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I’m as exuberant as anybody about Barack Obama winning the election, of course, but I have issues from my standpoint as a genuine progressive. I share Naomi Klein’s doubts about what Obama actually means for social progressivism, and whether or not he will actually bring about the positive changes he says he will. More than that, I think Klein raises a great point in this feature on her in the New Yorker: if Obama fails to deliver, the young voters he galvanized may fall away from public life.

I share the same concern. The starry-eyed idealism of this election is, of course, sort of anomalous, but at the same time, it is possible to preserve some of the good faith with which Obama was elected. The likelihood of his doing so is doubtful, in my opinion At the end of the day, change or no change, Obama still has to navigate the murky waters of Capitol Hill. There’s a common sentiment I’ve heard ever since I first became politically aware: spending any kind of time in the halls of power really screws up your political outlook. While I’d be overjoyed to be proven wrong, I’m worried that our exuberance will crash and burn in two or three years (six or seven, maybe?).

At the same time other things are looking up. There’s been a lot of outcry about the rotten bailout bill. This is, as Klein says, “a progressive moment.” I think we’re standing on the cusp of something — people are tired of being scared into submission, people are tired of being hoodwinked, and people are feeling emboldened by Obama’s victory. If there were ever a time, now is the time to do something, but what?

I think one of the things I respect about Klein is that she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. She just has the answers to the questions she’s asked herself. I think that’s sort of unusual, especially for someone in her line of work. It would be awfully easy to figure out what this world needs and say so from her standpoint, but she doesn’t.

My challenge, though, is: will she ever? I think that she’s established herself as someone who, in large part, knows what she’s talking about and is willing to tell the truth. Yet we cannot be merely critical of a system forever. If this is indeed our progressive moment, we stand a 100% chance of dropping the ball if we do nothing, but significantly better odds of success if we pick it up and carry it down the field. Sure, maybe it’s not Klein’s job to tell us what to do, but for all of those young people out there (myself included) who are enamored of her writing, shouldn’t we be figuring out what to do with ourselves?

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After watching Obama’s brilliant acceptance speech last night, the guests were poised to go home when they  heard a strange rumbling in the distance.  “Come out here,” they said, and we did.  It sounded kind of like what I would imagine a very distant volcanic eruption might sound like.  It was thunderous, and it was coming from the Diag.  This is what it looked like when we got there:

In moments, friends and strangers ran up to us, exchanged hugs and hollers of “yes we can!”  It became a solidarity greeting for the night — in the street we yelled to one another and high fived drivers of cars that couldn’t budge for the people packed onto the roadway.  Drivers honked and cheered.  The sheer energy of the gathering was self-sustaining.  As time passed more people joined the crowd, and even though some broke off to go their separate ways, it seemed that at every turn more knots of people attached themselves to the crowd.

The happy mob, as I have been calling it all day, made its way all over campus.  There were musicians playing and we paused in the Law Quad to sing the national anthem.  (I can’t wait to see everyone’s pictures — if you have some, post a link to your Flickr stream in the comments and I’ll feature my favorites soon.)  I have never seen so many people have so much energy all together, for such a long period of time.  We joined the crowd around 11:30 and headed home at 2:30, and the happy mob was still wandering through the streets, chanting and playing music.

I think I said it to at least a dozen people and two dozen more said it to me: I’ve never in my young life been proud to be an American, but there we were, singing the national anthem at the top of our lungs, arms over each others’ shoulders and getting all misty-eyed about it.

Last night was for celebrating, today is for a sober look at the next four years.  One of the chants I heard, though, was “yes we did.”  I don’t think we can really say “yes we did,” not now.  We may have elected the first black man President of the United States, but what does that really mean?  It’s a huge step for the visibility of race relations in this country, but there are some major hangups I have with saying that we did already, when clearly we have just taken the first step in a long journey.

