Barack Obama is our President-elect. Since I voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin, I am naturally disappointed. But speaking as a man of the Right, I want to add my voice to that of others on the Right who are saying the same: President Obama will be my president too. And on one score I hope the President-elect is right. Last night, in his victory speech, Obama promised that “change has come to America.” God willing, he can succeed where President Bush failed: namely, to “change the tone in Washington, D.C.”
In a wise and beautiful column in the Washington Post this morning, Michael Gerson points out that an election victory is not merely a triumph for the majority; it is also “a transfer of legitimacy that binds the minority as well.” For the past sixteen years, the Right and Left in this country have stumbled over one another in a race to undermine the legitimacy of democratically-elected presidents. As Gerson puts it:
The initial reaction on literary blogs to Obama’s victory has not been entirely encouraging. Compare the always generous Mark Sarvas (stunned with happiness at Obama’s victory, he says quietly, “Look at what this amazing country did”) to the always maledicent Michael Bérubé (who is wowed by Obama’s win, but not so much by the victories of Senators Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith or by California’s approval of a gay-marriage ban,
You can’t have it both ways. Either you celebrate an electoral victory, which means that you respect the legitimacy of the winner, or you don’t. Here is hoping that the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s decisive victory introduces a new style of political discourse on the Right.
Update: In the comments section, Michael Bérubé takes me to task for failing to mention the reelection of Sen. Ted Stevens (R–AK). “Surely there is something wrong with electing a convicted felon, no?” he says. “I mean, I thought conservatives believed in law and order and stuff.” Ha ha. If I didn’t mention Stevens it follows that, like most conservatives, I must be some sort of hypocrite.
Upon reflection, though, I am struck by Bérubé’s assumption that there is something “wrong” about Stevens’s reelection. “Wrong” in what sense? Politically speaking, Stevens is, at last count, winning reelection. Bérubé and I may lament the outcome, but it gives Stevens a certain legitimacy. (Senate rules apparently do not disqualify him from serving, although majority leader Harry Reid (D–NV) has warned that he faces expulsion.)
Clearly, then, Bérubé means that Stevens’s reelection is immoral. Moralizing about popular outcomes is precisely what has landed us in this discursive mess. Stevens’s conduct is wrong, but his election is legitimate. To speak any other way is to commit an ignoratio elenchi.