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Lessons Spoke to Nation's Mood

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

As routine as elections may seem, they are the seminal events in the life of a democracy. Campaigns and elections not only set the direction of the Republic, they also shed light on America's political health. Every November we have the opportunity to take stock of what we did at the polls, and what that says about the status of the 232-year-old American experiment.

The historical significance of what happened on November 4th is immediately obvious to all. The election of the first President of African-American descent is breathtaking, given what had come before in the nation and Virginia. But Barack Obama grasped the White House so deceptively easily in the Electoral College, including the thirteen votes of the New Dominion, that four centuries of often bitter race relations were obscured.

Slavery was an accepted, legally enshrined practice throughout much of America until the end of the Civil War. The economic underpinnings of what author Lawrence Goldstone called the United States' constitutional "dark bargain" enforced a brutality so awful that young people today cringe when told the truth. Profits obliterated humanity.

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued more to win the war for the North than for the right reasons, yielded little for blacks after only a few years. All the promises of post-war equality faded into a sick society of white domination, "Jim Crow" laws, and the Ku Klux Klan. Voting rights disappeared; subjugation returned.

In September 1958--under a duly enacted state law that will forever be a hideous stain upon Virginia's good name--schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk were closed because a few black children were assigned to learn in the same buildings as white children. The resulting 'lost class of '59', including both whites and blacks, were condemned to a lesser degree of happiness due to educational deprivation. Massive resistance to freedom and equality was so great in Virginia's Prince Edward County that its public schools stayed closed for five years.

In August 1964 when Ann Dunham, a white woman, and Barack Obama Sr., a black man, witnessed the birth of their only child, their interracial marriage was illegal in nineteen states, including Virginia.

Yet America is a land of redemption and progress, of second chances, of making amends and heartfelt absolution.

The 1964 abolition of the onerous poll tax, designed to minimize political participation by blacks, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the reincarnation of the better nature of the Emancipation Proclamation. Millions of African-Americans began to register and vote. The Civil Rights Movement freed whites even more than blacks from old hatreds, producing legal equality in stunning universality. People of good will in both parties were responsible.

Black candidates began to win state legislative and local offices by the hundreds, and then Virginia shocked the nation by electing Douglas Wilder as the first African-American state governor in 1989. The last had become first. One of the least racially enlightened states moved into the vanguard.

A straight line can be drawn from that proud November day nineteen years ago when Wilder's victory caused one national newsmagazine to headline "the end of the Civil War". In both 1989 and 2008, four out of ten whites in Virginia joined a nearly unanimous corps of minority voters to open a new era for state and nation. Perhaps it is less surprising in retrospect that in 2008 Virginia pulled the lever for another minority chief executive, and not just in Northern Virginia. While Barack Obama swept the northern regions with a plurality of over 230,000 votes, he also held John McCain to a virtual tie in the rest of Virginia--the badly named "real Virginia".

Little of today's Virginia remains as it once was. In 1989 and 2008, the state demonstrated to the country that the improbable could happen.

The improbable happens more in the United States than anywhere else on the globe. How many other nations have elected a member of a formerly enslaved group to the highest office in the land? Regardless of one's choice on November 4th, every American should take pride that it happened here. At the very least, the election proved our foreign critics dead wrong, the ones who so often decry racism in our land while ignoring it in their own.

Racial progress is only the beginning of the lessons to be learned from the watershed election of 2008. The electorate chose thirty-five U.S. senators, 435 members of the House of Representatives, eleven state governors, and thousands of state legislators and local officials. These contests were revealing barometers of America's mood. Democrats picked up over 20 House seats, about seven Senate seats, one net governorship, and approximately 100 state legislators (pending recounts, the inevitable result of competitive politics and exactitude in voting).

What does the sum total of those contests say about our country? This was a Democratic wave election, for sure. Any candidate with the scarlet letter "R" beside his or her name on the ballot lost points, often enough to make the difference.

Did John McCain ever have a chance to win the White House, and by extension, did Republicans have a real prospect to make gains in Congress? In a word, no, and two colleagues and I made precisely that case on The Crystal Ball in July. At a time when the polls showed the contest tied, we predicted a comfortable triumph for Barack Obama.

The same would have been true for any mainstream Democratic presidential nominee. It was that kind of year, with George Bush's ratings among the lowest ever recorded for any president, the economy in meltdown, and the Iraq war still unpopular.

John McCain will always be seen as a true American hero--a man whose life has demonstrated remarkable sacrifice and service to the red, white, and blue. But he would have needed a spectacular spell from Harry Potter to turn blue to red on the 2008 electoral map.

This Friday, November 21st, in Charlottesville, the U.Va. Center for Politics and Congressional Quarterly will gather together an august group of party insiders, leading journalists, officeholders, and pundits from both major parties to discuss the election. This marks the Center's 10th annual post-election American Democracy Conference. Sen.-elect Mark Warner will deliver the keynote address. We also will be joined by, among many others, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), Republican strategist Ed Rollins, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), USA Today's Susan Page, McCain deputy campaign manager Christian Ferry, and Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford.

The conference is open to the public without charge, and in the spirit of the recent Wall Street bailout, we will provide a free lunch, though without caviar. We ask only that participants pre-register at the Center's website.

I can promise it will be a good day to explore a good thing--politics.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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