Monday, November 10, 2008

From the Bottom Up

Almost a week has passed since the American election. And, now that analysts have not only counted the votes but traced them back to their sources, the news is even better than the fact that the first African American has been elected president.

For, while Obama promises a better future, he also reminds all of us of the past -- and how democracy is supposed to work. For nearly a generation now, in both the United States and Canada, political parties have practiced wedge politics -- the tactic of winning elections by dividing the electorate into subgroups and setting them one against the other. The technique is manifested in the conceit of blue and red states south of the border and regional political affiliations in Canada. In the recent Canadian election, the old pattern held. Stephen Harper's electoral strength is in rural and Western Canada. His party elected no members from any of the major Canadian cities; and he has very few seatmates from the Maritime provinces or Quebec.

In the United States, the Republican party is basically a southern and rural party -- but Obama has changed that configuration by winning both Virginia and North Carolina. Even more importantly, as a map in last week's New York Times indicated, Obama has significant support even in red states. That is the way elections used to be won.

Obama's support cuts across both genders and all income and ethnic groups. As Frank Rich noted in Sunday's Times, "A higher percentage of white men voted for Obama than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included." And Obama won "all four of those hunting and Hilary loving Rust Belt states that became 2008's obsession among slumming upper middle class white journalists: Pennsylvania and Michigan by double digits, as well as Ohio and even Indiana, which has gone Democratic only once (1964) since 1936."

Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote and 67% of the Hispanic vote -- and the young, who were the foot soldiers in his political army, turned out in droves. In fact, they are the real reason for Obama's success. Much has been made of the money the Obama campaign spent on television ads. But what made the difference was all of the field offices, staffed with young volunteers and spread across all fifty states, who managed to turn out the second highest number of voters ever. Only in 1960, when John Kennedy ran, was the turnout higher.

Sarah Palin and Rudy Gulliani mocked Obama's experience as a community organizer. "I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer," Palin proclaimed sarcastically, "except that you have actual responsibilities." It turns out that knowing how to organize from the bottom up makes all the difference. It's all about what happens on the ground, not what is mandated from above.

And that is the real cause for hope, which Obama brings to the monumental problems he faces. If he is to solve those problems, he will not be able to mandate solutions. What he will need is community action on a large scale -- the very opposite of the unfettered individualism which has been the bedrock of modern neo-conservatism. Some will call that socialism or communism. They already have. We heard those slurs at McCain-Palin rallies. But citizenship is about one's responsibility for the common welfare. There is great wisdom in that notion.

"For the last eight years," Rich wrote, "we've been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid -- easily divided and easily frightened. That was the toxic catechism of Bush- Rove politics."

It turns out that, occasionally, the common man can be guided by what Abraham Lincoln -- one of Obama's heroes -- called "our better angels," and act, -- also in Lincoln's phrase -- "with malice toward none, with charity toward all." Such moments are rare. But this might be one of them. Stephen Harper take note.

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