In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.
~ Hannah Arendt in a letter to James Baldwin, 1962.
I choose this quotation to begin a write-up on the election not primarily because it concerns African-Americans - although it has the added advantage of reminding us how much has changed since 1962, when they were not "free" - but because it concerns love and hate.
Love and hate are things that we can only afford when we are not free because when we are free and actually able to chart our own course through the world, we inevitably have to make compromises with reality. The heart is the organ with which we long for the blessed rule of our own kind, who we love, while holding in contempt those who oppress us; but the brain is the organ with which we have to find our way once we are free to do so. Democrats have not been enslaved for the last eight years, but to listen to many of them they experienced the time in a similar way. They are moving now from an era defined by their hearts, by love and hate, to one that must be defined by their heads. They are moving from a dreamworld of expectations to the point where expectations meet reality. I want to talk a little bit about that point.
Call me a party pooper or a Devil's advocate. But I can talk about this point because while I have no particular animus towards Barack Obama, I do not feel much love for him either. I judge a man by his actions and this man has very few actions to judge. His biography is certainly impressive but has consisted for a number of years now almost purely in the act of running for high office, firstly in the United States Senate and then the presidency. None of this means he will necessarily be a terrible president but it certainly does not guarantee he will be a great one either. He may be either, and the battle to determine which it will be has not even yet begun.
I do not mean to detract from the immense symbolic importance of this moment, or the beauty of the fact that the political process has reached out and touched so many millions who formerly felt themselves excluded from it. They used to hate and now they love. I understand why this fact brings such joy and it is understandably going to be our focus for some time. So, I drink to Barack Obama. I drink to his opportunity to meet the expectations of his followers; because the only moment that could possibly be more sublime and beautiful for them than this one is if their dreams eventually come true.
But then, I must say a few words about reality.
Barack Obama has been propelled into office by a loose coalition with loose definitions of their aims. They want "change", which is to say they don't want things to stay how they are, not that they all agree on the desirable endpoint of this "change". This is not necessarily a problem. Ronald Reagan - who, whatever you think of him, was a transformative figure of the sort that Obama hopes to be, only he represented the other side of the dialectic - was not elected thanks to a detailed policy manifesto either. But the parts of his coalition may not always agree, and if the economic pie continues to shrink, they will fight all the harder over the crust. Obama desperately needs to unite the nation behind him because he can not build his elusive "change" on a sectional basis.
Then there is the war in Iraq. I understand, I think, the psychology at work behind his Iraq policy and those who support it. They did not want this war from the beginning, and never saw it as legitimate - many did not even see the president who launched it as legitimate. The war burdens their souls and they want to set themselves free to focus on home. They want a vast act of catharsis by which they can will the war out of existence. They never wanted it in the first place, after all. So let's get it over with, they say. But you cannot will this war out of existence. If you try, it will show you how very real it is, very hard, very soon. Iraqi leaders say Obama knows this.1 I certainly hope so. But do you?
I do not intend to mentally traverse the globe, anticipating everything that might go wrong in every region. Democrats have long been aware of how their domestic goals can be destroyed by adventures abroad; they learnt that lesson from Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Obama's expansive domestic goals will cause foreign countries hostile to the United States to try their luck. Joe Biden said it himself, and he assured us Obama would respond accordingly. Well, Joe, that surely depends on the extent of the sacrifice required to make that response. And America's enemies - yes, America has enemies beyond its shores and not just in the Bush White House - know this, too. So we shall see, and we shall hope.
What makes this analysis particularly relevant is the collapse of international finance capitalism. As the world rises from the embers it is going to need a new system to regulate globalization, and the content of that system is going to be up for influence. We face a truly global problem and the solution for any of us consists in the solution for all of us. And this solution depends on the new system - who buys into it, and who buys out of it. It depends on trade and capital movements - who they are free for, who they are not free for. And Obama will have one moment to be the Leader of the Free World who moves us to this new system, and to define its content for the good of America and the rest of the world. And if he fails, things will not be so easy.
My point is merely that there are problems; big problems. In this election America started itself and the world on a journey that could see us arrive at a better place; not a solution, for there are no final solutions. And so for a while we can just love the way the journey has begun. America has entrusted a charismatic leader to guide them as he sees fit, and the rest of the world will embrace him for so long as he meets expectations. Disappointment will be fatal - for the United States of America, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it could be final. The expectations of those at home can be deferred for longer, but not for ever. By his works shall we know him. And as Barack Obama goes to sleep tonight, the day after the election, I think expectation will weigh on him more than optimism will elate him. It certainly ought to.
1. "Iraq confident Obama won't withdraw troops too quickly", http://africa.reuters.com/world/news/usnTRE4A47OS.html