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Amen to This Election

If you are one of the many millions of Americans eligible to vote before Election Day — and this year that amounts to about one-third the electorate — the long, contentious presidential campaign of 2008 may have already come to a close.

For the rest of us, the end is near.

Who will miss the incessant advertising, the scratchy robo-calls and up-to-the-minute polls, or the constant chatter on cable TV? If you expressed even minor interest in a candidate this election season, your e-mail inbox was never empty. Americans have been on election overload, with a campaign that technically began nearly two years ago, but really had its start the day after the term-limited George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.

Someday, maybe Americans will take a page from other countries and institute shortened campaigns that would keep the candidates and their arguments fresh and would reduce the need to raise, oh, gazillions of dollars for years worth of advertising and organizing. But unless or until such sense prevails, we are stuck with the system we have.

And for that, this year we should count some blessings. For all the ways political campaigns can bring forth the worst in human nature, they also can elevate the best. The 2008 campaign reached and surpassed important milestones while challenging assumptions and changing the way citizens view each other. It will be hard to go back now.

After Hillary Rodham Clinton came thisclose to becoming the first woman to capture the presidential nomination of a major political party, there will be fewer questions about whether a female leader is capable of generating votes and support, or of appearing tough enough to command the military.

After Sarah Palin became the first woman on the Republican national party ticket, there will be fewer questions about whether the more traditional men who have been the backbone of the GOP have put aside gender biases. “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us,” Larry Hawkins, a former truck driver, told The New York Times at a Palin rally.

And, no matter what the outcome on November 4, the significance of Barack Obama’s nomination is undeniable. Less than a half-century after legislation was needed to ensure that black Americans could vote and work and live as freely as white Americans, the ascension of an African American to steps away from the White House is a potent symbol of inclusiveness and opportunity.

These breakthroughs are important not to satisfy a gooey notion of American diversity or identity politics. At a time when the nation is starved for inspired leadership, it can’t afford to limit the pool of candidates to those only of a certain race, gender or religious affiliation. There should be no inherent benefit to a black, female or, for that matter, a Jewish candidate, but neither should there be any reason to restrain voters from choosing whom they believe is the very best person for these impossibly difficult jobs.

Breaking down these barriers inevitably will lead us to question other attitudes and policies shaped by race and gender. (For instance: With Sarah Palin and Barack Obama on national tickets, is affirmative action necessary?) But we will also have to guard against backsliding. American history is rife with examples of granting freedoms and then taking them away. Women could vote in local elections in New Jersey — until 1807, that is. Remember also that even after the Constitution was amended to free slaves, it took another hundred years to outlaw official segregation.

But now is not the time for caveats. Now is the time for a moment’s celebration. The debates are over. The tattered lawn signs will retire to their final resting place. The robo-calls will, let us hope, cease.

The election was long, contentious, messy, sometimes ugly and occasionally enlightening — and it made history. If voting is the central ritual of American civic life, perhaps it’s time for us all to say, Amen.

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