I voted, therefore I am. That’s a fair updating of Descartes after a total immersion in politics over an endless presidential campaign. The campaign flattened and fragmented us into categories of gender, race and class. Candidates and their surrogates appealed to the limited ways most of us see ourselves. But at the end of the ordeal - the fact of the victory of president-elect Barack Obama — if not necessarily his politics or what he might do with his mandate, redeems the pain.
The dividing of the electorate by category, whether first to set Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton apart for her femininity or Mr. Obama for his pale brown skin, was insulting, as though a vote should be determined by female features or the color of skin. Many blacks voted for Mr. Obama in racial solidarity; who can blame them? (Many women voted for sexual solidarity, too.) Blacks are pleased and proud to see a black man elected to the highest seat in a land, where only a generation ago he couldn’t have voted in several of the states that Tuesday night gave him their votes. Many whites voted for him simply because he was black and they like what that says about themselves.
But Mr. Obama was not a candidate to avenge black grievance; it was not color that produced his landslide in the oft-maligned Electoral College. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, an authentic candidate of grievance, never drew such allegiance or affection. This candidate persuaded a majority of Americans that his eloquence suggested that together we could overcome the stereotype that separates white from black. With his Ivy League education and his cultured voice, he reflects both the heritage of his African father and the culture of his white mother. One observer puts it bluntly: “He reads white.” His promise to ease partisan rancor will be harder to make good. We haven’t yet heard how and where he’s willing to compromise with the diminished Republican conservative minority.
The law after the Civil War branded any person with a provable ounce of black blood as “colored” — the so-called “one drop rule.” Identity was built on this prejudice and used to keep blacks from entering the white mainstream. Even with a half-white heritage he could not escape the orbit of angry blacks who could neither forget nor forgive the slights of those days now swiftly receding into the embrace of the past. This explains how Mr. Obama, with his insights and eloquence, could never over two decades in the pews summon the will to confront the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his racist pulpit rants against white America.
He ran against an authentic American hero who served his country with years of courage and distinction, some of them spent in a squalid Hanoi prison cell. But John McCain’s heroic past was precisely that, the past. Young voters can summon scant appreciation for deeds performed before their time. Americans live in the present tense, and like a loser on a reality show, Mr. McCain was told: “You’re history.” Mr. Obama was the man bathed in the warm sentimentality of the moment; real-time experience with dealing with the real-life complexities of domestic policy and foreign affairs yields few rewards measured against celebrity. Better to have George W. Bush to kick around, even if only in the person of the old soldier.
Perceptions of race changed over the months of the campaign; perceptions of gender, not so much. Mrs. Clinton’s early “inevitability” was determined more by her last name than by her first. Fair or not, bringing her husband into her campaign, offering “buy one, get one free,” recalled only earlier failure. She was hailed as heroine by the sisterhood, but her past played against her with everyone else.
The nomination of Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s running mate further exploded myths of feminism. The older sisters wanted to elect a woman simply because she was a woman; how could Mrs. Clinton’s liberals not loathe Mrs. Palin? They said it was because she flubbed her first interviews, because, quick study or not, she was late in turning in her homework. She dazzled nearly everyone else, reason enough to hate her.
So, now we brace for an uncertain future, where we can get back to feeling like whole people rather than stick figures generated by pollsters. Descartes said something else that applies here: “Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.”
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.