Two myths concerning the election should be nipped in the bud. One is that Barack Obama’s victory spelled the end of race and racism as serious factors in American politics. The other is that the election marked the demise of the culture war. Both misreadings of the voting results have enjoyed wide currency in recent days, particularly among liberals. A conveniently compact statement of both is supplied by Alan Wolfe, a liberal sociologist at Boston College, writing in The New Republic.
As to the first, Wolfe’s own celebratory glee over Obama’s win testifies implicitly to the fact that racism is still with us. What is the essence of racism, after all, but judging persons or events largely or exclusively on the basis of race? Which is precisely what Wolfe does in hailing Obama’s victory because the president-elect is African-American.
I join Alan Wolfe and many others in taking satisfaction from the fact that America has matured enough to be able to elect a black president. The point I wish to make is different, though. And here a personal statement may be in order.
I’m a social conservative and a registered Democrat who voted for John McCain mostly because I couldn’t stomach Barack Obama’s stands on abortion and other social issues. My anti-Obama vote — to give it its right name — had nothing whatever to do with his race.
At no time during the primaries or the general election campaign did I advert to Obama’s race as a reason for being either for or against him. And this, it seems to me, comes far closer to the American ideal of color-blind politics than does liberal hurrahing about Obama’s victory because he is black.
So when will racism truly have breathed its last? Without pretending to have the answer to that, I can at least point to one sign. Racism will be dead when people like Alan Wolfe no longer feel it appropriate to salute the victory — or deplore the defeat — of a Hispanic-American or an Asian-American or any Anything-Else-American candidate for public office because of his or her race.
As to the culture war, Wolfe believes that it too passed into history on November 4. Not to pick on him, however, let me cite another instance — Peter Beinart. Writing before the election in The Washington Post, this former editor of The New Republic announced that the “cultural battles of the 1960s” had become “stale” in today’s America.
But it’s Beinart’s line that’s grown stale. In plain fact, propagandists have been declaring the end of at least one central element of the culture war — the battle over abortion — ever since the Supreme Court legalized abortion on January 22, 1973. It was wishful thinking then and it’s wishful thinking now.
Beinart’s argument was that this time the economic crisis, not abortion or gay marriage or any other social issue, would be uppermost for voters. On this, exit polls bore him out. But that applies to all other issues of whatever kind, including Iraq and terrorism. In relation to all of them, the state of the economy was way out front.
What else would you expect? People worried about their jobs, savings, and homes aren’t likely to think about much else. That doesn’t mean traditional values no longer matter to a large number of Americans. It means that on November 4 many had something more pressing to worry about. So — time out from the culture war. But never fear, the struggle over values in America will resume sooner than the Beinarts and the Wolfes admit.