Mark Steel: It's not about great men, but those who put them there

Millions now believe that their actions can change the world

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The most common view of history is that it's created by the personalities of a handful of important figures. So world events can be explained by the fact that Churchill was strong, or Henry VIII wanted a divorce, or Napoleon had a complex about being short; as if an era of revolution and war was a result of him stretching in his kitchen, grumbling: "I can't reach the top shelf. I know, I'll invade Italy, that'll sort that out."

Or that the English Civil War happened because Charles I was weak, and Parliament would have been put in its rightful place if only he'd called on Supernanny, who would quickly have taught him to set Oliver Cromwell firm boundaries, and issue punishments he was prepared to follow through, such as sitting the New Model Army on the naughty step.

One of the flaws in this approach is that it can't explain how the same leaders can appear strong, but then suddenly seem pathetically weak. For example, four years ago the commanders of the Project for the New American Century seemed invincible. They'd had their invasion, won a second election and it felt as if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were sat on a settee flicking through travel brochures, trying to decide where to obliterate next, with Wolfowitz peering over Bush's shoulder to say: "Iran looks nice," while Richard Perle would add: "Then if all goes well we can have an extra short-break family weekend bombing Syria."

Now they're all discredited and disgraced, to the extent that the next time we see Donald Rumsfeld he'll probably be making his comeback on Celebrity Big Brother playing blind man's buff with Kerry Katona. George Bush will be presenting a late night phone-in quiz show on ITV, and Dick Cheney will commit suicide after discovering no one picked him out as the ex-Vice-President in the line-up on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

But this transformation, culminating in the election of a President who made a virtue out of not supporting the war, can't just be due to a sudden collapse in self-esteem among the warmongers. Maybe it's a result of an entirely different atmosphere, created by millions of tiny invaluable actions by countless people.

From mass marches to letters in local papers, poetry nights against the war to statements from soldiers and their relatives, a feeling has been created globally that means anyone associated with the war in Iraq has been damaged beyond repair.

But for those who are old enough to remember the civil rights movement, Barack Obama's election must be even more extraordinary. Malcolm X wrote that one of the moments that shaped him was when he told his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, and was told he was being ridiculous because: "No nigger can become a lawyer." If he was still around he'd probably regret not saying: "Alright then, I'll have to take my second choice and become President."

Just as it seemed at times that the anti-war protests were having no effect, there must have been times in the Sixties when to imagine there would ever be an end to segregation seemed hopelessly utopian. But it happened, not just because of a strong or charismatic leader, but because millions of people, with tiny and apparently futile actions, defied that logic.

Maybe that's why, in a reversal of most American elections, the poorer and blacker that people were, the more enthusiasm they crackled with as they queued to vote. Those who see history as conducted by a handful of the powerful are obsessed now with the actions of Obama himself. But just as important is the excitement and vigour created by the millions who now believe, at least a little bit, that their actions can change the world.

For the final battle in the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln insisted the slave-dealing town of Charleston was occupied by a black regiment. Lincoln marched alongside the black soldiers, and it was reported that a freed slave knelt before him to give his thanks, to which Lincoln replied: "No. You must stand up. Your days of kneeling are over."

Similarly, it's the actions of those who are usually denied a place in history that have made this week possible, and they should recognise their potential, whatever sort of President Obama turns out to be.

ASSUMING McCAIN HAS WON...

Right. Who's got the telephone number for the President of North Korea? We've got to persuade him to nuke the place.

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