Election Special 2008: The World Is Changing

The votes have been cast, the balloons have come down, the champagne has popped and the confetti has been thrown, and we’re officially on the other side of the 2008 elections. Atheists and progressives have much to chew over in these results, and here are some preliminary thoughts of mine. In this post I’ll address three different, related subjects that I’ve been mulling over. Incidentally, in my Monday night open thread, I made some predictions about last night’s results; if you want to see how I fared before reading this post, please do.

The Presidency

Of course, we’ll lead with the big news: Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States. This election was historic in so many ways: a decisive repudiation of the past eight years of disastrous Republican governance; the continued decline of the GOP into a regional party of white Protestants; the signaling of a new, rising progressive majority in America; and, of course, the incredible, once-unthinkable truth that a black man has shattered the color barrier in American politics and ascended to the most powerful office in the world.

This result was a devastating verdict on the policies of the Bush era. Eight years of waste, corruption and misrule has left America with record deficits and record unemployment, embroiled in a costly and tragically unnecessary war, while the architects of 9/11 remain at large. Eight years of arrogance and open contempt for the rule of law has ruined our standing in the world, weakened the constitutional foundations of our democracy and upset the delicate balance our founders worked so hard to craft. Thankfully, McCain could not deceive voters about his acquiescence and culpability in these crimes. But there is enormous damage that the Obama presidency will have to repair, and massive challenges that he will face from the first day in office. With expanded Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he probably has the political power he’ll need. The only question is whether he, and the Democrats, have the political will and savvy to do so, or whether their tenure will be marked by the same disappointing mixture of corporatism and timidity that’s characterized their performance since 2006. The voters have given them a chance; they now have to prove that they deserved it.

I’m under no illusions that Obama will be a progressive hero. At best, he’s a moderate with mildly progressive tendencies. His cave on the FISA telecom immunity bill was and still is a sore spot with me, and his stances on “clean coal” and the faith-based initiative were deplorable panders, though I understand why he probably considered them politically necessary. I wrote in 2006 that the Democrats would require much arm-twisting to act as a truly progressive governing coalition, but I think I underestimated just how difficult that would be and how much resistance they’d put up. Color me disillusioned. I hope I’ve rid myself of any similar delusions this time, and I realize that this victory, significant as it is, is not a final triumph. At best, it’s a beginning – the potential from which we true progressives can forge something good. Achieving that will take massive effort, probably at least as much as we put in to get to this point. Right now, we have some time to enjoy the post-election euphoria. Once that fades, I hope we can turn our attention to the challenges that lie ahead.

The Senate

There was one Senate race that we were all watching, and if you know which one I mean, then you already know the result – and I hope you’re as overjoyed about it as I am. But let me spell it out: Elizabeth Dole, confirmed anti-atheist bigot, has been defeated by Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. This was not a surprise, but it’s still extremely welcome news and well worth savoring.

In my earlier post, I predicted that Democrats would reach 60 seats in the Senate. As of this writing, that’s still not impossible, though it’s looking less likely. Four races remain to be called – Alaska, Oregon, Georgia and Minnesota – and the Democrats would need to win all of these. Minnesota, where the margin between Norm Coleman and Al Franken is razor-thin, is beginning a recount that may take until December. Depending on how yet-to-be-counted early ballots affect last night’s vote, the race in Georgia may go to a runoff; that’s the best outcome progressives can hope for at this point. Regardless, it seems to me that the Democratic candidates in these states didn’t live up to expectations. The Democratic wave seems to have crested higher on the East Coast than on the West, and I wonder if early results suggesting a victory for Obama made progressive voters in western states less motivated to turn out.

Ballot Measures

Not all news is good, alas. Although the fight isn’t quite over, the saddest news of the night is that the anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, Proposition 8, looks to have passed in California. This, more than anything else, makes this election a bittersweet victory for me. This night was a bizarre reversal: odious anti-abortion measures were defeated in South Dakota and Colorado, while progressive California passed one of the worst and most discriminatory laws in American history. I still don’t know how this happened, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about it in the weeks to come. To my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I share your sorrow, but I implore you not to grow bitter or lose hope. This is a setback, but only a temporary one. Time is on our side; liberty and justice are on our side. It may take a little longer than we expected, but we will achieve marriage equality for all Americans. The dream of equality can be deferred, but it cannot be altogether silenced.

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