Thomas Sugrue: Obama's election means ...





[Thomas J. Sugrue's new book, "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North," has just been published. He is Kahn professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.]

ON ELECTION NIGHT, Barack Obama addressed nearly 200,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park - the place where, just 40 years earlier, antiwar protesters, hippies, yippies and black radicals clashed with police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Alternative visions of America had collided on Chicago's streets: dissent versus "America love it or leave it" patriotism, militancy versus law and order, sexual libertinism versus family values. Obama's Grant Park celebration - just like the election of 2008 - exorcized the ghosts of 1968, perhaps forever.

Campaigns in the 40-year period leading up to the election of Barack Obama hinged on the great question that Americans, both left and right, raised in the aftermath of the 1960s protests: "What side are you on?" Post-1960s politics fostered polarization: the "silent majority" versus raucous minorities, the Christian nation versus its libertine detractors, hard-working middle Americans versus welfare cheats, small-town gun owners versus latte-sipping urbanites, red states versus blue states. This year, John McCain attempted once again to turn the election into a plebiscite on the 1960s, from his first general election ad on the "Summer of Love," which contrasted McCain's military service and love of country with beaded and bearded protesters on the home front, to his campaign's attempt to brand Obama a socialist and pal of '60s fringe radicals like Bill Ayers of the Weathermen.

In 2008, however, the return to cultural warfare failed. Barack Obama distanced himself from the 1960s, reminding voters that he was but a child in Hawaii when America exploded in conflict. The activists who protested in the streets in the 1960s and the "silent majority" who railed against them are aging out. Their passions are mostly irrelevant to many younger people who grew up, like Obama, in the world that the 1960s made, a place where cultural differences were a source of pride, not conflict. Obama - and the voters who propelled him to victory (a majority of whom are his age or younger) - inhabit an ethnically and racially diverse America. Hippies and yippies are a thing of the past, but the values of sexual freedom and liberty have entered the mainstream; they even touched Sarah Palin's family.

Generation Obama has its own issues: global warming, worldwide epidemics, the threat of terrorism, and the collapse of the financial markets, to name a few. McCain's evocations of small-town values, of dissent and the silent majority and campus radicalism, left those problems unaddressed. Obama's rhetoric of unity - of common purpose and common cause - threw the dated politics of division and resentment into the dustbin of history. The cultural warriors, fighting over law and order, God, guns, and family values, will not be silent during the Obama administration, but they are increasingly relics of the past.



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