A black man was elected president and white people lost their minds.
Not all of them, no. Not even most of them. But not a piddling few, either.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of America’s hateful and obstructionist politics over the past eight years – and of the nasty, arduous excuse for a presidential campaign that finally ends on Tuesday.
Granted, many pundits have chosen to explain those things in terms of “economic anxiety,” the fiscal insecurity of the undereducated white working class. But here on election eve can we, for once, be honest with ourselves about ourselves?
Not to say that sluggish economic growth isn’t a valid concern. But that world where men like Archie Bunker could, with a high school education or less, find factory work that would allow them to buy a house and raise a family, did not suddenly disappear when the black guy took over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s been gone for quite a while.
And the white guy who preceded the black guy spent a $128 billion surplus into a more than $400 billion deficit and presided over a cratering stock market and anemic job creation. Yet for all the grief he was given, nobody ever called him a “subhuman mongrel.” Lawmakers from the other party did not declare their refusal to work with him on even the most routine matters of governance.
People did not take to showing up at his events carrying rifles. Nobody shouted, “I want my country back!”
So as much as or more than it is a referendum on the economy – or foreign policy, or terrorism – this election is a referendum on demographic change.
A nation that elected a black guy president and enshrined the right of same-sex marriage into law, a nation where Muslims, transgender people and Spanish speakers are more visible and rising higher than ever before, will now tell us how it feels about all that, whether it is ready to plunge ahead into the unknowable future or whether it will seek refuge in a sepia-toned past that never was.
The Republican Party’s preference is no mystery. To succeed the first black president, it put forth a racist enthusiastically supported by the Ku Klux Klan. To oppose the first woman to be a major party candidate, it offered a misogynist trailing accusations of sexual assault. “Make America great again,” indeed.
Every four years, pundits solemnly intone the same cliche: “This is an important election.” Fact is, they’re all important elections. Choosing a leader for the economic and military giant of the planet is by definition consequential.
That said, this country finds itself facing an electoral decision starker and more portentous than any in modern memory. We don’t just choose new policies on Tuesday, nor even a new vision. No, we choose identity. We decide who and what we are.
Are we a backward-looking nation defined by those who lost their minds because a black guy was elected president? Or are we a forward-facing people, challenged by change but never shying from it, never so terrified by it as to betray our fundamental selves?
The thing is, change doesn’t care what we decide. It comes regardless, and you can no more question it than you can gravity. The toothpaste won’t go back into the tube, the gay people back into the closet, the women back into the kitchen nor the African Americans back into the rear of the bus.
The past will not be restored. So the only question here is how we will respond to the future. With fear or faith? With cowardice or courage? It’s time for us all to take a deep breath.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.