The American idea is in danger.
The vision of limited government and unlimited opportunity that the United States cherished long after other nations succumbed to the false temptations of socialism is hours away from execution. It is being killed by a vain radicalism that lost the political and ideological battles of the Cold War but has returned in the guise of pragmatism and the personality cult of Barack Obama.
Obama has enthralled many, myself among them, in his short time on the national stage. His gift is to appear all things to all people while avoiding blame for broken promises, lies and contradictions. He is hailed as a leader, yet even his most devoted supporters have trouble naming a single thing he has achieved. He is described as a unifier, yet he has the most extreme left-wing voting record in the U.S. Senate.
He has the kinds of associations Jacob Zuma would envy: a wealthy criminal who helped him buy his house and bankrolled his early political career; self-professed terrorists and anarchists who hosted one of his first political meetings; advisers who extol the virtues of corruption in government, calling it "a well-oiled machine." Any one of these flaws would have sunk any other presidential candidate. Not Obama.
His campaign has indulged in thuggery worthy of third-world autocracies. In amassing a $600 million war chest, Obama has accepted donations from stolen and untraceable credit cards. He paid nearly $1 million to a group that has been caught filing fraudulent voter registrations across the country. Those who dare to question him in public have had details of their private lives brazenly exposed in the media.
And yet Obama is about to become the most powerful man in the world. Most polls suggest he has built a convincing lead over his rival, John McCain, though they disagree on the margin. In order to believe that McCain can still win, it is necessary to believe nearly every poll has miscalculated likely voter turnout, or that potential McCain supporters have stopped telling pollsters the truth about their choice.
The media has inflamed worries about a so-called "Bradley effect"-wherein white voters, afraid of openly opposing a black candidate, hide their true intentions. But if race has played any role in this campaign, it has helped Obama. It has lent his campaign historic importance, and in so doing it has insulated him from criticism. Even comedians are reluctant to joke about him; their audiences are afraid to laugh.
I was once taken in by Obama. I voted for him as my Senator. I even offered to work for his campaign, in its early stages. Like many others, I saw Obama's intelligence and cool demeanour as a sign of ideological openness. I composed a speech I thought he should give, in which I imagined him committing to fiscal responsibility and free trade. I saw him as a potential centrist, in the mould of president Bill Clinton.
How wrong I was. Most presidential campaigns start at the political extremes and move to the middle. But Obama's campaign has moved further and further left. His trick has been to sell wealth redistribution and government expansion as a "middle-class tax cut." Never mind that some poor families will pay higher effective marginal tax rates under Obama than the rich do today. The gimmick worked.
America's intellectual and financial elites, suffering a crisis of confidence, have thrown their support to the man whose policies aim to destroy them. I asked one distinguished professor to explain why he thought Obama was more qualified than McCain's deputy, Governor Sarah Palin. "He seems to have heard of the issues," he replied, though he had to admit that he disagrees with Obama on said "issues."
Wishful thinking and self-deception are the order of the day. The only Americans who seem to have kept their wits are the ordinary men and women who pay taxes, run small businesses and dream of a better life. It was one such-"Joe the Plumber" of Ohio-who asked Obama about his tax policy, eliciting the now-infamous response: "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
The America that Obama offers will no longer be the world's great exception or its exemplar of freedom. It will be the "European social democracy" that Obama once praised in a speech to the Democratic Socialists of America. It will be a land of high taxes and expanding bureaucracy, a land where opportunities are determined by access to power, a land where the press is cowed before the cult it has cultivated.
Whatever opposition remains to this vision will be very difficult to muster after Obama's victory. The Democrats are poised to win the executive and sweep the legislature. All that stands in their way are the millions of Joes who have not lost faith in the American dream, despite the failures of the Bush presidency. They are fighting for a cause greater than McCain. If they show up to vote, all is not lost.
*The writer is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, and the author of "The Kasrils Affair: Jews and Minority Politics in South Africa." He is a McCain campaign volunteer.