Conservatives say that America remains a center-right country and Obama won only because of special circumstances, while some liberals claim that the election marks a historic realignment. Neither is the right way to read the returns.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, two interpretations began circulating about its implications. The first came from conservatives who insisted that America remains a "center right" country and that the voters gave Barack Obama and the Democrats a majority only because of the financial panic and the limitations of the McCain campaign. The second interpretation came from some liberals who promptly declared this to be one of those critical elections that mark a historic political realignment. Neither is the right way to read the returns.
Earlier in this election cycle, many observers suggested that if Barack Obama and John McCain became their parties' nominees, they would each moderate the polarizing tendencies in American politics. In the wake of the two parties' national conventions, that notion seems like a frail hope. Something is driving polarization, and it isn't the personalities.
It also isn't trends in public opinion. As Morris P. Fiorina argues in his book, Culture War?, public opinion surveys show that on most issues Americans are still bunched in the middle, contrary to the widespread belief that they are more deeply divided than they were a generation ago.
Now that Barack Obama has secured his party's presidential nomination, it is a good moment to assess the extraordinary and improbable thing that the Democrats have done. It was not intuitively obvious, particularly to those who saw the party's central task as winning back the Reagan Democrats, that the best way to retake the presidency would be to nominate an African American with an Islamic-sounding name. In the abstract, before Obama emerged, that concept had not suggested itself, and some political insiders may be excused for not immediately grasping its genius.
The delirium and delusions that surrounded computing and the Internet in the 1990s have given way to a sentiment just as dangerous--complacency. It's not just that yesterday's wonders have so quickly become routine; most of us also take for granted the basic workings of the digital environment, including the freedom for experimentation that it affords. Countries like China may control the Internet, but in our society don't the free market and the open, untamed wilds of cyberspace make it nearly impossible to clamp down on innovation?