At times, this election felt a little like an Arthur Miller play starring John McCain as the hapless protagonist. A once-honorable man following rules he had been taught by a corrupt system, unable to face the reality of a changing world, McCain sometimes seemed close to driving off the metaphorical road.
McCain brought a modicum of redemption to his storyline with the gracious concession speech he delivered last night in front of swaying palm trees at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. But, as he often has during this hard-fought election, McCain looked like a man stuck in the past—and he surely wasn’t the only one.
This campaign has undeniably shone a light on the many extant prejudices that have been dividing Americans at least since Miller’s heyday. The content of some Republicans’ schizophrenic attacks on Obama—he’s an elitist, he’s a terrorist sympathizer, we don’t know enough about him—were coded evidence of the class resentment, racism, and xenophobia that still plague many parts of this country. Shouts of “Marxist,” “Socialist,” and “Communist” at McCain-Palin rallies hearkened back to the paranoia of the Cold War. And Sarah Palin herself, who faced sexism both from the media and from the McCain campaign itself—which spent fortunes on her clothing, capitalized on her sex appeal, and preferred for her to be seen and not heard—looked like a living embodiment of the pre-feminist ideal.
But despite all the reminders of the social battles that still haunt us, there was another, non-Millerian narrative in play this election—with Barack Obama, not John McCain, as its protagonist. Last night, a swift, silent juggernaut of returns from voting booths around the country confirmed Obama as president-elect and suggested that the cultural quarrels that have reemerged in recent months just may be in their death throes.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” declared Obama in his victory speech before a throng of nearly a quarter million people in Chicago’s Grant Park last night. He told the story of 106-year-old African-American Ann Nixon Cooper, who was born at a time when blacks and women couldn’t vote, and who witnessed astonishing changes throughout her lifetime. “That is the true genius of America,” said Obama, “that America can change.”
For people of my generation, whom Obama last night called “the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy,” the prospect of an Obama presidency is a novelty. Those of us born in the 1980s enjoyed vague feelings of safety and security under Bill Clinton’s administration during our childhood; we felt pangs of fear and shame as George W. Bush sullied America’s reputation and constitution throughout our adolescent years. Now, as we enter adulthood, we have a president-elect who offers us the possibility of transcending our parents’ and grandparents’ battles, of forgetting the failed ideals that Miller chronicled in his plays half a century ago, of embracing a new, attainable American Dream.
There’s no telling whether Obama will live up to his promise, whether the hope that he has inspired in millions of Americans will survive his first term, whether he will fulfill the world’s hopes for what he called “a new dawn of American leadership.” It is possible that some among the millions of enthusiastic Obama supporters will soon rue their naiveté and credulity. No one knows how long it will take truly to move beyond the infighting that has divided Americans for decades.
But last night was the first election night of my life that I went to bed feeling that America had—for once, for now—just witnessed something resembling a happy ending.