Yesterday's crushing victory for Barack Obama in South Carolina was certainly historic from the viewpoint of the past--and portends an equally sweeping change in November.
I have recently been re-reading one of the greatest-ever works of American history, Allen Nevins' The Ordeal of the Union (whose eight volumes, I was amused to discover, began appearing in 1947, the year of my birth.) The first four volumes, on the years 1850-60, could only be compared, it seems to me, to Henry Adams' History of the United States under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which is another favorite of mine. Nevins researched every private collection of papers he could find and spun an extraordinary narrative. In any case, having read the chapters on 1850, I was struck that, even then, two southern states stood out as the bitterest defenders of slavery and the first to threaten secession. They were Mississippi--and South Carolina. Until just yesterday I saw no evidence that anything had changed very much. South Carolina continued to elect Strom Thurmond, a symbol of white supremacy for most of the second half of the twentieth century, right up until 2002 when he retired on the eve of his 100th birthday, and as Bob Herbert noted the State Capitol features not only a Confederate flag, but also a statue of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, as blunt a post-bellum racist as the south ever produced. Mississippi, as my son discovered in two years teaching in the Delta, is nearly as segregated as it was fifty years ago. That Barack Obama could have won the Democratic Primary with 55% of the vote--beating Hillary Clinton among women and men--simply boggles the mind, and leaves no doubt that time, births and deaths have evidently created a new South Carolina. In perhaps the most staggering statistic of all, Barack Obama won a majority of white Democratic voters under 29. John Edwards, the most economically radical candidate, won the white vote between 29 and 59; Hillary Clinton won only those over 60 (and evidently beat Edwards only because she was the second choice of the black electorate, which made up slightly more than half of the total.
Yet perhaps the more historic news involves a comparison of this primary with last week's Republican one, which was equally hard fought. South Carolina has voted for a Democratic President,only once since 1960, in 1976--but 442,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican primary, as against 535,000 in the Democratic. The figures in New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which were hotly contested in the last two elections, favored the Democrats even more dramatically. The two most significant elections of the twentieth century were 1932, when FDR swept the West and made significant inroads in the Republican East, and 1968, when the Democrats lost the entire South (except Texas) to either Nixon or Wallace. If these trends continue then 2008 could be equally astonishing and equally significant.
I have no doubt that Obama would be a far stronger candidate in November than Clinton for two somewhat related reasons. First, as I have already suggested, she would be scandaled half to death by the Republicans. But more importantly, she (like John McCain on the other side) is the old folks' candidate, and the young folks, bless their hearts, will decide the election. They did the same in 1932 and 1936 (in the latter year, fully 90% of the 21-35s may have voted for FDR.)
Obama's victory is bound to energize the African-American vote in states like New York, Missouri, and Tennessee (and to discredit black leaders in New York who tried to play it safe and jumped on the Clinton bandwagon.) But the candidates, all of whose resources have been depleted in the opening skirmishes, now face ten extraordinary days, the most dramatic days in American politics in a very long time. That, perhaps, is the most exciting fact of all--not since 1960 has the United States experienced such an extraordinary contest. I suspect a great many young Americans will remember 2008 the way my generation does 1960, as the beginning, really, of their political lives.