THE crowds worshipping at Barack Obama’s feet on Tuesday weren’t crying tears of joy because the nation had just voted for his tax policy.
The adoration of this US president-elect following his great victory isn’t from voters ecstatic that the country’s health system may now be reformed.
And ABC Radio yesterday didn’t joyously play the American national anthem because its commentators were all weepy to think the US economy would now be re-regulated.
To make what seems an obvious point, these tears, these hugs, this reverential celebration of Obama’s win from Washington to Wagga Wagga have been unleashed by Americans voting for their first black president.
Obama’s triumph—inspiring even to his opponents—has been instantly hailed as a great healing. The racial divide that so shamefully scarred the country has at last been overcome.
But check the exit polls. That this election showed a nation overcoming its racism is a myth. But what a fine myth it is, which is why it’s been adopted not just by the media, but by both sides of US politics.
Obama preached it from the first line of his victory speech: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
John McCain was even more explicit in conceding defeat: “That (Obama) managed to (win) by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire . . .
“Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”
The Age summed up the mood more crudely in this headline: “Racial barriers fall as America looks to its great black hope.”
But did those barriers really fall? Was this result really a vote for America’s black hope, offering healing? Or did voters simply back Obama, if reluctantly, for the usual pragmatic reasons that make voters choose one side over the stale other?
I know. It seems even sacrilege to raise these questions, so powerful is the myth already of Obama the Healer.
But check the exit polls of Tuesday’s vote. They suggest—superficially, at least—that Obama didn’t quite overcome racial divides, and may even have entrenched them.
Some 95 per cent of black voters backed the black guy against McCain, the white Republican. In the Democratic primaries it had been much the same, with as many as 90 per cent backing Obama against Hillary Clinton, the white Democrat. (If you’re looking for a racist vote, start here.)
Two-thirds of Latino and Asian voters chose Obama, too, but most whites stuck with McCain, 56 per cent giving the white guy their vote.
In fact, you could even blame that reluctance of whites to back Obama for making his win rather modest.
Consider: Obama had twice the cash of McCain, most of the celebrity endorsements, and coverage from the media that was rarely short of fawning.
He was also running against a very old and crippled man who came from the same party as George Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in history, and had chosen as a running mate a woman the media damned as a moron and burned as a witch.
Everything went Obama’s way. Voters were already angry about the economy, the war in Iraq and the price of petrol, and tended to blame the lot on Bush. Then to stink up the Republican brand completely, just weeks from voting day, Wall St fell in a hole so deep that we’re still waiting for the splash.
Given all that, and his near unanimous support from black voters, it’s amazing Obama won by just 52.3 per cent to McCain’s 46.4. What stopped him from winning huge? His race?
But even this picture, of the races lining up behind the men who most looked like them, is exaggerated and masks the real problem, which isn’t really racism but culture.
There isn’t much evidence, in fact, that Obama shifted many votes because of his race, one way or the other. (His wins in the Democratic primaries are excepted.)
Yes, 95 per cent of blacks voted for him, but that’s only a bit up on the usual black vote for a Democrat candidate, (even if the turnout this year may have been greater). John Kerry got 88 per cent in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 got 90 per cent.
Latinos likewise usually vote two to one for Democrats, and only gave Bush a higher vote in 2004 because he spoke Spanish and had worked hard for many years to win their trust.
But with Republicans since cracking down on Latino illegal immigrants, Latino voters were always likely to get behind the Democrats again.
As for the whites, no Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has ever won a majority of their votes.
Obama this time did win over as many white voters as any of the past three Democrats, including Bill Clinton, and did better with poor whites, hurt by tough times, than did Kerry four years ago.
And now the pattern of this election—and the myth of Obama the Healer—becomes clearer.
All racial groups swung towards Obama (the whites less so), but not so wildly as you’d expect with all that was going for him, despite his inexperience and past associations with extremists.
What’s more, the issue most in their minds was not race. Two-thirds of voters told exit polls the economy was their biggest issue—the strongest such result in two decades—and seven in 10 said the country was going in the wrong direction.
Change is what Obama promised, and change is what they wanted. But a change in race politics? Obama never campaigned on that.
True, looking black, he didn’t need to say more, and for some the mere fact of a black man running for candidate must have been exciting. Obama indeed got a swing from young white voters, so often fresh-faced idealists.
But the change he symbolises in race politics may not be the change traditional black activists and race industry workers seek at all.
Obama’s life story is of a man actually beyond race—more beyond it, indeed, than are many who now cheer his win so frantically.
He may be black, but he was just two when his Kenyan father shot through, and was brought up by his white mother and white grandparents, mostly in Indonesia and Hawaii, far from African-American suburbs.
He later tried to find a black identity, going for two decades to a militantly black Chicago church, but he would know well what a fraud it is to divide each other by race, and to negotiate as if we belonged to separate tribes.
That’s what makes him such a relief to many whites, who’d rather feel good than guilty, and are so grateful to a black man who doesn’t scold them.
But that’s also what makes him a challenge to many African-Americans, many of whom have grown up in a culture of victimhood and entitlement, and too often see government as the solution to problems no government on its own could ever fix.
Three statistics alone will show that what really divides the US is not racism but culture: 50 per cent of black children drop out; almost 70 per cent don’t have dad at home; and blacks commit half America’s murders.
The trouble is it’s easier to demand help than to find your own feet, and it’s not for nothing that blacks so overwhelmingly vote Democrat, which has long played to identity politics, handout dependency and the dead-end culture of grievance.
But what has given Obama his astonishing success is none of that old-style race politics. He’s not into grievance but sweat. He has succeeded by studying hard, working hard, thinking hard—values he took from his Midwestern mother.
And in his victory speech he quoted most a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois, and praised his “values of self-reliance, individual liberty”. He called not for great new government programs, but “a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder”.
He’s right, of course. The racial divide in America was not healed by a simple vote last Tuesday, even had that been what the voters intended.
That divide will stay until there is above all a cultural change within African-American society—a change that will have kids growing up with dutiful fathers at home. That will have them finishing school and getting the learning, confidence and sense of responsibility that will help them to make a career. A life.
What must change is culture, and there Obama’s work has yet to begin. All he has done is offer the shining example that anything is possible in America. A black man may be president, because the system does work, and if a man fails we might look closer to home for the reasons.
But praise the myth. Admire Obama. We need heroes, so hold him up as the inspiration to at last look beyond race to character.
Yet, do not forget the system worked already, and Obama merely proved it. It is America, as much as Obama, that deserves this great praise.