In a break from Kiwi election coverage, I thought I’d offer some American perspective on the historic victory of Barack Obama.

My formative political experience dates to 1968, four decades ago, when the Vietnam war and racial tensions were the driving, divisive factors in the presidential election.

In that year, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated; I watched the city of Washington burning, with Army tanks on the streets, from the roof of my university dorm; the success of anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary triggered the decision of President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election; and Chicago police brutally attacked anti-war protesters outside the Democratic Party Convention before a live nation-wide television audience.

That convention nominated LBJ’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as its presidential candidate. Humphrey was the “happy warrior” — a social democrat to his core — who had achieved political fame in 1948, two decades earlier, when he delivered an impassioned speech at that year’s Democratic Convention. “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” he pleaded, winning support for an unprecedented pro-civil-rights plank in the Party’s platform.

Humphrey lost the 1968 election by 511,944 votes (out of 73 million cast) to Richard Nixon, largely for two reasons. His pro-civil rights history still infuriated racists in the South, whose most notorious champion, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, ran as an independent candidate for president and captured about 10 millon votes. And Humphrey’s too-late decision to disassociate himself from LBJ’s Vietnam war meant that he never captured the passion and support of young voters in America, who were numbed by Bobby Kennedy’s death.

Fast forward 40 years.

Not since Jimmy Carter has a Democrat been elected US President with a majority of the popular vote. Bill Clinton failed to achieve this in his two successful campaigns.

More importantly, according to exit polls on Tuesday, Barack Obama won significant support from white voters, most especially those under 30 years of age.

Obama lost the white vote in every age group over 30, and especially men. But 57% of white Americans under 30 gave their vote to him.

And, again according to exit polls, amongst all voters under age 30 (18% of the US electorate), Obama received 66%-69% of the vote, as well as 69% of the votes of first-time voters. This latter group propelled voter turnout (131 million voters) to probably the highest percentage — around 64%, according to first counts — since 1908.

So, to me, the contrasts that are most striking about these four-decade political bookends are …

First, that race has effectively — not entirely — disappeared as a factor in American presidential politics, and — thankfully for the future — it clearly is a non-issue amongst younger voters.

Second, whereas in 1968 young voters were disenfranchised and disillusioned by the time the election occurred, in 2008 they have been the powerhouse of the Obama campaign. They constituted the largest segment of the volunteer field army that worked — 1.5 million volunteers in the battleground states alone — to turn out the vote on election day for Obama.

And, I might add for BayBuzz’ online-friendly audience, this was a young army totally immersed in and empowered by sophisticated use of internet technology to advance their candidate and cause. Even had youth been energised in 1968, they would not have had the tools to achieve what the tech-savvy under-30s accomplished in 2008 for Barack Obama.

A few days before he was killed, Martin Luther King said these words (here is the audio):

“If we will stand and work together, we will bring into being that day when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream … we will bring into being that day when America will no longer be two nations, but it will be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

What a difference four decades make!


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