[Outlook]America steps into the future

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[Outlook]America steps into the future

As autumn slowly becomes winter, the world’s biggest concern is the United States. The U.S.-sparked financial crisis has had an enormous impact on the world economy and the U.S. presidential election has held our collective attention. In both economics and politics, this is still the American century, whether the country’s influence is positive or negative.

People of the United States, dubbed “an exceptional country” by Alexis de Tocqueville, will find out today who their new president is. And, along the lines of de Tocqueville’s words, that person may be an African-American, for the first time ever.

Considering the social status of blacks within U.S. society, if Barack Obama is elected, the result will certainly be a historic event.

It would not be fair to judge all the world’s societies based on one seemingly superficial criterion. But looking at the status of Turks in Germany and of Algerians in France, the world is awed once again by the flexibility the United States can sometimes display.

Even if Obama is elected, the issue of racial discrimination in the country will not be resolved all at once. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out two days ago, Obama’s story reveals the current state of the long journey toward ending racial discrimination, a dream American society can never give up on. As Rich emphasized, the Obama story is certainly a step forward in history.

The country is marked by a history of slavery, its original sin, and now it is about to make a new beginning by integrating all people of different ethnic backgrounds.

But it is not only in the racial arena that the country is about to make a new start. American society is entering a new era.

A major question of this presidential election was which direction the country will take after the 1932-1968 era of liberalism and the era of neoconservatism from 1980 to 2008.

As both periods experienced financial crises, it isn’t easy to predict what course the nation will take once the dust has settled. The discussion is still ongoing among supporters of the Democratic Party in the intellectual community.

For instance, Joseph E. Stiglitz emphasizes criticism of neoliberalism, while his fellow Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Krugman, has a relatively moderate viewpoint.

What’s certain is that social polarization, the shadow of neoliberalism, is the biggest burden that American society is facing. Looking back over the 20th century, in the 1930s, 50 percent of the country’s population controlled the nation’s wealth. In the 1960s that number had shrunk to 30 percent. Now, only 10 percent of the entire population controls the wealth of the nation.

It may be too early to announce the end of neoliberalism within U.S. society, but it is certain that the neoliberalism based on financial capital and a bubble economy is standing at a fork in the road.

Renewal and change have been primary themes of the Barack Obama campaign. The Democratic presidential candidate has promised to refresh the U.S. leadership, local communities and democracy as a whole, while re-establishing faith in the American dream.

Goals of his reform-based policies include reviving the economy, rescuing the middle class, investing in the country’s competitiveness and drawing a new economic policy that includes a restoration of fairness in taxation.

Of course, the election may produce an unexpected result. But even if Republican John McCain is able to pull off an unprecedented upset, Obama’s battle would nonetheless remain untarnished.

Through this presidential election, the U.S. will leave the span of the 20th century, which saw such epic events as two World Wars and the era of neoconservatism, and enter the 21st century in the truest sense. In his nomination acceptance speech in Denver, Colorado, in August, Obama pointed out that U.S. is striding into a new era.

Looking at the U.S. presidential election makes us pause to think about our own society and the journey it has gone through. Years ago, former President Roh Moo-hyun confessed that he was not the first person in a new era, but the last of the old one.

Anticipating a new dawn, the biggest majority ever voted for the Lee Myung-bak administration in December’s presidential election.

But the question remains: Is the Lee administration leaving the era of democratization and opening the door to a new period of advancement? Nearly a year has passed since the presidential election, but our society still seems to be wandering aimlessly at the fringes of the old era. I hope that the Lee administration will do better and carry out the reforms that the people elected it to perform.

*The writer is a sociology professor at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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