I have always thought that the Hegelian/Marxist notion of historical “inevitability” was one of the silliest aspects of that supremely silly intellectual phantasmagoria. If history has lessons for us, one of the chief lessons concerns the certainty of uncertainty. Pace Hegel, the domain of history is the realm of the contingent, not the necessary. Caesar crossed the Rubicon; he might have decided not to. History woulfd have been different. Chamberlain came back from Munich declaring “Peace in our time”; he might have done otherwise. History would have been different.
Still, there is no doubt that there are times when a mood washes cataract-like over a people. The year 2008 witnessed one such emotional tsunami with the campaign of Barack Obama. The Germans, who were as enthusiastic about the international man of mystery as anyone, might have spoken of the operation of the Zeitgeist. Outside the province of German philosophy, there is nothing ineluctable about the operation of the Zeitgeist. It names a tendency, not a necessity. The English essayist William Hazlitt congregated a group of biographical portraits of representative figures under the title The Spirit of the Age. It was the fact that the figures really were representative that justified the denomination of the age’s spirit. In 2008, though I did not see it myself, Obama captured or represented the mood of the moment.
How long ago it seems now. I did not, as I say, vibrate to that magic. Obama’s charm was lost on me. But in retrospect, it should have been clear that he was riding a powerful current of emotion. Again, his victory was far from inevitable. But he enjoyed the moment’s momentum: a huge advantage. What were the elements of that momentum? Here are some of the negative elements:
1. A deeply unpopular incumbent. Fairly or not, George W. Bush’s had lost the elixir of efficacy.
2. An economic crisis of bone-rattling proportions. (It was the crisis that Rahm Emanuel famously didn’t want to “waste.”)
3. An anemic campaign by his opponent. Has there been a worse campaign performance than that delivered by John McCain?
4. An unfortunate VP pick by John McCain. Unfortunate, I mean, in terms of the moment’s momentum. I have never understood the virulence of the hatred, especially among women, of that admirable woman. Whatever the explanation — snobbery? jealousy? some combination? — it is clear that the music that set hearts throbbing at the name “Obama” wasn’t working with “Palin.”