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2008 Election: Historic, Whether Obama Wins or Loses

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By Ron Walters


We may be about to witness what political scientists call a "critical election" which promotes a realignment of American politics - in this case, from Republican to Democrat.  

But more important than that, it may signal a realignment from the conservative politics that has gripped this country for the past 30 years to a more liberal version going forward.  For the racially disadvantaged and economically needy, who need government most, it may signal a return to policies that emphasize investment in human development since the evidence is that the lack of such investment has been the major factor in the fading middle class. 

This signals that if there is a difference in the previous administration and what is coming, it will be measured by how the new leaders see the role of government.  I'm sure from what he has said, that Barack Obama wants to emphasize personal responsibility, but I am just as sure that he understands the decisive role of government in making sure the opportunities exist that enable people to exercise it.  

McCain, however, has followed an ideology which suggests that government does not have much of a role in this, that people should try to exercise their personal responsibility and if they don't succeed - tough.  

While that ideology may have been a weapon begun by Ronald Reagan, blunt the force of the Civil Rights movement and to return to the unchallenged supremacy of whites to the racial hierarchy, the record shows that it has also damaged whites, especially, white middle class enormously.  So, the issue becomes what kind of change voters really want and which of the candidates they believe can produce it. 

If Barack Obama wins, it will undoubtedly be an historic event because of his race and because it may create in some, the idea that America has moved beyond racial evaluations in its determination of what things are important. But race has not always been the determining factor, for if it had, Clarence Thomas would not be sitting on the highest court in the land. 

Those who sponsored him did so not only because he was black in succeeding Justice Thurgood Marshall, but more importantly because he believed in the same things and they could trust him to deliver policy based on that belief.

Obama's win would signal a generational change, departing from the influence of the "baby boomer" generation moving into post modern America, an America more at ease with race, more comfortable with global culture and the electronic and visual technologies that unites it. Will he be post-racial in his leadership of public policy? 

I don't think so, because of his pledges to carry the legacy of the Civil Rights movement into the 21st century, his understanding of racial problems and the fact that presidents also have to respond to problems in the political culture that they didn't create. 

So, he will have to respond to the on-going saga of racism which has taken over 400 years to invest in the culture. The caveat one sees, is that his decision will also be based on those around him.

He is in a position to be the leader of an era changing movement, the true characteristics of which are not yet clear, but the seeds of which he has proposed in this campaign, such as more emphasis on environmentalism, concern with domestic productivity and security, promotion of diversity, and collaborative decision making here and abroad.

However, if Barack Obama loses, it will take us in a familiar direction, defined by a primary concern with narrow racial privilege and competition and radical nationalism.  The difference between the political parties on issues has favored the Democrats during this election season by an average of as many as 10-15 points on what Americans regard as "most important"  issues - war in Iraq, economy, health care, education, terrorism, and etc. in various surveys.  

The difference between candidates Obama and McCain, however, has rarely been in this range, more like 3-7 points with Obama leading most of the time. 

Analysts have suggested that given this relative small difference, he will need a greater lead going into the November election if he is to win, because the racial vote will more than likely reduce his numbers. 

Thus, there has arisen a debate over whether the so-called "Bradley factor" is alive and well, that is, whether white Americans say they will support a black candidate in polls, but deny him or her support when they cast their vote. 

Some believe that because the US Senate race of Harold Ford, Jr. turned out close to the poll predictions in 2006 that the Bradley factor no longer exists.  We will see.

Black Americans most assuredly will be disheartened if Barack Obama loses, given the heights that he has ascended thus far in winning the Democratic nomination for president. But their expectations of an historic outcome have been increased as he recovered his lead that McCain had achieved after the Republican Convention with the gloss being removed from his VP pick, Sara Palin, and the "perfect storm" of the economic crisis that is pushing Obama at this very moment into a lead beyond anything he has experienced over McCain.  

For many, the question has become, "how can he lose?"

Others have formulated various versions of the "October surprise" that appeared from time-to-time in elections.  Underneath it all, there is the tortuous feeling of many African-Americans that America is not quite "America to me" yet, that the use of race will triumph and spoil the dream.


Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African-American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His latest book is: The Price of Racial Reconciliation (University of Michigan Press).

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