In the hours and days after the election, there was much talk about the fact that American elected a multi-racial man who identifies himself as "African-American." According to most commentators, that was the historical significance of the election of 2008.
As a historian, I agree that this election was historically significant, but not because of Obama's race (although obviously, that was itself momentous.) (*1) Rather, at a pivotal moment in the history of our nation, two candidates offered two distinct alternatives for confronting cultural, social, and economic upheaval. One wanted to circle the wagons; the other wanted to confront the upheaval. One offered a retreat into a mythic nostalgia; the other offered an embrace of the future.
It's not the first time we've mulled such distinct alternatives. One hundred years ago, for example, Americans faced a similar choice at a similar moment of economic, cultural, and social upheaval. In the early 20th century, the United States was in the (rapid) process of leaving behind a rural, non-industrialized society in favor of one that was mostly urban and manufacturing-based. (The 1920 census confirmed the transformation: half of Americans lived in an urban place. Today, something like 75% do.)
During this period, from about 1880 to 1920, industrialization in the form of mechanization and huge factories had become the mainstay of the economy. Electricity, the telephone, and movies changed the way Americans viewed the world around them. So did inexpensive printing processes that made newspapers, magazines, and books more accessible than ever before.
For the first time, average Americans were attending (mostly public) school for anywhere from eight to twelve years. The automobile and rapid travel become commonplace. (Americans acquired roughly nine million cars between 1900 and 1920.) We take those things for granted now, but a century ago, they were Americans' equivalent of our switch to a "wired" world.
Immigration soared, too. Between 1880 and 1920, some 24 million people entered the U.S. legally.(*2) For the first time, however, most of the new arrivals were not from northern Europe or the British isles. Instead, they were Hispanic or Asian, or came from Eastern and Southern Europe. Millions were Jewish and Catholic.
U. S. engagement with the rest of the world increased as well. Some of those episodes are ugly (think Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War), but good or bad, Americans acknowledged and engaged with people and places beyond their own borders.
Put another way, between 1880 and 1920, the United States became a nation different than it was in, say, 1870. That tumult, which filtered deep into daily life, fostered a powerful political movement that rested on an inward-looking politics of fear. Leaders of this movement portrayed small-town and rural Americans as "good." They painted urban dwellers as decadent and immoral. People who embraced this political culture were hostile toward non-whites and non-Christians; were hostile toward "the other." (*3)
The era also fostered the emergence of what we now call "fundamentalist" Christianity. It inspired a new kind of race-based science (aimed at proving the superiority of the "white" and "European" race). Those same political forces also nurtured the prohibition movement. The Anti-Saloon League's crusade rested on a worldview that pitted small-town and rural America against the decadence and immorality of "big" cities. In the minds of prohibitionists, abstinence from alcohol symbolized a particular way of life (small-town and rural) and a kind of morality (abstinence = god-fearing righteousness, the god, in this question, being a Protestant one). (*4)
Next: What this has to do with the election of 2008.
*1: As a voter, I was delighted that Obama's father was "black" and his mother "white." That he lived in Indonesia and Hawaii (which is a racially diverse culture). That he has a Kenyan grandmother. But as far as I was concerned, his multi-racial makeup was the icing on an already magnificent cake.
*2: U.S. population in 1900 was 75.9 million; in 1920 it was 105.7 million.
*3: Anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism were not new in early 20th century America; what was different was the idea of seeing Catholics and Jews specifically as "city folks" and therefore suspect. There was also enormous racial conflict. Lynchings were common, as were urban race riots.
*4: It is a measure of the powerful appeal of this particular form of politics that as early as 1909, half of Americans already lived under some form of dry laws, either local or state. The 18th Amendment, however, did not take effect until 1920.