By the time you read this column, there’s a good chance that you’ll be already beginning to think about the election of 2008 in the past tense. And many Americans may join you in relief at watching this campaign fade into history. I suppose I will, too.
But it’s been a remarkable campaign that’s focused extraordinary attention on who we are as a nation and what we will be in the future. At the very least, this campaign should put to rest the old complaint that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Two divergent visions of our country have emerged from the campaign and you, reading this column several days beyond my deadline, probably already know which the American people prefer.
It may have required personalities like Barack Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s to make it happen, but the campaign seized the attention of many Americans who had never really paid much attention to politics before, and it’s possible that much of that interest will persist after campaigning has given way to governing.
True, things have gotten a little ugly at times, but to imagine that this campaign has been much more mean-spirited and divisive than campaigns of the past is probably to buy in to a naove historical near-sightedness. But tensions did run high, and ancient fault lines in our society — race, gender, class — have been disturbed. The landscape that they underlie is rocky and treacherous, and some of it is unexplored territory.
During the last eight years we’ve undergone a gradual redefinition of our national identity, and the campaign has provoked us to confront a set of decisions about the future: What’s become of Benjamin Franklin’s prudent financial advice about thrift and parsimony? How do we balance the right to privacy against national security? Does a widening income gap between the rich and the poor undermine the spirit of our republic? Are we the kind of nation that will pursue a pre-emptive war of choice in an oil-rich region? Are we really the kind of people who countenance torture? How concerned are we about the way in which other countries see us?
These questions provide a context for the particular problems the new president and congress will face immediately: The two wars in which Americans, Iraqis, and Afghans are still dying daily have been largely obscured by the economic crisis here at home. But a clear path out of either of those wars is still far from apparent. They are bewilderingly entangled with the larger "war on terror," which is confusedly wrapped up in our energy dilemma and in climate change.
The new president will face the challenging task of steering the nation toward solutions to these problems and toward answers to the questions that will define our national identity. In some cases, the world and our country have changed in ways that call for a reconsideration of who we are. But primarily we need a recommitment to who we were.
In short, this one didn’t feel like just another presidential election. A lot was at stake, and most of it was discussed exhaustively from its different perspectives in millions and millions of written and spoken words during the long campaign. Now the campaign is over, but the hard part is just beginning. Some of the acrimony that emerged will make the new president’s task much more difficult.
But campaigns are about discord and division; elections are about unification, about finally coming to an agreement. After the election the nature of the winner’s experience is less important than his capacity for leadership and the willingness of the partisans to support, above all else, the ideas that lie behind our republic.
Perhaps modern political campaigns do go on too long; but what an excellent campaign, thoroughly befitting our fine country.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu. )