One of the great clichés of campaign journalism is the notion that American elections have long since ceased to be about issues and ideas. Instead, pompous cliché-spreaders like myself have argued, our TV-age political contests have devolved into grotesque marathons of mawkish entertainment programming, intellectually on par with a season of Survivor, in which the command of the most powerful military force in human history is handed to that unscrupulous nitwit who over the course of 18 months succeeds in getting himself photographed the most times and in the most swing states bowling a strike or wearing a duck-hunting costume.
We've dumbed this process up so much over the years, in fact, that it had lately become hard to imagine an American presidential election being anything but an embarrassment to the very word "democracy." By 2004, that once-cherished ideal of political freedom and self-governance that millions of young men and women gave their lives to protect as recently as WWII had been reduced to the level of absurdist comedy. You had a millionaire Yalie in an army jacket taking on a millionaire Yalie in a cowboy hat, fighting tooth and nail for the right to be named the man "middle America most wants to have a beer with" by a gang of Ivy League journalists — a group of people whose closest previous exposure to "middle America" was typically either an episode of Cops or a Von Dutch trucker hat they'd bought for $23 at Urban Outfitters.
In short, it was an utterly degrading bourgeois/ruling-class media deception that "ordinary Americans," if they had any brains at all, ought to have been disgusted by to the point of rebellion. But ordinary Americans, alas, would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of eternity mesmerized by the endless and endlessly condescending I'd Like to Have a Beer With You sideshow, leaving the boring policy stuff to the people who actually pay for the campaigns. Things could have just kept getting dumber and dumber, and no one would have been surprised. There was certainly no trend that suggested our presidential elections were bound to return to being great, sweepingly important contests of ideas. But that's what happened.
Like millions of Americans, I watched Barack Obama's victory on Election Night in a state of amazement. The only thing that gave me pause was the question of what kind of country this remarkable figure was now inheriting. Some of the luster of Obama's triumph would come off if the American presidency were no longer the Most Powerful Office in the World but simply the top job in a hopelessly broken nation suffering an irreversible decline.
Of all the problems facing this country by the end of the Bush years, the biggest is the absence of a unifying national idea. Since the end of the Cold War, America has been grasping left and right for an identity. We tried being a "world policeman" in Somalia, which didn't work so well. We tried retaining our Cold War outlook by simply replacing communists with terrorists. We created two bubble economies that blew up in our faces, and headed into 2008 a struggling capitalist state with a massive trade deficit and an overtaxed military that suddenly had to ask itself: For the supposed world leader in the community of nations, what exactly is it that we're still good at? Who are we, and what do we represent to the peoples of the Earth here and now — not in 1775 Concord, or 1945 Paris, or 1969, from the surface of the moon?
When Obama took the stage in Grant Park as president-elect, that question was answered. We pulled off an amazing thing here, delivering on our society's most ancient promises, in front of a world that still largely thought of us as the home of Bull Connor's fire hose. This dumbed-down, degraded election process of ours has, in spite of itself and to my own extreme astonishment, brilliantly re-energized the American experiment and restored legitimacy to our status as the world's living symbol of individual freedom. We feel like ourselves again, and the floundering economy and our two stagnating wars now seem like mere logistical problems that will be overcome sooner or later, instead of horrifying symptoms of inevitable empire-decline.
For this to happen, absolutely everything had to break right. And for that we will someday owe sincere thanks to John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and George W. Bush. They not only screwed it up, they screwed it up just right.
This article originally appeared in RS 1066 from November 27, 2008. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
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