Andrew Sullivan on the election

/ 2 November 2008

I’ve followed Andrew Sullivan’s blog more in the past year than ever before, and I’ve often linked to it. Here is a long form essay he just published in the Times of London. It captures some of my own feelings — the apprehension and the excitement — as we enter these final days.

Among the most enthusiastic Obama supporters, there are tinges of hero worship and aspirations beyond anything any human being can deliver. And the hostility born of dashed expectations is always the worst. People expecting a messiah will at some point be forced to realise they have merely elected a president.

No president will be able to wave the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan away with some kind of magic wand – there are few good options in either conflict, and many potential perils. No president will be able to end a recession with deep roots or alter market confidence in a single speech.

No president can change the Earth’s climate in four or eight years. And when Obama’s limitations emerge, as they will, there is a danger that the powerful expectations of his young base may turn to tears. This is always the risk with political “movements”. They conjure up utopias that can simply never happen.

Between the roiling and increasingly bitter rapids on the right and the left, can Obama maintain a steady course? We cannot know, of course. But the evidence of the past year is encouraging. What has been truly amazing is the preternatural calm and moderation Obama has shown throughout this volatile and emotional campaign. He has managed to get to the brink of the White House by beating some of the most formidable political machines in America – the Clintons and the Roves – without intensifying the conflict or polarising the country himself.


In the coming week, if he is elected, we would be wise to resist euphoria or sentiment. But we would be wilfully blind not to sense the gravity and potential of the moment as well. We could have the first black president, with a congressional majority of a size not seen since Lyndon Johnson. We could see a landslide among the young. We could see an unprecedented African-American turnout – a moment when black Americans actively take ownership for the first time of the society in which they have always been such an integral part.

We simply do not know what new realities this moment could unleash. What we do know is that this is history – epic, deep, momentous history.

Let us keep our heads. But let us not numb our hearts. Somewhere in a Burkean idyll, countless Americans who lived before us, the souls of so many black folk and white folk across the centuries, are watching. What would Washington have said? How could Lincoln believe it? How amazed would Martin Luther King be?

We are indeed on the verge of something that seems even more incredible the closer it gets, something more than a mere election. This is America, after all. It is a place that has seen great cruelty and hardship in its time. But it is also a place that yearns to believe naively in mornings rather than evenings, that cherishes dawns over dusks, that is not embarrassed by its own sense of destiny. In this unlikely mixed-race figure of Barack Obama, we will for a brief moment perhaps see a nation reimagined and a world of possibilities open up. For a brief moment at least.

As they have learnt to say in some of the most blighted parts of the world at some of the most desperate times: know hope.