have exhibited from time to time. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1852. Still true.
What died? Politics by sound bite. The reckless charges flung incessantly by Obama’s critics failed to stick, failed to poison minds, failed to position the choice as between bad and less-bad candidates.
The New Sobriety
Our long national nightmare is over. Sure, it seemed like a dream, but now we know the spending binge of the last twenty years was indeed a nightmare. It all began when some auto company first sold a car on the basis of “Cash back!” What? Cash back? What the heck did that mean, anyhow? So, I borrow more than the car is worth so I can have some pocket money to buy even more things? That was first liar’s loan, it seems, and such self-deceptive purchasing quickly became a staple of that industry and the harbinger of a rampant national liar’s club about what we could actually afford. Buy a house with no money down and, hey, pay only interest and not to reduce the capital? Great! Cars and houses went from simple needs to ego-feeding obsessions. (Is there any rational reason why the average family house today is twice the size of the average family house fifty years ago, when families were actually larger?) Well, the party’s over. Recession is heavy in the land and around the world. We have hit what recovering addicts call a “low bottom”, and as all 12-step participants know, this is, paradoxically, a life-saving place to be, despite the brutal pain felt and borne by the newly unemployed.
What died? Denial. Gone are both the mindless urge and the ability to spend and then spend more and then spend even more than that. Gone also is blind trust in Wall Street wizards. Such delusions are undeniably entertaining for a while, but once popped, they should languish for some long while.
A year from now, how we look back on 2009 will be determined by the wisdom and determination with which we harvest what is new and inter what died off.