The volume of press that a US election generates is just short of gross. Are you sick of it yet? Not me. I can’t quite let go, because I’m so relieved at the result.
When Barack Obama walked out on the stage to deliver his victory speech in 2008, I couldn’t conceive of a moment that would top the exhilaration – not just for Americans but also for the rest of the world – of crashing through the huge race barrier. Oh sure, you could have a Hispanic lesbian atheist President, but you really shouldn’t do drugs.
When Mr Obama strode out on the stage once again to deliver his second victory speech this week, my exhilaration was part thrill, but mostly relief.
After November 2008, reality mulishly failed to disappear. President Obama faced the grind of office, the economic meltdown, pitched battles over health care and the economy. There were the inevitable disappointments. There was the street fight within the Republican Party, with its mad hatter cousins in the Tea Party adding to the noise. A rash of pro-lifers came up with loony tunes reasons for why rape and incest were no reason to allow abortion. They warned people about “death panels”. Mitt Romney shape-shifted his way through the campaign. By 2012, positions were so hardened that fear, rather than disappointment, followed the idea of the other guy winning. Democrats feared Mr Romney’s incredible vagueness, brutal elitism and poor foreign policy skills. Republicans worried that the black guy might stay in the White House, with (bias alert) his big fat government, and evil plan to take away the liberty to be unable to afford medical treatment.
The overwhelming relief of Mr Obama’s re-election, for liberal democrats in the US and all over the globe, is a double-edged sword. It’s an indication of how the world is becoming increasingly inclusive at the level of demographics, information technology and the mobility of people and capital. But it also reflects a raising of political temperatures, a kind of fevered emotional investment in one’s position that only happens when political positions move further apart, making them less and less acceptable to each other.
What’s to like about Barack Obama? Here’s the most important part of his victory speech: “We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future [...] In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward [...] Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter...”
The citizen in Mr Obama constantly informs the politician in him. His desire for bipartisan cooperation is the logical outcome of a genuine desire to lead his country according to the vision he has for it. And, he has a vision.
The right parties, both in the US and in India, are floundering for a viable vision. It’s not, obviously, that Republicans or the Bharatiya Janata Party are evil, but that they too often allow the lunatic fringe to hog the airtime and set the agenda (much like a certain community that is routinely chided for harbouring a silent majority). They will have to take a long hard look at what Republicans have deridingly called “reality-based” parameters, and pull closer to the centre, because their populations are increasingly refusing to budge from reality and aspiration, increasingly refusing to buy distractions in the shape of religious and military fear- and hate-mongering.
The greatest hope of this election is that Republicans, beginning with speaker of the House John Boehner, have been making conciliatory noises. Now that the electioneering is done, now that the so-called fiscal cliff is a few months away, they may just be allowing themselves a little eyeful of reality, and may even – if only out of self-interest – live up to the other rousing thing President Obama said in his speech: “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.”
Politics is not about power. It’s about vision, and the effort to deliver it. Say what you will about America, it’s a nation that chases a vision. In India, neither of the two major national parties have a clear vision that they can communicate. Perhaps that’s why they can’t deliver.