A Day of Hope
Right after uploading this post, I will exercise my right to vote for the first time in a national American election. Did I realize, when I started down the process of becoming a naturalized citizen some two and a half years ago, that I would be participating in what is surely one of the most thrilling moments in American history? Perhaps, somewhere in my subconscious, I did. Maybe I was just hopeful. Regardless, I wanted to have a vote given how many years I’ve been paying taxes here. Yet I could not possibly have contemplated, back when I started filling out those Government forms, that I would be as excited about casting my vote for a President as I am today, Tuesday November 4, 2008.
So much has been written about this election that, as I sit down to share some thoughts. I wonder what there is left to say. So let me start by stating, for the record, what I believe, based on every single opinion poll conducted in the last month, is a fair assumption: That within 24 hours from now, Barack Obama will be declared the next President of the United States. And then let me look ahead, to the two lessons we can all learn from his campaign, lessons that I hope will be taught not just in American Government classes, but in democracies all over the world.
Lesson number 1: People want positivity.
For the last two years, Barack Obama has remained resolutely focused on his own message, one of optimism, hope and change, one of greater social responsibility, of greater inclusiveness, of greater love for our fellow man (and woman). Through a bruising Primary season when he came up against the powerful machine of Hillary Clinton, and on through the distortions and bitterness of the McCain-Palin campaign, he has refused to be sidetracked from his message, refused to retaliate to the vicious and unjustified attacks on his name, refused to resort to the kind of anger and bitterness and petty accusations that typically mark “politics as usual.” We have all witnessed, in the debates if not in person, what seems to be his almost zen-like inner calm, and enough of us like what we see in that that we will favor him over the angry old man. What Obama has been able to demonstrate, for the first time in my living memory (both in the UK and the USA) is that the general public, the people who vote, pay taxes, we who put these people in power, don’t want the mud-slinging and negativity and endless attack ads and robo-calls of traditional electioneering. We want to hear plans, we want solutions, we want answers, we want a leader who speaks in positive terms, who understands us, who doesn’t patronize us, who doesn’t try and gain power by setting us off against each other, and who has sufficient character to take our collective energy to the bank. Barack Obama has proven that it’s possible to be that man and to become President. Let’s hope that every politician from here to Kingdom Come follows his example.
Lesson number 2: Reach out across the divide.
From the beginning of his campaign – by which I mean from the moment he decided to run, over two years ago – Barack Obama understood that a Democrat could not hope to win back the White House by relying on the traditional American political map, the one which breaks Democrat on the coasts and in the major industrial areas of the north, and which stays resolutely Republican in the South and across the plains. (A necessary reminder that the Presidency is decided by the number of electoral college votes, 538 in all, split approximately according to the size and population of each State, and that 48 of the 50 States, I believe, are delivered in a winner-takes-all block. Study this map to see how the States were predicted to fall as of Tuesday morning.) Both Al Gore and John Kerry tried to win the White House by relying on that map, and it meant that everything came down to one or two States: Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004. Those of us who believe those States were “stolen” – but also that Gore and Kerry were each ineffectual campaigners and did not do enough to win enough votes so that those States could not be “stolen” – have been thrilled to see Obama reach out across the typical political divide and spend time, from day one, in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada. There is every chance that every one of those States will tip to Obama today, and if they do, it will serve to break, again, with the traditional rules of American politics. It will show that people who are assumed to lean one way politically can be persuaded, by personal contact and strategic commitment, to lean the other way instead.
Without these two important lessons, the other moral we hope to take away from this election would not be relevant. By that, of course, I mean the issue of race. You can’t place too much importance on Obama being non-white, and yet you can get sidetracked by it, forall discussions of his color come back to his character. People who thought America might not be ready for a black President, I believe, only thought that way because, until now, they hadn’t seen a candidate they thought could rise to the challenge. But now, and referring her to lesson one up above, by seeing Obama staying on message, remaining positive, refusing to take the low road, many have been able to look beyond his color to view him simply as the best candidate. And as regards lesson two up above, those people in what are now considered “battleground States” have hopefully, from seeing Obama at the local diner or Veterans Hall, not just shaking hands but engaging in political conversation, been swayed from whatever fears about him (racial or otherwise) would have lingered had Obama “abandoned” those communities to the Republicans as Gore and Kerry did. Obama is not leading in the polls because he is a black man, nor will he lose in the election for that reason either; he will, I pray, win the Presidency because he is an extraordinary man who has proven himself an extra-extraordinary political strategist.
But that is not to underplay Obama’s appeal to America’s minorities – which, the right wing seem to have forgotten, are so numerous that in many places, they are already the majority. I don’t blame the poorer African-Americans from sitting out Presidential elections in recent years; I can fully understand why they feel totally disenfranchised from the political process and have lost all faith in national leaders. It is so satisfying to see these people engaged in this year’s election campaign (for further reading, try this), believing that they finally have someone not just worth voting for, but worth believing in. It’s equally satisfactory to see so many young people, regardless of color, excited about voting. Youth, in this case, is not defined by age: George W. Bush was a relatively young man when he ran in the year 2000; John Kerry was not necessarily old when he ran four years ago. But neither candidate ever resonated with young people the way Barack Obama has managed to do. Neither of those men ever showed that they would turn the tide of American politics, bring us forward into a truly 21st Century world, perhaps even enable to America to once again lead that world, by example and hopefully not by force. Barack Obama has shown that he can do that and, to those in the media who have focused far too heavily on the issue of his color, let me just say the following: if there are, truly, any white voters that would normally have voted for a Democrat Presidential candidate and yet can’t bring themselves to do so because of racial prejudice, there are enough newly registered or re-energized minority and young voters to take their place several times over.
Sadly, as much as Obama has run a uniquely positive campaign, the Republicans have run a typically negative one. They have resorted to the worst kind of fear-mongering, much of it cloaked in racism, religious prejudices and absolute and total lies. Perhaps we should have expected nothing less. But it’s not something I want to go into right now, any more than, at this very moment, I want to contemplate Obama’s imperfections, or the problems he will face when he takes office, or the very real possibility of Sarah Palin running for President in 2012. I want to stay positive, and today is the day. I have to go vote, it may take a while, I have work to do for the rest of the day and, like many people I know, I will probably be up all night following the results, trusting that while some polls can be wrong some of the time, not every single opinion poll can be wrong all of the time.
Apart from voting for Barack Obama, I will also have the opportunity to vote for a host of local candidates, including our excellent Congressman Maurice Hinchey, one of the few who dared vote against the Federal Bail-Out a few weeks ago, for our State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who has sponsored legislation that would redress the appalling manner in which property taxes fund our local schools, and also for two new positions created by a re-organization of Ulster County. I don’t know Mike Hein, who is the Democrat running for the position of County Executive and who will likely get my vote despite some reservations; I had the pleasure of meeting Elliott Auerbach a few weeks ago, and he is welcome to my vote as County Comptroller, a decidedly unglamorous job but one that will hopefully ensures our County never again wastes tens of millions of dollars building a jail. As I learned from our School Board election earlier this year, the result of which, literally, saved the Phoenicia Elementary School from unwarranted and unwanted closure, all politics is local. And yet the election of Barack Obama will be truly global. I sign off in hope.