One Night of Romance

On Marketplace this morning, here’s some economic advice to Barack Obama, recorded before he actually won.

I’m glad Obama won. I am perhaps the world’s most lachrymose man, and I cried seeing Jesse Jackson cry. I have always thought that the symbolic or cultural value of an Obama victory would be enormous. The dramatic reaction last night confirmed that. I understand why so many people are elated, and part of me is elated, too. I find it hard to see how you could not be. There is no denying that an election can be culturally transformative. It means something profound that a black man was elected to the most visible, high-status position our society offers. The mere fact that Obama won truly does make our society a better place.

That said, every four years, I find myself deeply disturbed by the fact that the office of chief executive of the national public goods administration agency is in fact, according to most people’s sense of things, the highest peak, the top of the heap. And the quadrennial reflex of vesting in a single powerful man so much hope for the future seems to me a truly depressing failure to internalize the spirit of American democracy. Last night’s celebratory catharsis was a long time coming. We needed it. But, frankly, I hope never to see again streets thronging with people chanting the victorious leader’s name.

The government of the state is profoundly important. And I think American voters picked a competent, decent, and sober executive officer. But this is not, headline writers, Barack Obama’s America. He is not your leader, any more than the mayor of your town is your leader. We are free people. We lead ourselves. He is set to be a high-ranking public administrator. Sure, there is romance in fame. But romance in politics is dangerous, misplaced, and beneath intelligent people. Were we more fully civilized, we would tolerate the yearnings projected on our leaders. Our tribal nature is not so easily escaped, after all. But we would try to escape it. We would discourage and condemn as irresponsible a romantic politics that tells us that if we all come together and want it hard enough, we’ll get it. We would spot the dangerous fallacy in condemning as “cynicism” all serious attempts to critically evaluate the content of political hopes.

I don’t say this to pick on Obama in particular. He’s a politican. Romance and elevation are crucial to winning a ruling coalition. They are tools. But smart people ought to be able to see through romance and elevation to the point of it all: the power to compel. McCain’s even worse with the “fight cynicism through glorious collective commitment” crap, which is one reason I’m glad he lost. The point is, Obama’s a politician, and politics is what it is: a ritualized and contained conflict over power. That’s not something to romanticize.

I’m glad Barack Obama is going to be president. And I’m glad that the Republicans held enough Senate seats to offer significant opposition. Mostly, I’m really really glad to have a change. The public debate’s been stale for a good while now, and I’d like to see it develop. I’m looking forward to seeing some hacks become interesting again, and I’ll be sad to see some interesting minds become hacks. Politics is what it is. Rarely, like last night, it can be a stage for a proud cultural moment. Day to day, year to year, it’s a gussied-up power grab that makes smart people stupid.