Do you remember how life felt four years ago? For some of us, at least, it was a gripping time of high emotion. The Hillary Clinton campaign had just wound down, or ground down, or (depending on how you saw it) died a slow angry death — but Clinton’s withdrawal speech, with its reference to the light shining through the “18 million cracks” in the nation’s “highest, hardest glass ceiling” was still throat-lumpingly fresh. Unbelievably, we had our first highly electable African American presidential candidate, a man so sui generis that reminders of our not-so-perfect past, like then-primary candidate Joe Biden’s faint praise of his then-rival as “articulate and bright and clean,” could easily be laughed off as an anachronistic relic that proclaimed, even more strongly and loudly, just how far we the American electorate had come.
The Sarah Palin candidacy was the first sign of trouble in this would-be paradise. Not Palin herself so much as her supporters, those passionate, adoring women, eager — indeed, desperate — for validation and vindication in the post-Hillary, Michelle-rising moment. Palin, droppin’ her gs, mangling her syntax, gun at the hip, baby in the wings, opened fire in the newest, perhaps nastiest phase of America’s never-ending culture war. Don’t get too caught up in your foofy fantasy of “hope,” her Neiman Marcus-costumed populist persona proclaimed; we’re not coming along with you.
The years since Barack Obama’s election have born this promise out: Americans are more divided than ever before, with views of life, politics and fate sharply divided both by partisan affiliation and educational level. The “national catharsis” that the New York Times declared his presidential victory to have achieved, the “we as a people” the president-elect claimed would work together toward a shared vision of a better future, were, it’s so painfully clear now, works of magical thinking that diverted us from the talk of watermelons on the campaign trail and the reality of a divided Congress that would immediately greet him.
When the fantasy that the election of Barack Obama would recreate America ran aground, the rush to blame the president for having somehow bungled the job was immediate and fierce. He wasn’t hopeful enough, passionate enough, true enough to the superhuman capacity to create a desirable, indeed, likeable “us” that had been so readily projected onto him. In the campaign, he held up a mirror to our better selves; in office, he showed us who we really were. He gave us notice. “Gathering clouds and raging storms,” were in store for the near future, he warned, right in his inauguration speech, and though it was easy to point overseas or to Wall Street for the causes of that sense of impending doom, the fact was, and no one was better positioned than Obama to know it, the most corrosive problems of his presidency would come from the people’s representatives who worked in the huge white cake of a building right behind him.
2008 was the year of the “audacity of hope.” This week’s rousing words were “first incumbent outspent.” The change in register says it all. Real life has trumped the sublime.