NEW YORK—There is less here than meets the eye.
Yes, the election results are notable. But they don't mean as much as people think.
First, the important stuff: The first black president has been elected. And not just elected by a majority of voters, many of whom were black and/or first-time voters, but by nearly half of white voters. Twenty-eight years after the Reagan Revolution, the electorate has repudiated Republican inaction—on Iraq, in New Orleans, most of all on the economy—to an extent not seen since Watergate. Americans delivered a proxy impeachment of George W. Bush, holding McCain less to account for his policies than his association with a (cough) leader they blamed for their troubles.
It isn't quite fair. George W. Bush, lest we forget, had a 90 percent approval rating during the fall of 2001. Now that Bush's support is down to a Carrot Top-like 22 percent, it's only fair to remember that he's the same guy in 2008 that he was in 2001. And, for that matter, that he was in 2004 when a majority of Americans thought he was doing such a good job that they voted for another four years.Nothing much has changed. The economy sucks, but that's been true since 2000. It's been one continuous meltdown since the dot-com crash. We lost Afghanistan the day we invaded it; ditto Iraq. Doing nothing to help New Orleans during Katrina—well, that was just Republicans being Republicans. The difference now? There is no difference.
Don't be fooled by the electoral college rout. The popular vote reveals that the United States remains a deeply divided country. Bush got 51 percent of the vote in 2004; Kerry drew 48 percent. Obama defeated McCain 51-48. A surge of newly registered voters, including many African-Americans energized by Obama's candidacy, accounts for the 3 percent difference.
No one's mind has changed. People who voted for Bush in 2004 voted for McCain. If everyone who voted for Obama had shown up at the polls four years ago, John Kerry would be president. Obama's victory is the triumph of retail fundraising, computer metrics and a team of smart, focused advisers who knew how to exploit them.
It helped to have a weak opponent. McCain ran as the new Bob Dole—cranky, out of touch and untelegenic. "That one" was a terrible speaker. Every aspect of his campaign, from his fascism-influenced slogan ("Country First"), to a Silver Star logo that riffed on his POW experience, to a public tired of war, to picking a vice presidential running mate with whom he'd spent 15 minutes (less than you'd need to get hired at Wendy's), was tone-deaf. As so many American elections do, this one came down to fear. People were scared of losing their jobs, their homes and their 401(k)s. McCain, his mindset stuck in the '60s, thought they were more worried about the Weathermen and the SDS.
All things considered, McCain did well.
If Obama follows his win by closing Bush's gulag archipelago of black sites, secret prisons and concentration camps at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo (and don't forget Diego Garcia and the prison ships), if he quickly orders a withdrawal from Iraq and reconsiders his foolish campaign pledge to double down against Afghanistan, Obama will be good for the United States' international image.
If he acts to restore economic confidence with two vast infusions of federal money into people's pockets—first, with a new WPA-type national infrastructure program to create jobs and, second, with a bailout of homeowners and renters in danger of foreclosure and eviction, he will still have something of a country left to run four years from now.
But no one should delude themselves into believing that racism or its kissing cousin, conservatism, are dead. Barack Obama, after all, is only half-black and not even half-African-American at that. Jeremiah Wright aside, Obama had a white upbringing. A product of the elite, he went to an Ivy League college (the same as mine, at the same time). If we were looking at President-elect Sharpton, I'd believe in this change. (Too scary? Exactly.) As things stand, the rich white people who own and run the country have little to fear.
Meanwhile, very nearly half of the American electorate voted Republican. After seven years of not finding (or looking for) Osama bin Laden. After five years of horror in Iraq. After eight years of shrinking paychecks. After everything that's happened, nearly half of voters wanted more of the same.
If the Republicans had picked a better candidate, they would have won. If Obama had presented a truly distinct alternative to conservatism—socialized health care, say, or opposing both stupid wars rather than the least popular stupid one—he would have lost. Conservatism? Dead? Not a chance.
A change is gonna come. But this ain't it.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.