I am far too into my superstitious avoidance of unhatched chicken-counting to write much more about the election right now, but I will collect here a few last musings:
Polls really do seem to be more accurate than they have any right to be, but the last-minute tightening of the race probably does not mean that much. It is normal for the undecideds to finally stop eeny-meeny-miney-moeing and ‘fess up in these last days, and everyone involved in the process (especially the media and the campaigns) has a strong interest in maintaining suspense until the end. Also, the idea that the first black major party nominee was going to win by a landslide was a political hothouse fantasy. The true state of things shows in the fact that John McCain has remained within 10 points in most polls (though not in most of the national ones tonight) despite running one of the worst campaigns in modern history and generally trashing his carefully nurtured positive public image in the process. The “New McCain” is the sort of guy (angry red-baiting sleazebag) that Richard Nixon invented the “New Nixon” to stop being.
One thing the New McCain and the New Nixon do have in common is the lack of confidence in their own product. Hence the McCain braintrust’s willingness to throw away their whole experience argument on a cheap base-goosing stunt and then to let said stunt, Sarah Palin, turn John McCain into a sideshow in his own campaign. Add in their willingness to send literally any goofball they could find on the street (Joe the Skinhead) out on the trail. Unfortunately, the very lameness of McCain’s campaign has turned the election into almost purely a referendum on the racial views of white Americans.
A Referendum on Race
What I mean is, given the quasi-collapse of capitalism that is going on around us, 2008 seemed destined to be a heavily Democratic-leaning election year. McCain and Palin have only been able to rally their base — that is all their attacks on Obama have really accomplished — while most state and congressional Republicans are running away from the party. Voters seem inclined to throw the rascals out. The main barrier to their doing this, in the present case, is racism. To put it another way: in many states, such as the one I am sitting in, the presidential voting seems likely to turn on the willingness of white voters to embrace a black man as their national leader/elective monarch. (I throw in the latter phrase because the president’s role as embodiment of the nation seems to be the main reason the office generates such passions, far beyond its actual connection to the most of the themes and issues that are trotted out in presidential campaigns. In what substantive way will domestic race relations likely even enter into the policies Obama might actually pursue as president?) Of course, Frank Rich made the good point in his column today that the media has been projecting a lot in its coverage of the Obama campaign, in essence looking for racism in Middle America so they don’t have to express it themselves:
Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.
And yet the race problem in this election is hardly a media invention. In my state, there are a clearly a number of former Clinton and repentant Bush voters who just don’t “trust” Obama, as they are apt to put it. Now where I sit Obama seems far more trustworthy than either of those other two, but we know that the kind of “trust” they are talking about has nothing to do with what a politician has or has not done.
At any rate, Tuesday night will be either a very great or very sad moment in the history of American race relations. “Something new under the sun,” or more of the same for another generation or more. Thanks to McCain’s horrible campaign, I am not seeing a third option. Unless . . .
Alternatively, if the progressive taxation=”socialism” argument really sticks, the election may turn out to be a successful plebiscite on American political ignorance. The historian’s natural thought is to wonder if anyone under a certain age knows or cares a thing about creeping socialism in this day and age. Of course, no one does, other than that it is bad in some general way. We historians may share a little of the blame for allowing public historical ignorance to grow so deep that a major candidate can apply the socialist label to the progressive income tax — a matter of bipartisan consensus a century ago — and not be laughed out of the race. All the positive changes in what textbooks and survey courses cover has obscured the fact we are probably worse than ever at imparting to our students the basic information about U.S. political and institutional history they need to properly evaluate stupid, inaccurate claims like this one.