Gettysburg Redux

About one score and seven years from now, the United States will become the first state in the history of the world to transition from white majority status to a majority non-white republic. How we undertake this transition, how we demonstrate to the world that this "crossing" needn't be defined by unreasonableness or the pathos of the politics of fear, will teach the world as much as Lincoln hoped to teach in his Gettysburg address.

Now, nearly 150 years after that November 19th moment in Pennsylvania, the reelection of Barack Obama calls out for a different kind of address, but one no less hopeful. We need to articulate a vision of a multiracial society empowered and invigorated by difference -- what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called a wonderful "contamination." The 2012 election and its woeful blasts of arcane appeals to racial fear ("food stamp president," "Kenyan anti-colonialism," etc.) represented the Pickett's Charge of racist dogma. It died in the Little Round Tops of our time -- the shops, factories, and suburbs of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

The president may well be tempted to speak to this moment in his Farewell Address. He needn't wait. Now, in the afterglow of the most intriguing coalition of electoral victory assembled in American history -- Latinos, African Americans, women, low-income whites, the young, and those self-interested Ohioans -- all now deserve to be given a call for even higher deeds.

And as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, President Obama can remind those that lost on the (electoral) battlefield, that they too are participants in the great and ongoing battle of democracy, but with a twist: That a majority nonwhite "government of the people, for the people, by the people" may be just as valued at home and as instructive to the world as the one that came before it.

And may that one alike, not perish from the Earth.

Saladin M. Ambar is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press) and the forthcoming Malcolm X at Oxford Union (Oxford University Press). He teaches courses in American politics at Lehigh University.