Jay McInerney: We New Yorkers have others to thank

A new coalition has emerged. Middle-class white voters are back in the Democratic fold

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The last time a stranger hugged me on the street was September 11, 2001. This time, the stranger was grinning rather than crying. "Can you believe it," she said. "I was afraid when I woke up this morning I'd discover it was a dream." It was 8.30 yesterday morning and we encountered each other at a news-stand. We were both trying to find the New York Times. Almost every newsstand and deli here in Greenwich Village had been cleaned out. The last time I'd had such a hard time finding a copy of the Times was September 12, 2001.

In many ways, this moment feels like the obverse of that terrible morning after. And it feels like some sort of vindication for those of us who feel that our country lost its bearings not long after that.

In 25 years I have never seen the kind of mass celebration that broke out on the streets of New York on Tuesday night. For hours after Obama's victory was announced the streets were ringing with cheers and seething with revellers. Thousands gathered in Harlem at the intersection of Adam Clayton Boulevard and 25th street; thousands more in Times Square to watch the results on a four storey-high screen on an unseasonably balmy night.

Here in the Village, New York University students carried the celebration well into the morning; long after I turned off my light at 2.30 I could hear the shouting and whooping and the firecrackers on the street 13 storeys beneath my windows. You might have imagined that the Yankees had won the World Series – but I've lived through four or five of Yankee World Series victories and this celebration was far more general, and exuberant.

After eight long dark years, we feel that history is with us again, and that America is with us again. There was never any question about how New York would vote. John McCain himself identified his enemies in an interview with Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC, last week.

Sitting beside Sarah Palin, flashing an oddly maniacal smile, he said that New York and Washington DC were the headquarters of the elitists, and clearly he imagined that the rest of the country would nod their heads and sneer. McCain the alleged maverick imagined that the George Bush/Karl Rove politics of dividing to conquer would carry him to the White House.

Demonising New Yorkers, gays, immigrants, Hollywood and even war heroes has served the Republicans well in the recent past. After the primaries McCain hired many of the old Bush/ Rove apparatchiks, some of the very same people who had helped to smear him with rumours about his war service and his love life in his 2000 primary campaign against George Bush and who had later connived in the infamous Swiftboating of John Kerry in 2004.

Ever since Ronald Reagan developed his Southern strategy, which relied in part on appealing to the racial anxieties of white Southerners, the Republicans have become increasingly adept at convincing working-class Americans to vote against their economic self-interest by exploiting hot-button cultural issues like abortion, gun control and gay marriage.

Four years ago, I found myself talking to one of Bush's southern state campaign chairmen, a wealthy businessman, on a fishing trip. "I don't give a shit about abortion or gay marriage," he said, "but for 10 per cent of the electorate those are the most important issues. So you give them the morality issues, bash the fags and the godless liberals and wetbacks, and laugh all the way to the bank."

This strategy worked pretty well until recently, and clearly John McCain thought it would work again. Barack Obama won the primaries by preaching a new politics of inclusion and tolerance, by appealing, as he said repeatedly, to our better angels – to our hopes rather than our fears.

What wasn't entirely clear until Tuesday night was that he had succeeded in creating a new coalition, and winning middle-class white voters back to the Democratic fold. Republicans tried to paint him as a radical, but the voters ultimately responded to his vision of a new centrist, post-partisan era.

While we were celebrating here in New York, we should have raised our glasses to the voters in Virginia and Florida and Ohio because they were the ones who decided to change course, and who decided the election. We should feel very glad to have them back. After all, a liberal elite can't run a democracy by itself. Perhaps they were responding as much to the frightening meltdown of the economy as they were to anything else; at any rate the Democrats in Washington would do well to treat them better than the Republicans did during their ascendancy.

On Tuesday night around midnight I received a call from my friend Jim, who was notorious for his cynicism. Jim had worked on Robert Kennedy's campaign 40 years ago but he had lost his faith in the wake of the tragic end of that campaign and the not-with-a-bang but with-a-whimper end of the idealism of that era.

We got into a fight four years ago at a restaurant, in the midst of John Kerry's campaign, when he said that it really didn't matter who won because both parties were the same. A third friend at the table ended up storming out of the restaurant and didn't speak to Jim for more than a year. Last night when he called he was positively giddy. "Maybe I was wrong about Kerry," he said. "But this is different. This is something entirely new. My generation blew it. We couldn't close the deal. But this feels like a new beginning. I feel happy for my kids, for the first time I feel hopeful for their future."

Like nervous laughter, the cheers and victory cries mask a deep sense of anxiety about our future. The prosperity of the past two decades seems to be coming to an end and peace is even more elusive. It's hard to believe that any mortal can lead us out of the dark woods in which we find ourselves. But Barack Obama seems like our best possible hope, and for the moment we are willing to believe.

Jay McInerney's novels include 'Bright Lights, Big City' and, most recently, 'The Good Life', published by Bloomsbury

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