What the First Black President Means for the U.S.

“How do you feel about the election?” we were asked by a friend at the pub a few nights ago.

“I have a cold. I don’t feel very well.”

“But about the election? About Obama?”

“Well, it’s great that a black man can be elected President in America. But it doesn’t exactly expiate the great national sin of slavery does it? Martin Luther King said he dreamt about an America where a man could be judged for the content of his character and not the color of his skin. But it looks like most black people voted for Obama because he’s black, not because of what he believes. Not that it bothers me much. It’s probably a great thing that 12% of the American population woke up today and felt like they belonged to an America where anything really is possible. It may be the first time many of them felt that way. It’s great.”

“That doesn’t sound so optimistic.”

“It’s realistic. It is what it is. If people were proud of America for seeing past race, well then I reckon American could justifiably be proud for surprising the world again. But from what I saw, people were more proud of Obama than they were for America.”

“So what?”

“So that’s the takeaway from this election. This election wasn’t about the deficit, global warming, or the neo-cons. It was about a vote people could make to feel better about themselves. Obama offered people that chance. The Republicans got exactly what they deserved for betraying small-government, fiscally-conservative, sound-money and non-interventionist foreign policy principles. But they also underestimated how badly people want to believe in something today. This election was all about pathos, not logos.”

“You make it sound like it was a Greek tragedy.”

“More like a comedy. It wasn’t a campaign at all. It was one long personal narrative, a two-year reality TV show with some world-class editing and producing. Barrack Obama convinced people that his story was America’s story. Once he was able to sell them that story, there was only one way it could end. Americans love a winner.”

“But isn’t he like a black Kennedy?”

“I have no idea what that even means. Race still matters in America just like religion still matters. The things that make us different aren’t always bad. Besides, that just sounds like a bunch of romance and nostalgia from people who have always wanted believe that a dynamic leader could take us toward better, more enlightened government. Don’t these people have romance and drama in their own lives? Why are they living vicariously through Obama’s life? I understand wanting to be a part of something greater than yourself. That’s why I work on the Daily Reckoning. But anytime people feel like that, they usually end up doing something stupid like burning books or drinking Kool-Aid.”

“Not always. The Civil Rights movement was about being part of something greater than yourself. That turned out okay.”

“Of course. But look, all I’m saying is that this wasn’t a transcendent election. It was a synthetic election. The power of America’s mass media and entertainment image-making machine was harnessed to a candidate for national office. Obama became a feel-good brand that would magically repair America’s damaged reputation in the world and her economy at home. But the Obama brand has all the depth and staying power of a catchy pop tune. It’s like Mountain Dew, all sugar rush, no nutritional value. You feel better but you’re not getting any healthier.”

“You sound bitter. Or drunk.”

“Not at all. Just a little alarmed. Modern politics is about the manipulation of people’s emotions (fear, hope, anger, envy, and sloth) through words and images and really compelling but hugely false promises. The Obama campaign was a masterpiece in manipulation, a triumph of style over content. McCain just couldn’t find a big enough lie to latch on to. The campaign also represents the triumph of the cult of personality in American politics. And anytime people have faith in a man over faith in ideas, it’s dangerous. We’re supposed to be a nation of laws, where our ideas — equality before the law, opportunity, freedom of speech — command our loyalty.”

“You’re just a sore loser.”

“Hardly. I lose all the time. I’m used to it. And you know I don’t even believe in voting. In fact, that’s what’s sad about voting. The high voter turnout was a disaster for people who love liberty.”

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t voting an obligation in a democracy? I think it’s great so many Americans finally cared about who leads them.”

“I said I love liberty, not democracy. Do you think high voter turnout ensures that you get a better result or better government? Harrumph! When people turn out in such large numbers, it’s a triumph for State power. It means that people who believe the government should have a great role in your life have succeeded in politicising ever greater aspects of private life. Every problem becomes political. And every solution requires a new law. Yesterday we learned that most Americans believe in big government power, they just disagree about whom it should be directed against.”

“That’s awfully cynical.”

“Ask yourself why people have so much secular faith in politics and in ‘transcendent’ men like Obama. Why? It’s because for the last one-hundred years, people have lost their faith in the institutions which used to give their life meaning and purpose…things like family, community, the local school, or the local church. All those relationships have become lost because they’ve become Federalised, with Big Government as the mediator. I say lost, but I think that those kinds of voluntary associations have been deliberately undermined by people who believe in the pursuit of government power to enforce their moral outlook on the world. The entire world.”

“Now you sound like a freak.”

“What’s new? But hear me out. You could argue that it’s a biological imperative for us to believe our lives mean something. For some people, having children — the ultimate vote of confidence in the future — is one of way giving life purpose and meaning. But take someone like Viktor Frankl. He survived the Holocaust. He says that men can find meaning in their lives in three ways. First, through work that matters. Second, through relationships with other people. Third, through the attitude which we choose to have when we encounter the suffering life inevitably throws our way.”


“Well, today people are largely alienated from their work. Not to sound like Marx too much. But we see work as something we must do to pay off the mortgage. We don’t see work as…the work we want to do with our lives. So most of us don’t find meaning in our work. It’s labour with sweat but no fruit.”

“What about family?”

“We all live alone in little cubes and sit in front of our fake campfires (televisions) while e-mailing and texting each other constantly. We’re completely free to pursue our individual goals and desires and selfish pursuits. And we have more ways than ever to communicate. Yet we find ourselves more alone and more medicated than ever.”

“You’re depressing me, man. Do you want another beer?”

“Let me just finish this bit about suffering, then we’ll have some whiskey. We don’t suffer anymore, at least not most of us in the Western world. We were born into a world of plenty. Plenty of energy. Plenty of credit. Plenty of food. Plenty of surplus. Suffering, in the modern world, has no redeeming value. No value at all. To the extent we do it at all, we do it voluntarily in the gym, on the tread mill, or perhaps in the commute we are forced to endure to get to work. But those are just superficial kinds of suffering. They aren’t in the service of any worthwhile purpose which makes us feel like our lives have meaning.”

“What does any of this have to do with Obama?”

“He made people feel like their lives had meaning by voting for him. I don’t know how he pulled it off. But people used to find meaning in day-to-day relationships. Family, friends, neighbors. The cult of individual materialism and Nanny State paternalism has made the relationship between a man and his government the most important relationship in the modern world. I find that utterly depressing. I’m thinking about getting a dog to protest.”

“So what is your point?”

“People are going to be disappointed. Some of them will be devastated. Exalted political rhetoric can make you feel good for a while, the way you might feel when your sports team wins a championship. But the sun comes up the next day and your life is still your life, with all its challenges, fears, and opportunities. Obama can’t live it for you. He can’t pay your mortgage, fuel up your car, make you feel better about your job, your love life, or your relationship with your parents and kids. Your life is still your own. Like my mom used to day, wherever you go, there you are.”

“I disagree with you on the mortgage part. But I see what you’re saying. You should stop drinking beer. Look what it does to your gut. Why don’t we go to the gym tomorrow forget this conversation ever happened?”

Dan Denning
November 13, 2008