Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Unnecessary Uncertainty and Presidential Politics

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...Image via WikipediaAs a follow-up to yesterday's post, I've been thinking how the most recent presidential election in this country could be viewed as a shift with respect to social ambiguity. Anytime society undergoes change, ways of thinking and living will be challenged and our responses can range from open opposition to mild resistance, from moderate acceptance to enthusiastic embrace. That's pretty much a given.

In this country, the election of a president tends to be a marker predominantly indicating how registered voters (those who actually do vote, that is) feel about the direction society is taking. If things seem too uncertain or there seems to be too much departure from established norms, the trend will be toward conservative candidates. When change is in the air and people are feeling optimistic about new ideas, we favor liberal candidates.

If voting behavior can be taken to suggest comfort or discomfort with ambiguity, and if by my quick calculations, approximately 2/3 of the past 60 years have been under relative conservative presidential leadership, in general voters have preferred to lean towards certitude rather than incertitude. In other words, faced with changing social norms as a result of greater prosperity, multiplying avenues of self-expression, and the growth of a better educated and more sophisticated population, voters preferred someone who promised to slow or, perhaps in some cases, try to halt the rate of change.

2008 was a pivotal year because it resulted in the election of a candidate who represents a unique response to ambiguity, even more so than one might expect from "liberal" leadership. For one thing, he embodies it: Barack Obama is an individual of mixed racial heritage. As such, psychologically speaking, he is a transitional figure and not solely in a racial sense. He represents a willingness to look at ambiguity realistically and deal with it as an essential element in the make-up of the world community. Not in a radical sense of complete departure from our history and heritage, but a tempered response -- more than a baby step, less than a leap.

The fact that the children of Baby Boomers took such an active role in his election should tell us something. Issues that troubled their parents have little reference to their experience. They know nothing of the Cold War or duck and cover, November 1963 isn't a part of their collective consciousness, and their first car may easily be a BMW. The atmosphere in which they were raised was already fraught with change and they've adapted without a second thought. For them, the election of a Barack Obama would seem as normal as daily life.

Now, obviously, not everyone nor every young person, became his supporter and our national response to social and cultural ambiguity remains divided. And that, too, is to be expected. But what I think matters and will find its way into history is his potential to help us find effective ways of coping with uncertainty in a world that we sometimes fear has outgrown and moved on without us. Political considerations aside, I think his election represents a desire to proactively step into the currents of our time and make a difference in where they take us. They're going to flow anyway, we may as well learn how to swim; the alternative is to be swept along and for me, that spells unnecessary uncertainty.


(Collective Commons image via Wikipedia)

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