A lot of European have asked me about the significance of Barak Obama’s election as president. They, along with the media, sees this as symbolic of the historic change in American attitudes towards race and national origin.
I do agree that the election is terribly significant in this regard. The county-by-county vote, shown above, shows support that would have been unthinkable for the civil right’s marchers of the 50’s and 60’s. The country has rightly celebrated the progress that has been made in the past 40 years.
But I don’t think that many Americans cast their vote with civil rights, or even that symbolism, in mind.
Instead, given the choice between two alternatives, people voted against the Bush administration and the Republican party, voted for principles that they believed in, voted against existing policies for Iraq and the economy, voted for the individual that they had confidence in. Race was a peripheral factor; generations have come of age since civil rights legislation. Nobody has said that they consciously used their vote to make a statement supporting equal opportunity and justice (as many supporters of Hillary, in fact, said they would on behalf of women’s rights). Instead, people seemed to vote in a color-blind manner for substantive positions regarding issues of concern to them.
This does carry a downside, though.
If things go badly for the Obama administration, then I think that increasing numbers of people could draw simple associations to skin color. And they would, sadly, think twice about setting race aside in the future.
Kennedy transcended his Catholicism; nobody is concerned that the pope would direct policy in Washington as a result. But many have become concerned about how Bush’s evangelical faith influenced policy, and it will affect their willingness to elect a Christian conservative in the future.
The weight that Obama carries is not the symbolism of his election, but the continuing credit earned by his governance.
Map credit (and many more maps): politicalmaps.org