IN THE television coverage of Barack Obama’s electoral victory, pollsters and strategists kept invoking an unexpected year: 1964. This was the pier that number-crunchers threw a line to in an effort to anchor Obama’s election to the recent American past. In coming days, they promised, a thorough breakdown of voting numbers would reveal what had really happened, how voting patterns had gone, and whether a historic realignment had occurred. But in the midst of qualifications and presentiments a kind of intuitive connection seemed available to these specialists that the rest of us wouldn’t possess. Nineteen sixty-four, the last year a Democratic candidate won Virginia. Nineteen sixty-four, the last time a Democratic candidate had so large a share of the popular vote.
I think 1964 looms large in the consciousness of Obama’s victory for other reasons, which have nothing to do with the vote. Something remains in the story of Obama’s triumph that can shape a fantasy of our American twenty-first century as another chance at the late twentieth century with certain segments of our past sliced out.
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