Wednesday 5 November 2008

President Obama - time for the right to change its mind?

Tomorrow morning, some on the US right will change their minds about Barack Obama, who will be confirmed as President-elect of the United States within the next few hours. (The Next Left blog is calling this election!)

Some of those who have questioned whether he is American enough to lead - too liberal, too smart, not patriotic enough - will see that the smart move will now be to embrace him as proof that the American Dream is possible. That's fine - but to use Obama's historic achievement as proof that there is no structural disadvantage in America would be nonsense. The symbolism will be potent, and anecdotes often beat data.

However, it is President Obama who will have the chance to reshape America’s national conversation not just about race, but about opportunity and disadvantage in American society too, as he began to do in Philadelphia at the height of the primary battle this Spring. Here, Obama truly stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King in refusing to reject the promise of America as imperfect, but rather to insist that the pledge of America is redeemed.

But the right may be too angry to come to terms with its defeat.

The right is angry because it does not accept the legitimacy of the Democrats governing. It believes it represents the only, real America; that it has a unique claim on patriotism. This makes an election defeat incomprehensible - even if the media can be blamed for spreading false consciousness.

But the base is also angry with its own leadership. As the Republican coalition divides into its competing factions, many of its most promiment voices believe that the McCain campaign failed only because it refused to unleash a negative enough campaign to destroy Obama's candidacy. (Pat Buchanan outlined the main points of the theory a fortnight ago).

The right has lost this election by being negative, angry and turning in on itself. If enough believe that the problem was not being angry enough, then the right will find itself even more marginalised than its shrunken Washington presence suggests.

With a hard fought election over, the vast majority of Americans - black and white - will take pride in this historic moment. Obama's favourabilty ratings (+17) exceed his votes. By January 20th, they will be through the roof.

If the right seems unable to understand or accept the legitimacy of a heavy defeat, then this might not yet be as bad as it gets. Any serious inquest into its failures would be postponed - and an ever more strident and oppositionist right could contribute to the real possibility of a political realignment over the next four to eight years.

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