What Americans Have Learned From the Obama Win and a Long Election Season

It really is over, and Americans examined themselves in unprecedented ways.

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Is it over—really? No recount? No delayed concession? No lawyers or lawsuits or missing ballots? (Well, that last one remains to be seen.)

But so it is. The amazing, at times magical, occasionally infuriating, but always exhilarating two-year ride is over. Voters made history, and the nation—though still divided—is forever transformed.

Along the way, through all the twists and turns, Americans examined themselves and their country in ways unprecedented in recent history. And they learned things, too, not the least of which is that racism, while still alive and well, has receded enough to allow the highest office of the land to be occupied by a young man with black skin and the name Barack Hussein Obama.

Americans engaged in a frank and at times contentious national discussion about sexism, about racism, and about age. Over dinner tables, at work, and in the public square, they hashed over the meaning of Hillary Clinton's trailblazing run for the Democratic nomination. They looked at their own views on race, both latent and overt. They argued whether John McCain's age mattered. And they learned that it is, indeed, sexist to suggest that as a mother of five Sarah Palin shouldn't be running for vice president. But that it's not sexist to examine her credentials.

Americans learned that there is ugliness in their midst, sometimes right next door. There were people who hanged Obama and Palin in effigy, those who latched on to Republican talking points and called Obama a "terrorist," others whose rally-stoked racism and nativism bubbled over and figured in at-times chilling videos posted on YouTube. But all in all, it was not as bad as pessimists had expected.

Americans found out that young people care and they vote, that there is no limit to the nation's appetite for political news and punditry, that polls can't be trusted—unless they can, and that campaign finance has moved into a new, stratospheric, online realm.

Americans discovered that they can suss out phonies (think Mitt Romney and John Edwards) and do Electoral College math as well as the number crunchers on the tube, that the formidable Clintons can be outsmarted politically, and that Karl Rove's tactics of division are, for now, played out.

Americans now know how to caucus, how to become a superdelegate, and how to watch for skin cancer warning signs. They can feel for an opponent's personal loss—Who wasn't rooting for Obama's grandma to hold on for two more days?—and appreciate the ability of a nemesis to poke fun at himself or herself on Saturday Night Live.

African-Americans learned to shed their skepticism and believe that a black person could occupy the White House, and maybe discovered something new and profound about the real potential of American life.

And, perhaps most important, Americans—the nation in all its red, blue, and purple glory—witnessed the simple power of "Yes, we can."

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