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Whiplash City

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I know this because like so many people these last few weeks deeply invested in both equities and Obama, I’ve been toggling like a madman, compulsively and constantly, between Web-browser tabs: from the fever chart of the DJIA on Google Finance over to the national polling page on Real Clear Politics, then back to the Dow, then to FiveThirtyEight for analysis of the new tranche of polling data, back to the Dow, then the electoral-vote map at Pollster, back to the Dow, Real Clear Politics again for the latest state polls, and so on, dozens of times a day. The psychological result, of course, has been a high-frequency bipolarity—thrilled, depressed, thrilled, depressed—powered by Google.

The steadiness of Obama’s momentum has reflected (not coincidentally, I think) the soothing, absolutely even-keeled steadiness of his public manner since the crisis began. He’s come across like the person in the stuck elevator or subway car to whom all the freaked-out passengers instinctively grant authority. And for those of us obsessing over every tick in the financial and political metrics, it’s additionally reassuring to watch at least one of the graph lines moving in a continuously positive direction.

I do leave the computer screen sometimes and get out of the house. Back on the first of the month (the Dow still up almost at 11,000, Obama already five points ahead of McCain), I had dinner in the Village with a friend of mine who lives in the South. He’s middle-aged, wears a suit and tie, and probably voted in the past for a Republican presidential candidate or two. He told me, amazement in his voice, that two different South Carolina pals of his—well-to-do Republican white men his age—had confessed to him they were planning to vote for Obama: one because Palin was a deal breaker, the other because he thought that electing a black guy president would once and for all absolve white America of its historical racial crimes. And so when the conservative pundits started mutinying—Kathleen Parker, who has implied she’ll vote for Obama because of Palin, and William F. Buckley’s son Chris, who endorsed Obama last week—it didn’t shock me.

Happy days are … no; I am not by nature pessimistic, exactly, but I do deny myself over-optimism about particular outcomes. (The behavior of the market last week—superfantastic Monday, two straight dreary days after—only affirmed my resistance to sunshiny extrapolations.) When it comes to the election, I’ve been seeking out buzz-kills—George Packer’s New Yorker piece about rural Ohioans’ racism was a good cold shower, as was a Google search for Obama and nigger.

I’ve been saying for years and years that the eighties never really ended culturally and politically—not the way the fifties and sixties and seventies did. But 2008 will surely turn out to be the conclusion of an era. Reaganism—the utter devotion to deregulation and hypercapitalism, the unbending antipathy to the federal government, American power as nothing but cheerful bullying—is over. We all enjoyed playing cowboy until too many of us fell off our horses or got shot. The most fundamental form of American exceptionalism—that is, among all developed countries, our peculiar predisposition to magical thinking about human perfectibility and business schemes and supernatural salvation—won’t disappear overnight. But in our economics and politics sane people understand that we’ve reached that Wile E. Coyote running-in-midair moment where reality kicks in and he falls to the bottom of the cliff. Gravity (like evolution, and man-made climate change) exists.

We are, maybe, becoming a more reality-based nation again. We can no longer get by on tautological self-love, believing we’re smart simply because we’re New Yorkers, or virtuous because we’re Americans. The debacle caused by our reckless, party-hearty overleveraging of the economy should make us realize that we have met the enemy, and he is us. And then, if we’re lucky, we’ll redeem ourselves by fixing the huge messes we’ve made, and thereby discovering that we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for.


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