Seldom noted in the election excitement about firsts is that President-Elect Obama will be our first president with a community organizer background. We have finally elected a Democrat who is also a democrat!
I have been a progressive idealist my whole adult life. I have voted on hope for the empowerment of workers, civil rights for all, expanded voices for all citizens, diplomacy instead of war, internationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and go ahead and raise my taxes for our schools, for health care for all, to end poverty, to re-build our communities. In my work and in my limited activism, and as a parent, I have tried to be a voice for such hopes.
Up until now, in my 24 years of voting, only one candidate whose victory was due in part to my one vote truly inspired me, time and again: Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota senator whose life was tragically cut short, along with his compassionate and active wife Sheila. There went much of my hope for our elected leadership, even as I stayed in the trenches of teaching, working on behalf of critical thinking, exposing the power that seemed always to concede nothing, as Frederick Douglass famously said.
In 2004, I talked often, and with restrained hope, with my then 12 year old eldest child, Allie, about how things could change if John Kerry were elected. All the way to school each day, we looked nervously at yard signs, and talked and talked. And Sylvia, then just 8, bravely wore a t-shirt to school (her idea, not mine) asking adults to please choose more carefully in this year’s election: “I care about clean air and water, good jobs, good schools…but I can’t vote to protect them.”
Then George W. Bush was elected, again, or more accurately, for the first time, and the girls and I seemed to run out of things to talk about on our way to school. The first day of the election news, I couldn’t even eat, I was so depressed. I continued for years afterwards to try to avoid the news. I saw power, lies, and fear all hopelessly intertwined.
And then, along came someone who built a political campaign from the bottom up, who talked in every speech about the shoulders he stood on, about the workers who risked their lives for the right to a voice in the workplace, the activists who risked their lives for racial justice, the women who risked their lives to vote, and the women who taught him what he needed to know in life through their own sacrifices. Here was someone who believed that citizenship was ours to claim, who talked truthfully about race, and who brought out our best selves.
Despite what now seems a brief struggle over whether to support Obama or Clinton, the democrat with a small “d” in me won out over my compelling interest in supporting a woman. My gut told me that it was Barack Obama who would change our politics, if anyone could.
And so, in the last few months, my family and the nation have come into a time of firsts. Here are a few of ours:
· First time I canvassed and made phone calls for a candidate.
· First time I held a bake sale for a candidate
· First time I felt happy, inspired, and hopeful, every time I saw that candidate’s face on TV.
· First time I became an obsessive poll checker
· First time my older daughter became a political activist, making phone calls for two months, and canvassing too.
· First time my 12 year old tried her hand at political activism,
· First time I wore a political button everywhere: “Yes we can”
· First time my parents and I got involved in the same political cause (and the first ever political activism for them)
· First time I helped people vote: my mother-in-law and I took senior citizens to the polls this past election day.
· First time I ran through the house screaming for joy: when I saw McCain come out to deliver a concession speech I knew was the real thing, and we had done it!
· First time since the 1990s (and back then it was just an assumption) that our electoral system could work fairly
· First time we had a party with 55 people, to celebrate the Obama victory
· First time I didn’t feel deeply ambivalent about red-white-and-blue decorations at my home: my mother-in-law’s red white and blue balloon, to mark our driveway for party guests.
· First time in my adult life I felt the magnitude of hope triumphing over fear through the results of an election.
I’m a historian. I know that fear will triumph over hope again in some future election. But for now, my children will grow up knowing a new face of leadership and authority. They know already, especially the girls, what it feels like to be part of a larger, transformative movement, to be politically active and see great results.
If we are lucky enough to have Obama for two terms, children born today or within the past few years won’t know for quite a while that most Presidents were white, and had mundane names like Harrison, Taylor, Hoover, or Bush.
As for us adults, the many I know who have trained ourselves in cynicism, who have lamented again and again the way the particular power dynamics of race seem to change so little, who believe the last two elections were stolen, and that American democracy has been a sham, for us there needs to be a paradigm shift, a new openness to possibility. I welcome that, and I love to think about what the generations can teach one another.
My mother-in-law is remembering Kennedy. My white father from Chicago’s south side is ecstatic over the election of this African-American president. My children are dreaming of brighter futures. My curmudgeonly political self is coming alive with pride in the people who made this victory possible, and in a political system that still has some life in it, still has some gifts to give, hopefully for generations to come.