  • Black people are still black; the oppressed are still the oppressed. Just because an exception to the rule has broken through the proverbial glass ceiling, it doesn’t take away my status as a minority citizen of the United States.  Don’t get me wrong, I think President-Elect Obama is a step in the right direction, and a huge step at that, but we need to keep in perspective that millions of Americans still suffer racial profiling, discrimination, disenfranchisement, oppression, and invisibility due to their minority social identities.
  • Now is not the time to fuck up. Obama is now faced with the horrifying task of unifying this divided country, getting the economy back on the right track, wrapping up wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the same time keep the voters who wavered in his favor this year happy so we can see another four years (at least) of people who aren’t total assholes in the halls of power.  I think it’s fair to say these clinchers are giving the “liberal” side a chance to prove their ability, which is something that is pretty rare in this day and age.
  • Complete the Court while we still can. The U.S. Supreme Court could really use a Sandra Day O’Connor version 2.0.  I’m just saying.
  • Don’t ignore the internet. The internet put the Democrats in power in a big way.  It’s important to show that this digital revolution in political life in this country isn’t just a flash in the pan.  There is huge potential to harness this power — so long as the government can ensure that it is both free and secure — and see to it that the change that Obama is all about is a lasting one.
  • Voter turnout was ridiculous, but we need to streamline the voting process. See my previous post about long lines being the new poll tax.  Again, change is all well and good, but lasting change is what we really want.

That said, I think last night’s victory for the Obama campaign sends a clear message: yes, we can take care of all these problems.  Yes, we can make a unified America that isn’t afraid of half of its citizens, reclaims its respect abroad and doesn’t leave people disenfranchised and screwed over for health care.  And I have my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that we will.

The most dangerous bias is the one we don’t admit we have.  I’m actually amazed that, in the statistics that are cited in Jacob Weisberg’s Slate article about racism as Obama’s major downfall as a presidential candidate, so many people actually admitted that race is a factor in their voting trends.  In my experience with intergroup relations, it’s highly unlikely that anybody will admit to be swayed one way or another about an individual due to perceived social identities, most importantly race and gender.  I think that Weisberg’s assertion that the number of people who are turned off to Obama due to his race is actually higher than the poll counts is probably depressingly accurate.

It was obvious from the start that identity politics would be enormously important in this election, but what bothers me more than the underlying racism behind the GOP’s remarkably solid poll numbers in spite of their clear absolute disadvantage is the fact that there are more things about Obama than just his race that bugs people.  The liberal press has obviously made much of the fact that there are, somewhere, people who seem to believe that Obama is a Muslim.  And those people are bothered by that.  Ageism is a huge factor in this election — Democrats complain about McCain’s obvious age, and Republicans about Obama’s inexperience.

The most peculiar kind of discrimination, though, and perhaps the most dangerous, in my opinion, is the fact that intelligence and social grace seems to be an anathema to the American public.  Why would we choose a presidential candidate who is average, when clearly an individual who is above average is more qualified to make decisions about where our country should be headed?  Much is always made every election year about a candidate’s ability to “connect” to the common person, but “connecting” to Middle America isn’t exactly the same as being Middle America.

I’m a remarkably anti-populist socialist, and that’s probably because as much as I like people, I don’t think most people are any good at making decisions that affect everybody.  Actually, I think most people are pretty ill-equipped to make decisions for themselves.  I, for example, don’t even have a bachelor’s yet, and certainly shouldn’t be trusted with any more than $1000 at a time.  So I’d like to elect a Presidential candidate who is, well, not one of “us.”  (Whoever “us” is, anyway.)

Electoral politics is weird like that.  The average American seems a little skittish about wealth (probably for good reason) and education (for reasons I can’t quite fathom).  We’re more than willing to buy into the mythologies that our political parties build up around our elected officials about their roots as common people who’ve risen above their circumstances.  But as Weisberg notes in his piece for Slate, it’s exactly circumstances that are going to keep Obama in check this election season.

I’m pretty attached to our national mythology, too.  I’d really like to see a country where any individual can do or be whatever interests them the most.  It’s nice to know that people can pursue their passions.  The reality of the matter is, not very many people can.  It troubles me to think that we can’t come to terms with the fact our national mythology is just a mythology, and we have such a hard time accepting that the reason it’s still just out of reach is our inability to overcome our personal biases.  And it’s not just people commonly perceived to be unsophisticated, it’s big-city socialites and young academics, too.

Maybe it’s a bit extreme to say that what the United States needs is a little jolt out of our populist ways, but a reality check about who the “average American” really is would probably do us all a world of good.  I don’t know that I’d want to trust somebody who’s just average with the American Presidency.  I’d really like to see someone exceptional get elected.  But that’s just not the way our highly stratified society’s going to let it happen.

The first step is becoming more transparent about what our biases are.  Can we start having this conversation?  Can we stop being so afraid of naming the things that are holding us back, as a country and as a society?

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