A 47 year-old mixed-race liberal from Hawaii, whose middle name is Hussein, just isn't supposed to become President of the United States. That a figure like Obama should do so with such a clear majority serves only to heighten this already palpable sense of historical aberration.
Right now, most public attention is understandably focused on Obama's status as the nation's first-ever black President. In a country traditionally polarized by issues of race, this is truly a historic, and potentially game-changing, moment. But before our energies inevitably turn full tilt to speculating how President Obama might shape the American future, it's worth taking a moment to consider what else makes his victory and this election of historical and political import.
The significance of Obama's victory as a liberal, in a country whose political outlook has been dominated by a social conservatism for at least the last four decade, cannot be underestimated. Liberalism has long since become a marginalized and greatly maligned ideological position.
On Capitol Hill, by 2008, the term "liberal" is more likely to be used pejoratively than it is to be openly embraced by any serious politician. The label has a distinguished history of destroying the presidential chances of Democrat nominees, leaving in its wake a long line of promising but ultimately doomed candidates, amongst them John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Adlai Stevenson.
Obama may well have benefitted from simply avoiding the liberal label, but what still marks him out from the only other two successful liberal candidates of modern times — Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton during the 1990s — is that, unlike them, he wasn't a Southern Democrat. Virtually by definition, their geographic status alone granted them an exceptional level of immunity from this potentially damaging charge, due to the strong tradition amongst democrats in the South of fierce opposition to the social liberalism of their northern counterparts. Moreover, Carter and Clinton managed to convince voters they were, in fact, not terribly liberal at all — Carter through his talk of fiscal conservatism and Clinton by standing as a "New Democrat" who called for welfare cuts and supported capital punishment.
In stark contrast, though Obama avoided the liberal label, he never rejected it directly. He openly defended the New Deal social welfare initiatives of the 1930s and expressed a desire to establish universal health care by the end of his first term as President. It makes Obama by far the most overtly liberal candidate to win the White House since JFK.
It's true that Obama may have somewhat muddied the ideological waters by identifying with the memory of Ronald Reagan — a President of the old-right tradition who derided liberalism at nearly every turn. But it's important to understand that the connections he sought to draw were never aimed at a deep political level — confined, instead, to an attempt to create a mass appeal unashamedly modelled on the rhetorical style and tone of Reagan's highly successful 1980 populist campaign message and not an appropriation of actual Reaganism per se. It's fair to assume that few voted for Obama believing him a closet-conservative on account of these allusions.
What also sets the 2008 election apart is the wholesale failure of the Republican Party's age-old "Southern Strategy" — a strategy with an impeccable track record in stopping liberal Democrat candidates dead in their tracks, but which failed to stop Obama.
The strategy's origins lie in the election campaigns of Richard Nixon. He and senior Republican strategist Kevin Phillips refined and popularised a right-wing anti-Liberal critique first posited by the likes of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace during the early to mid-1960s. It charged Democrat policies with fostering a so-called "Permissive Society", as well as linking the advancement of minority rights with the party's supposed elitist, tax-and-spend, approach to governance and the notion of "reverse discrimination" against whites; in turn, it promoted Republicans as the bastion of traditional values. In the post-civil rights era, the strategy proved incredibly effective at gathering together support from working-class whites in both the North and South.
Senator McCain's attacks on Obama for having "the most liberal voting record" in the Senate, denouncing him as a "socialist" and an "elitist", and Senator Palin's stump speech appeals to "real Americans", were all variations on the strategy. Likewise, Hillary Clinton's bid to secure her nomination by telling USA Today she was the candidate favoured by "hard-working Americans, white Americans" also resided in this tradition, as did Bill Clinton's suggesting Obama drew his support almost exclusively from African Americans.
So why didn't it work this time? For one, Obama offered his own timely counter-narrative to that of the Southern Strategy. Corporate greed, the power of special interest groups in Washington and economic policies that favoured "the few over the many", he maintained, were "the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze" and the reason why resentment between blacks and whites had built up over the preceding decades.
It isn't hard to appreciate why this reading of politics and society, when set against the backdrop of an economic crisis worsening by the day, should resonate with Americans and, for many, even supplant the explanations of old. But Obama did also benefit considerably from the decline of American conservatism, yet another historically remarkable feature of the election. Support for conservatism crumbled in the face of an unpopular war and a discredited president. Two terms of unbridled neoconservatism left the Republican right a spent force — rudderless, out of touch and riven by internal divisions.
McCain personified these problems. He was unable to offer a credible alternative to Obama's message, failing even to gather full support within his own party. His cantankerousness was a stumbling block for many and rank-and-file conservatives were distrustful, labelling him a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only).
Conspicuous too by their absence were the Christian Right, previously such a potent force on the political landscape and a powerful Republican support base since Reagan. Arguably, McCain lost this constituency's support as far back as the 2000 Republican primaries when he called its leaders "agents of intolerance". And whilst Palin's "traditional values" stance brought some back into the fold, it failed to do so with sufficient élan. The coming decade may well be the wilderness years for the Christian Right.
Finally, the Obama camp's use of the internet will likely mark this election out as the true beginnings of Web politics. One needs only to have visited my.barackobama.com to have appreciated how the language and interactivity of social networking technology were transformed into a valuable tool for fostering grass-roots activism. In so doing, they mobilized a new, younger, demographic whose political importance is only set to grow—the "millennial generation": college-age voters, 20-somethings and those in their early 30s.
It may take years before we know if this is truly a turning point in history or a momentary blip in politics as usual. Has Obama led America into a post-racial era? Or did American's economic self-interest eclipse national security concerns and trump entrenched prejudices for a season only? Did people really vote for liberalism or simply against conservatism? Only then will America know if it has a twenty-first century JFK or a Jimmy Carter at the helm.