I write this blog only a few minutes after listening to Barack Obama’s victory speech. It is an emotional moment…We were moved to tears. We called several friends…everyone is in tears, particularly our African-American friends. The election of an African-American less than a century and a half since the end of slavery, and less than fifty years after the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, marks an historic shift that can only be good for this country and the world.
We had been hosting a friend from California, who worked for two weeks with the Obama campaign. She and her friends and colleagues were successful. It appears that Obama carried the state of Nevada by over twenty percentage points. I even worked on his campaign for one day myself…More on that in a minute. First, I want to go back in time and review why this election feels so historic.
The past eight years have been so disheartening…the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic melt-down, the erosion of constitutional rights, the concentration of power in the hands of a secretive president, the de-valuing of science, the unwillingness to confront global warming as an issue, the absence of any leadership to develop new sources of energy, the tax breaks to oil companies already reaping record profits, the cronyism of no-bid contracts to companies that profit from America’s wars, the unwillingness to give equal rights to gays, the lack of civil dialogue among the political factions…this is just part of the disgraceful legacy of George W. Bush.
While I truly respect the sacrifice of Sen. McCain during the Vietnam War, the country is blessed to be spared a McCain presidency. Senator McCain still believes that the US could have won the Vietnam War if we had simply fought longer and harder. He proposed to continue the Iraq War under the same belief. The essence of his campaign message was that he had fought valiantly before and would continue to fight all America’s enemies with the same single-mindedness. In the process of delivering this message, he was not able to separate himself from George W. Bush. McCain gave up the qualities that had distinguished him previously when he tailored his appeal to the most conservative wing of the Republican party, culminating in the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. As their campaign lost ground, all McCain and Palin could do was to try to instill fear of Obama. They had no positive vision to offer, only their efforts to tear down Obama by assailing his lack of experience and to associate him with terrorists. They failed, thank goodness.
At long last, the younger generation has taken charge. Obama was elected by the young and people of color. The sense of the possibility of real change is palpable. This election proves that democracy still works. The old guard has been replaced by new blood. It is ironic that Palin mocked Obama for being a community organizer. That is exactly the part of Obama’s background that led him to run such a successful campaign, first against many worthy Democratic opponents, not least among them, Hilary Clinton, and finally against the entrenched Republican administration. McCain, in my opinion, was the best of the Republican candidates. McCain’s Republican rivals would have been even worse for American society. Some of them wanted to govern American according to their personal Christian beliefs. Somehow, the constitution wasn’t sufficient for them. Bush’s efforts to politicize the judiciary against abortion rights is the prime example of this mindset. By the end of his campaign, McCain tried to win by pandering to this dwindling component of an ever-more-diverse American society. He failed, thank goodness.
Obama’s campaign, by contrast, was an amazing “bottom-up” movement. His campaign was financed by the small donations of millions of citizens, as opposed to the larger personal and corporate donations that sustained McCain. I was impressed by the local organization that I encountered on the one day that I volunteered my time to go door to door canvassing for Obama. The local Obama organization had the city of Reno well divided into zones, with lists of the addresses of all registered voters and whether they had already voted or not. Our goal was to re-enforce supporters of Obama and to persuade undecided voters. We were directed not to call on Republicans at all. I was very impressed by the many people from other states who volunteered to come to Nevada and work for the Obama campaign. There were even a couple of Danish political science students who flew into Reno all the way from Europe just to experience the campaign. (When they heard that Obama would speak in Las Vegas just before Election Day, they rented a car and drove all night in order to hear his speech the next morning.)
I felt a little like a Jehovah’s Witness must feel…knocking on doors with a message to deliver. I felt badly when we obviously woke up someone. We encountered a few weirdos, such as one guy who was afraid that Obama would take away his guns. Another person didn’t like either candidate because neither of them had taken a tough enough stance against illegal immigrants for her satisfaction. We even knocked on the doors of a couple of McCain supporters. (The Obama campaign’s lists were obviously not perfect.) But these McCain supporters were as pleasant as one could hope. This is in contrast to an episode that occurred with my California canvassers, in which guys in a big pick-up truck followed them and attempted to interfere in their canvassing. Only when my friends threatened to call the police did the intimidators back off.
I am very fortunate that my life is going well enough that I have the time, energy, and resources to become involved, however minimally, in this political campaign. (Susan and I did, however, make multiple financial contributions to Obama and other qcandidates and causes.) Some of the neighborhoods I visited (together with my friend, Doug) on behalf of the campaign were the poorer neighborhoods. We called on two neighborhoods consisting of mobile homes (permanently mounted). The people who live in these neighborhoods are definitely working class, generally not at all as informed, motivated, or involved in the campaign as I and my friends were. They have other, more immediate concerns in life. [I read in the newspaper than in the poor neighborhood very close to our office, two young men were murdered in gang conflicts. This is too close for comfort. There’s an underclass of working class immigrants who live in an alternative world from mine.]
It is not enough to simply describe the events and circumstances surrounding this special day. For this blog and for my personal future reflection, I want to attempt to describe the deep emotions of this moment.
Along with many others in my “baby boomer” generation, I came of age in the late 1960’s. This period of history witnessed the civil rights movement, the assassination of ML King and Bobbie Kennedy, the worsening of the Vietnam War, and the burgeoning dreams of the “hippie generation” with which I eventually identified. In 1969, I enrolled at the university in Germany, followed by travels to Sweden, Afghanistan, and India. These years were very formative for me. I experienced the 1972 election while in Sweden. Every single person I knew there was for McGovern, so I was shocked when he lost to Nixon. I experienced the Vietnam War from the Swedish perspective as well. Sweden accepts more political refugees than any other country in the world. I became friends with an American Vietnam War deserter, who left the states in 1971 and has never returned. All of these experiences helped shape my current political beliefs and attitudes.
I think that many “children of the sixties”, such as myself, have lived with a sense of disappointment in the eighties and nineties, at the loss of idealism under the politics of Reaganism, the undermining of effective government, and the rise of intolerant religious fundamentalism. Time and again, election after election, the worst aspects of American society were pandered to. Racism, gay phobia, fear of immigrants, anti-communism, fear of socialism, all these themes were used to attack the more liberal candidates. The more liberal candidates were demonized as being spineless spendthrifts who would destroy our economy. (Isn’t that what Bush’s friends just did?) But this time, for the first time, it didn’t work against Obama. They failed, thank goodness. Idealism and hope triumphed over fears.
My greatest hope is that President Obama will cause a revival of America’s pride and leadership in the world in the cause of democracy without going to war. My greatest fear is that Obama will be assassinated, as Kennedy was, which would prevent, perhaps forever, the healing that our society so desperately needs. And so, I experience Obama’s presidential victory as proof that great progress has been made in racial equality. I am more hopeful than I have been in years, that the Obama presidency will cause positive changes in American society, for example in confronting our healthcare crisis, in developing alternative sources of energy, in preserving the rights to personal freedom and privacy (as expressed in gay rights and reproductive freedom, including the right to chose abortion). It is gratifying to know that many other people share this growing sense of hope and idealism that Obama’s eloquence embodies. I pray that it is a positive turning point, a consciousness shift that will resonate around the world. Congratulations to President Obama and to us all.