For optimists like me, the financial crash has made for an especially depressing few weeks. With even the most drearily pessimistic speculations being swiftly outflanked by still more disastrous reality, looking on the bright side has been only for the foolish or complacent. But Barack Obama’s victory is some kind of silver lining—and, as Michael Lind’s essay points out, it might not have happened without the crash. Any residual anxiety about Obama’s complexion got washed away by his coolness under pressure (compared with a flapping McCain). The elevation of gut instinct over reason that has often marked the Bush years—symbolised by the choice of Sarah Palin—suddenly seemed an unaffordable luxury. When the going gets tough, the world needs someone in the White House who is thoughtful, intelligent and articulate.
American liberalism needs Obama’s help too. Its unaccomplished social goal is a regulated market economy with a moderately redistributive tax system and a stronger safety net than most Americans now enjoy. Having been knocked off course by the turn to identity politics in the 1970s, and then by Clinton’s “liberalism in a cold climate” of the 1990s, liberalism now has another chance. It falls to Obama to write the new chapter. Lind worries that he has surrounded himself with too many (Bill) Clintonites, but this may underestimate both the extent to which Clinton’s New Democrat tradition has been eclipsed, particularly since the 2004 defeat, and how much previously conservative figures like Larry Summers appear to have jettisoned orthodoxy. Moreover, in a crisis you need experienced heads and they are, almost by definition, going to be veterans of the Clinton years. The unanswerable question is: how much political room for manoeuvre will the crisis provide? There are almost twice as many self-declared conservatives as liberals in the US, but that does not mean America is fated to remain forever a “right nation.” US?leaders like to talk about their country’s exceptionalism, but they still have much in common with Europeans and a big crisis may draw our systems even closer.
The American dream may have been politically rebooted by Obama but his country still suffers one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the rich world. Britain is not much better; but the received wisdom that social mobility here has fallen sharply in recent years is half true at best, as I argue in the article More mobile than we think. There is still a problem with the openness of the elite, and the rising inequality of the 1980s was probably a drag on general mobility too. But recessions usually cause inequality to decline, so perhaps a slightly more socially mobile Britain is another silver lining for we optimists to look forward to from the crash.