This historic significance of the majestic victory of Barack Obama is threefold.
First, Obama's brilliance, charisma, and organizational genius have ushered in a new era in American history and a new epoch in American politics. For the first time in the history of American civilization, a black man will occupy the White House and lead the nation. The shattering of this glass ceiling has a symbolic gravity difficult to measure—here and around the world. On one Election Day and one January morning, the self-image of America undergoes a grand transformation. In the eyes and hearts of young people of all colors, the sky is now the limit. And for millions of adult citizens and fellow human beings across the globe, some sense of sanity, dignity, and integrity have returned to the Oval Office. We now have an American president-elect of vision, courage, and maturity who also is black. Race matters in the story we tell about this special moment in history.
Second, Obama's glorious victory brings to a close the age of Reagan, the era of conservatism, and the epoch of the southern strategy. The economics of greed, the culture of indifference to the poor, and the politics of fear have run their course. The war in Iraq, Katrina, and the Wall Street collapse were the three nails in the coffin of the age of Reagan. For nearly 30 years, the elevating of deregulated markets, the glorifying of the lives of the rich and famous, and the trivializing of poor peoples' suffering have shaped the climate of opinion. And like the American Hamlet Blanche DuBois, in the white literary bluesman Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, the world of make-believe in which we lived was shattered by reality, history, and mortality. Truth and justice crushed to earth do, at some point, rise again. The positive role of government in the lives of citizens now has a new claim on our visions for the future. Democracy matters in the public sentiments we shape to forge new policies in the age of Obama.
Third, Obama's grand ascension to the White House will challenge him to translate symbol into substance. He is now an American hero whose name will forever be sketched in the pantheon of American achievement—a global memory. Yet at the moment, Obama is a concrete symbol whose substantial use of power as president is highly anticipated. What kind of team will he assemble? Which advisers on domestic and foreign policies will he choose? Which issues will have a priority? Will he become a great statesman like Abraham Lincoln, a masterful politician like Bill Clinton, or a pragmatic experimentalist like FDR? The crucial answers to these questions depend not only on President Barack Obama's decisions but also on who we are and what we do. As he rightly noted in his monumental campaign, change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. Our hopes are on a tightrope, and America hangs in the balance—and we either hang together, or we hang separately.
Cornel West teaches at Princeton University and is the author of the new book Hope on a Tightrope.
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