A thousand important things have been said already about the milestone of our first African-American president (and perhaps just as important for future demographic trends, our first mixed-race president.) But I've been thinking about something else this morning: not just Obama's election, but the entire system that led up to this moment. We hear so often that the American political system is broken, but I think the last two years suggest that our national politics are healthier than we have been led to believe.
It starts for me with Bush's approval rating. You run the country with breathtaking incompetence for eight years; you defy the constitution and the Geneva Conventions; you let an entire city drown; you fail to ask for an inch of sacrifice from the rich during the greatest concentration of wealth in our country's history. You do all those things, and it turns out the American people pay attention: you become the least popular president since the invention of polling. Yes, it took too long for the country to realize how disastrous the Bush Administration was, but 9/11 left us with a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder that made it too hard to turn on our leader in time to vote him out the first chance we had. But eventually the country woke up.
Then when the campaigns began, they were serious, engaged, and hard-fought. Voters consistently out-manoeuvred the media consensus at pretty much every turn. Giant financial advantages or name recognition did not inevitably lead to victory. There were what, thirty debates? For the most part, the debates were serious and issue-driven to the point of being dull. But we slogged through them all.
Most importantly, the primary campaigns actually ended up selecting the best candidates. Both Obama and Clinton were top-of-their-class (both in their original education, and their current political standing.) They were both gifted and committed leaders, each of whom represented a demographic breakthrough that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. And on the other side, McCain was by far the most interesting and deserving in the Republican field. These were all people who -- unlike George W. Bush -- had the stature and intellect and instincts that we should expect in our Presidential candidates.
And when the system finally narrowed our options down to two choices, the campaign that followed had many commendable qualities. The debates were watched by record audiences. Crowds normally reserved for U2 concerts showed up to hear the candidates speak. Yes, there was an insane amount of money flowing through the Obama campaign, but the money was itself a measure of how engaged the electorate was, since the vast majority of it was coming from small donors. While many on the left prodded him to be more aggressive, Obama kept his legendary cool and ran an incredibly civil campaign all the way through. (Remember how people griped that he kept agreeing with McCain in the first debate -- but then ended up winning it hand-down?)
The one glaring episode that smacked of the "old" American politics of illusion and pseudo-candidates -- the Sarah Palin pick -- looked for a few short days to be a successful ploy, but her boastful ignorance and her complete disregard for the truth were relentless chipped away by the media and the satirists. (We always complain that the media don't ask the tough questions any more -- who knew that the tough question would be "So, what newspapers do you read?") By the end, Palin was a net negative for McCain, and the condescending notion that McCain could win over Hillary voters with a candidate who shared none of their values was decisively rejected in the battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
And when it came time to vote, everyone showed up, waiting in those five hour lines to have their voices heard. This is the most engaged electorate in modern times, and encouragingly, it's the youngest generation that seems to be the most intent on participating in the system.
So I look out at that landscape, and I think: yes, the country is in a terrible state, and it's going to take an immense amount of work and sacrifice and intelligence to turn things around. But the system that lets us choose our leaders seems to me to be as healthy as it has been in a long time. We get the leaders we deserve. For once, that's a good thing.