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Obama’s triumph, heavy setback for majoritarianism and racial bigotry

By Lynn Ockersz

Quite understandably, a celebratory, festive atmosphere prevailed at a banquet hall at the Colombo Hilton, on the morning of November 5, where the US embassy in Colombo conducted an exhilarating event to telecast, via CNN, the results of the recently concluded US presidential election which has quite rightly been described as ‘historic’. The joyousness of the Obama victory, apparently, was uncontrollably infective because more than a few Sri Lankans too attending the occasion, cheered lustily as the results poured in confirming an Obama triumph.

[Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama and his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. (David Katz/Obama for America)]

It is not the aim of this columnist to throw the proverbial wet blanket over the near-revelrous welcome some of his compatriots accorded the final election results but one only hopes they did not cheer for the wrong reasons. Was it the ‘black’ identity of Barak Obama which triggered the cheering? If so, my compatriots have reveled for the wrong reasons. If so, the good cheer is a cause for regret because these Sri Lankans have only uproariously endorsed ethnicity – a political scourge of our times, which is bleeding Sri Lanka and many other Third World countries white. It is this columnist’s hope that the cheering was occasioned more by an endorsement of the political principles and policies of Obama and not predicated on the naive belief that one of ‘our men’ was now the ‘most powerful man on earth’.

Woe unto us if we are endorsing Obama on account of his ethnicity, for, the wasting separatist rebellion in Sri Lanka’s North-East is also basically fuelled by ethnicity, race-hate and partiality. Rather, the Lankan public needs to see in the truly historic electoral triumph of Barak Obama a still more drastic qualitative improvement in democratic governance in the US. This is the true significance of Obama winning the US presidency.

We need to see in this polls triumph by a member of the Afro-American community, which was at one time in the history of the US a desperately powerless and depressed social entity, a further maturing of the ‘world’s oldest democracy’. To be more specific, the pinnacle of political power in the US could no longer be accessed by only a single ethnic group which happens to be numerically superior to all other communities. This is , essentially, what the political phenomenon of majoritarianism is all about. Rather, from now on the highest political office in the US will be accessible to anyone of ability and resourcefulness who professes and practises the creed of democracy, as conceived in the US.

Accordingly, from this point of view, the arresting opening to Obama’s acceptance speech acquires a supreme profoundness; ‘Tonight because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America’.

A ‘defining moment’ indeed. American democracy from now on will never be the same. American democracy has developed and progressed to the point where the colour of one’s skin or one’s ethnicity and other ‘cultural markers’, would no longer be a barrier to one’s advancement in public life. As the winning and losing candidates conceded in their speeches on receiving the election result, the US has more than adequately proved a land of tremendous ’opportunity’, and more significantly, this ‘opportunity’ could be accessed by almost all.

Another vital dimension in the steady democratic development of the US is the ability of the average US voter to now base his political preferences almost entirely on perceived merit and not on extraneous considerations, such as, ethnic and cultural identity. The vote for Obama, which transcended racial, regional, cultural, class and even political considerations, proves this adequately. He has received the endorsement of not merely Wall and Main streets but of the whole of the United States.

The ‘bloodless revolution’ triggered by Barak Obama ,while being significant for the fulfillment of the ‘dream’ of Obama’s forefathers, which showed initial signs of realization with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln, declaring all slaves in America’s confederate states free, is of enhanced importance to us in South Asia because the event has emphatically underscored the standing of the US as a benchmark in democratic development.

This is an occasion for earnest soul-searching for us in Sri Lanka. How do we compare as a democracy to the US of today? This is the question. Could we also proclaim, as the US could today, that we are a ‘land of opportunity’ for everyone in this country, regardless of ethnicity, creed and other cultural markers? Would the extremists of numerous kinds make it possible for anyone in this country, who possesses the required capabilities to vie democratically for the highest public offices in Sri Lanka, regardless of these cultural markers? Rather than get carried away by sentimental swoons about the US presidential election result and ‘the man of the moment’ Barak Obama, it would be more worth our while to probe these issues and find out where we have gone wrong as a polity.

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. This scriptural injunction forms a bedrock principle of all successful, vibrant democracies, although the principle may not be laid out in identical terms in all democratic constitutions. Sri Lanka and many other countries of the Third World which are today described as being ‘conflict-ridden’, have, apparently, not found this principle to be of any significance in nation-building. However, it is patently obvious that if this principle is observed more in the breach or callously cast out in the belief that it would get in the way of particular communities exercising hegemonic control over states, it would be only a matter of time before social discontent possesses them and begins to tear them apart.