Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Historical Parallels

Many people have already noted the parallels between the election of Barack Obama and the election of John F. Kennedy. To briefly sum up the parallels: both are young (for a president), both had a lot of support from younger voters, both are/were viewed very favorably by the international community upon election, both talked about and advocated change. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president even when people said that an Irish Catholic would never be elected president. Obama is the first black man to be elected president even when people said that a black man would never be elected president. In both cases Kennedy did not let his religion be the defining factor in his campaign, and Obama did not let race be the deciding factor in his. This is to say, in both cases each candidate never tried to fight against or even downplay their biggest respective possible liabilities. These are the standard parallels that the media are observing but let's look at other parallels that the media are definitely overlooking. Let's look at context.

Kennedy: Elected in 1960 (becomes president in 1961). This was 15 years after the end of World War II, and with it the end of the nationalistic era which came from the Age of Empires that had dominated world history for hundreds of years previously. While the Cold War had been building for a while, it was reaching its height and during his presidency would have some of its most dramatic events. It was a time of rapid social change and where a new medium of communication (TV) played an integral part in the election.

Obama: Elected in 2008 (becomes president in 2009). This was 18 years (17-19 depending on who you ask) after the end of the Cold War, which was created in the aftermath of WWII. The War on Terror had been going on for sometime and had already had a number of dramatic events. But like Kennedy in the Cold War, Obama is also at a key turning point. Obama was also elected in a time of rapid social change and a new medium of communication (The Internet) played an integral part in the election.

So with these parallels and with the assumption that history repeats itself, let's try to see what may be in store for us and for Obama. After JFK was elected the Cold War lasted another 30 years. Because the War on Terror and religious extremism is unlikely to go away anytime soon we can probably expect it to last another 20-30 years, in some form or another, and at the end there will be a drastic change in the world much like the one at the end of the Cold War or WWII. It is possible that the next few years could see similar social upheaval to that was seen in the 1960's.

So now that we have seen the parallels let us consider the key differences that Obama faces. The country and the world is on the verge of a global depression on the scale of the Great Depression. The United States is at the end of a long war in Iraq (hopefully) as opposed to the beginning of a long war in Vietnam. Kennedy was elected president in a bi-polar world dominated by two superpowers. Obama was elected in a time when the world was shifting from a uni-polar world to a multi-polar world, dominated by several different powers. So there are many key differences that differentiate the era in which Kennedy became president from the era in which Obama will be president.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Hopefully there will be some more differences (or less) and hopefully something will be done to shorten the time until the next world changing event. In any event we will watch and do our best.

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