I recently interviewed Gore Vidal, one of the last old-school aristocrats left in this country, and asked him how he felt about the state of the American republic -- the subject that has fired his political radicalism and a large portion of his literary output over the past half-century.
Vidal, now 83 and in indifferent health, bemoaned the lack of a transcendent figure to match the political skills of a Franklin Roosevelt or the oratory of a General MacArthur. When I asked him about Barack Obama, with his formidable rhetoric and cool temperament, he gave me a look of pure contempt and uttered perhaps the most reactionary single comment of this election season.
"Slaves have a hard time making poetry," he said, relishing the shock factor, "unless it's got a beat."
Vidal, like many of his generation and social standing, clearly cannot fathom how the son of a single mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father could presume to occupy the Oval Office. And while he expressed his distaste with an extraordinary degree of frankness, not to mention racial venom, he is far from the only one.
We've had Republicans on the campaign trail talk about the "pro-American" parts of the country -- as though Obama and his cause were somehow antithetical to what America stands for. In the presidential debates, John McCain seemed to marvel at his opponent's presumptuousness, when he could look at him at all. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton betrayed a similar sense of indignation at this improbable novice upending her carefully laid plans.
In truth, next Tuesday's presidential election is not just about Obama beating McCain, or the Democrats retaking the White House. In a deeper sense, it is about who gets to run this country.
For too long, both major parties have worked from an assumption of entitlement. Between them, they formed a tight-knit little club which alone decided who could be part of the establishment and who could not. Between them, they courted the 50-something per cent of the electorate they felt they could count on, and roundly ignored the rest. For the most part, of course, running the executive branch has been a rich white man's game.
Obama alone won't change everything, but he is transforming the rules quite spectacularly. In the South, black voters are no longer the political dead weight the Democrats have so often taken for granted, and that the Republicans have managed to trounce at the polls time after time. Now they are spearheading a new Democratic coalition in which the divisive politics of race have, at last, taken a back seat to the broader cause of progressive ideas. Across the country, young people are being energized into political activism in ways unseen since the Vietnam War and -- in contrast to the counter-cultural movement of 40 years ago -- given real reason to suppose the future belongs to them.
There is, of course, a backlash. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are far from the first political figures to suggest that "their" America -- the parts of the country that subscribe to their political ideology and conform to their idea of how society should function -- is the "real" America. And it is no accident that Republicans desperate to find solace in the electoral disaster that awaits them are crying foul about the non-existent scourge of individual voter fraud -- essentially, casting aspersions on the legitimacy of hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters whom the old guard barely recognizes as part of America's political process at all.
Vidal's reactionary bile is part of a clear historical pattern that has, at different times, condoned the slavery he alludes to; espoused open prejudice against immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and the industrial working class; and embraced the notion that democracy is somehow too precious to be entrusted to more than a small fraction of the people governed.
We can be glad, though, his brand of entitled snobbery no longer holds sway. A new America is being born.