As was true a century ago, so, too, in the past thirty years, we Americans have lived through a period of exceptionally intense social, cultural, and economic upheaval.
Our "manufacturing" sector now rests more on ideas than on machines, but our educational system has not kept pace. Immigration, legal and otherwise, continues to change the face of America. Computers, regarded as an egghead novelty in the 1980s, are fundamental to daily life in 2008. So, too, are internet-based communications. Globalization isn't just a word, and the "flat world" not just a concept. Those are the realities of daily life. Economic turmoil in Iceland, pollution in China, African drought and famine: they affect our economy; our levels of smog; our foreign policy (for which we pay taxes).
The pace of this tumult can rattle the most focused and open-minded among us, and make us long for some imagined or real "good old days," when everyone looked like us and we knew where we would work for the next thirty years. When our neighbors all spoke English, and our home lives were distinct from our work lives. When no one pondered the cost of oil, and blackberries and computers were the stuff of science fiction.
It's normal to want things to stay the same. It's normal to feel anxious when change forces itself into every crevice of our lives. It's normal, too, to react to upheaval with fear and loathing. Whether he intended it or not, Senator McCain exploited these undercurrents of nostalgic fear and anxiety.
His running mate, Governor Palin, touted the virtues of "real" Americans (translation: white, Christian, middle-class) as more valuable that an apparently "unreal" America (apparently non-white, non-Christian, and some undefined "class.") She pitched her appeal to a culture that would look inward; to fear, hostility and division. In her America, citizens would ignore the realities of globalization and global politics (except, presumably, to launch attacks on "terrorists," which she defined as anyone who isn't white, small-town, and American.)
Barack Obama, on the other hand, urged voters to recognize the realities of global politics; to acknowledge that "Americans" are white, black, Asian, and "other"; are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Bahai and, god forbid (no pun intended), even atheist. He recognized that the "future" is already here, and it's our job to figure out how to live in and with it. He reminded us that that the United States is the shining city on the hill and that it's our moral obligation to engage with the rest of the planet.
In short, during the election campaign of 2008, we faced two clear paths. Not between two different tax policies, or between different versions of national health care. Not between those who do and do not wear lapel pins. Not between those who use blackberries and those who barely understand "the google."
Rather, we faced two different visions about how we see ourselves, our nation, our nation's relations with the rest of the planet, and the future. And on election day, we chose.
The historical significance of Obama's election is this: At a moment when the entire planet faces multiple crises -- environmental, political, economic -- millions of Americans voted to explore, rather than ignore, uncertainty. Rather than ignore globalization, millions chose to acknowledge it so we can figure out how to live with it. Chose engagement rather than isolation. Chose unity rather than division. We chose to embrace the realities of the present so that we could plan a better future. We chose courage -- and, yes, hope -- over fear. That is the significance of the election of 2008.
Sidenote: Last week, I read a terrific op-ed piece about the historical implications of this election, one that echoed what I was already thinking about. So here's a short essay by Samuel Freedman, who is far more eloquent than I am.