An American Revolution

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Roughly twohundred
thirty two years ago, when Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words,
a significant number of people in the American colonies were comprised of indentured servants,
black slaves, beleaguered Native Americans, immigrants, and millions of struggling
poor. Years of tyrannical abuse, political corruption, stark gaps between the wealthy and
impoverished, and a firm belief amongst Patriots in the “consent of the governed” provided
the sustenance necessary for Americans to endure years of hardship, deprivation, and war
to achieve victory. It was a Revolution that forged a new way for the world to think about
government, liberty, and democracy. But it was also a Revolution that had done little to
loosen the chains of slavery, enfranchise women, deal equitably with Native Americans, or
substantially improve the lives of the destitute.

In the election of 2008, a much more mature America–a nation that had survived a
devastating Civil War, a crushing Depression, and two horrific world wars; a nation that had
become an international superpower; a nation that had defeated the scourge of Jim Crow
segregation; a nation that had finally enfranchised and empowered women; a nation that
refused to tolerate homelessness and hunger in a land of plenty–elected its first African
American president, Barack Obama. Once again, America accomplished what many had
presumed to be impossible, showing itself and the world that it truly ranked amongst the
greatest nations in history.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, the greatness that America achieved in electing
Barack Obama will be sorely tested. In his first 24 hours on the job, Obama will inherit
a chaotic economic crisis, a health care system in desperate need of repair, vexing energy
needs and challenges, the breathless task of protecting the United States from determined
enemies, and more. But as daunting and impossible as these challenges appear, the President-
elect and all Americans need to celebrate their victory of bending the arc of history
toward justice.

The election of 2008 witnessed the people of the United States rising to the challenge of
being their better, best selves. With clear-eyed determination, millions of Americans broke
with the nation’s past of racial discord, looked beyond color, denounced the rhetoric of division,
rejected fears rooted in stereotype, and voted for the candidate who’d won their confidence
through the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.

They demonstrated that the courage and sacrifices of Underground Railroad Conductors,
female suffragists, anti-lynching crusaders, Freedom Riders, and other unnamed heroes
had not been in vain. They announced to the world that Americans were intent on making
a better future where liberty thrived and equal opportunity was a reality that no longer
needed debating. They proudly displayed the new United States of the 21st century.

Moving forward, and recognizing the improvements in race relations as proof that Americans
can make progress on their most problematic issues, there now exist opportunities to
take major steps in combating the ills of homelessness, starvation, poverty, rural and urban
decline, and educational disenfranchisement. With this new presidency Americans can use
all of their creative talent to close the yawning chasm between rich and poor by creating
pathways for the impoverished to work themselves into dignified prosperity. That creative
talent can also bring a larger measure of justice, humanity, and efficiency to the challenge
of immigration without sacrificing national security. There exists the opportunity to regain
America’s international moral authority so that its beacon of liberty will shine brighter
and its sword of defense will never be doubted. At this nexus of change policymakers and
business leaders can finally ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work and that
all Americans have work environments that are occupationally safe and free from racial,
sexual, and religious harassment. And the nation stands ready to take definitive action on
resolving the increasing problems with health care, especially children who are without adequate
health insurance.

Just as the horizons of possibility seem endless with this new presidency, Americans
must continue paying attention to the winds of history. In past periods of daunting
challenge, when resources were scarce, competition high, and fear gripped the hearts of
the desperate, social discord was often the result. Current rising unemployment statistics,
news of foreclosures, bankruptcies, bailouts, the shrinking middle class, corruption,
and lurking uncertainties about the nation’s safety, offer fertile ground for peddlers
of hate. If the fist of catastrophe pounds harder on the nation’s door after the inauguration
on January 20, 2009, it’s not inconceivable that such demagogues would attempt linking the
new president’s competency in crisis to his racial origin. Fortunately, the election of 2008
proved that Americans with that perspective are finding fewer people willing to share their
poison.

It was an election which proved that the United States is indeed a different country
than it was even ten short years ago. With resounding approval, the nation moved the dial
of progress farther than many had ever hoped or dreamed. Most of all, it took a major step
in fulfilling the vision and achieving the goals of the American Revolution.

Fred Johnson teaches political science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Last fall, he was the Democratic candidate
for the House of Representatives from Michigan’s second district.