I have a weird quirk to my personality, where I believe in failure, but have a hard time believing in success. Failure is always real — knife-in-the-gut real. But success? Surreal. Kind of distant and fuzzy, like it’s a dream I’m having and I’m going to eventually wake up.
This quirk serves no useful purpose. It has no upside. All it means is that I fear failure more than I crave success, as anybody who has looked at my dismal record on submitting my fiction could easily tell you.
On Tuesday night, a week ago, Paul and I went downtown to watch election coverage in a bar. This was partly because we don’t have cable ourselves, but also because we wanted a support group, especially if things went badly. I didn’t actually expect them to go badly, in fact, I’d been in a good mood all day in spite of myself. But I knew things could change in a moment. There’s always something. A bullet, a hijacked plane, a single crazy person doing something crazy. Maybe a so-called "Bradley Effect" would come into play, maybe my more paranoid friends were right and the election was crucially rigged, maybe Sarah Palin had fired up the base enough for McCain to take a crucial swing state, maybe all those Obama-lovin’ young people were going to stay home after all. I didn’t know. But I felt like I had to prepare myself for things to go badly. I had to be ready for things to go badly.
Things did not go badly.
We walked into the bar at Bayou on Bay just after CNN had projected Ohio for Obama. One of the CNN guys, maybe Wolf Blitzer, followed this up with a little dog and pony show where he demonstrated how McCain could still win by taking, like, all the remaining states or something. It wasn’t all that convincing, really, except that it was a vivid demonstration of why I was so cautious, why I had to sidle up to the concept of victory like an alley cat creeping out of her hiding place to snatch a little food.
Immediately after that, with Obama at something like 207 electoral votes and McCain at 86, there was a rash of McCain victories from the middle part of the country. None of them were surprising, places like Texas and Arkansas and Mississippi that were never considered seriously in play, but it was still nerve-wracking to watch McCain double his electoral vote count while Obama’s stayed the same.
Then, there was a moment. Eight thirty or so on the west coast. The bar at Bayou had CNN on one TV, the one we were facing, and the sound was on. The other TV had MSNBC and I could see it in my peripheral vision. The MSNBC TV was showing a graphic I didn’t understand, something that looked like a CG billboard with Obama’s head shot and the words "Barack Obama 44th President of the United States." I literally couldn’t make sense of it for a moment. I thought, "Are they just reminding us what number he’ll be if elected? Is this a rehearsal? What?"
(Writing this now, I’m starting to choke up. Part of me does think it’s real, I guess.)
Then, the CNN electoral map lit up blue on the west coast. The bar cheered. I think I heard cheering from outside. CNN started showing the same billboard graphic.
44th President of the United States
I went into a daze. No, it can’t be, I thought. It’s… it can’t be real. Somebody is going to find a way to take this away from us. Remember 2000? CNN called it for Gore and look what happened. Remember 2004? The exit polls? Shenanegins in Ohio? Kerry didn’t concede until much later than this, midnight or so, did he? Could McCain really be ready to give his concession speech now?
McCain’s concession speech was gracious and articulate and dignified, the concession speech from an entirely different and much nobler campaign. It seemed a bit ironic that all the cheering during McCain’s speech was coming from the Obama supporters in the Bayou, none from his own crowd of supporters. Except once when he mentioned Sarah Palin. That drew cheers from everywhere. Something we can all agree on. Yes, Republicans, Palin in 2012. You go, girl!
We hung around waiting for Obama’s victory speech. That’s what we told ourselves we were waiting for. But deep down I think we were still waiting for that unexpected disaster. Instead, what we saw was Virginia and Florida go blue as well.
Virginia! The south! It seemed so extraordinary. And North Carolina was still too close to call, but Obama was leading. When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he is reported to have said of the Democrats "we have lost the South for a generation." And he certainly seemed to be right about that, but was it possible? Could that generation now be done?
Obama delivered his speech. There was cheering on the television, cheering and hugging in the bar. I know I was as happy as anyone but what I said out loud was snark about Michelle Obama’s dress. "She’s a beautiful woman and normally has a really good fashion sense," I said. "But that bloody apron look is just peculiar and awkward. The girls look cute, though."
We walked home through a downtown scene that felt like New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, and winning the Super Bowl all rolled into one. People were honking, hollering, lighting off fireworks, climbing on things, literally dancing in the streets. Apparently we didn’t even see the bulk of it, a roving amoeba of celebrants who started at the University and partied their way through the downtown core, picking up people along the way until, according to the Western Front, they numbered more than 3,000 when they made it back to the University and gathered in Red Square.
"Happy Obama Day!" yelled one young woman who was hanging out of a car window as the car drove past us. "Happy Obama Day!"
It was an outpouring of spontaneous joy like nothing I have ever seen. It was like the liberation of Paris.
It was difficult to imagine a McCain victory generating the same level of enthusiasm, even in a town as conservative as Bellingham is liberal. It was hard to imagine McCain supporters jumping around and kissing each other and generally looking like photos of returning GIs after World War II.
I went to bed still half-expecting that I would wake up to find that something had gone horribly wrong, or that it was all a dream. But the next morning things were still the same. Obama was still the president-elect. A couple more states had been certified blue.
On Thursday, Friday, Saturday, nothing had changed. Nobody yelled "psyche!" and reversed the electoral map colors. There was no ongoing controversy over counting or methodology, no lingering doubts about who really won. The news stories were about Obama picking his cabinet.
It finally started to sink in.
For the first time in my voting life, begun in 1984, my pick for President of the United States had won. Not just the lesser of two evils, or my preference given the options, but my PICK. The one I voted for in the primary. The one who, when I first heard him speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, caused me to think, "damn! Why isn’t that guy running for president?" The moment he threw his hat in the ring I was ready to vote for him.
It’s easy to explain my reasons. I like what he has to say, and I like the way he says it. He strikes me as a moderate and practical-minded Democrat, forward-thinking, but grounded in American history. He tends to express his ideas in a straightforward, but often elegant, manner. When he’s asked a question he seems inclined to actually respond to the question that was asked, and respond directly, in plain language, with a minimum of politicalese. He seems smart and quick on his feet. He writes his own speeches. Plus, he has great body language and vocal resonance.
But, you know, that’s all stuff that I thought. And I am never sure if I have my finger on the pulse of the mainstream or not. When I really like something I don’t always know if it’s going to be The Beatles or X, kittens or bats, tea or absinthe. On some level I have always felt sure that Obama was going to win, but I could never trust that feeling. I didn’t know if it was instinct or wishful thinking.
In some ways it’s hard to get exactly what you want. Now I have performance anxiety on his behalf. I want him to be the bestest president evah. I want him to bring peace and prosperity and affordable medical care and alternative energy and space exploration. I want him to save the environment, heck, I want him to save the world, like Superman or something. Is all that going to happen? Probably not.
But Obama’s election — no matter what happens now — is still one of the great moments in the history of America, one of the moments when we delivered on our promise instead of falling short of it. His election proves that a lot of things that have been said about the American people over the past eight years are, simply, lies. A false narrative. It was a fantasy that people like Karl Rove wanted to believe. The rest of us were afraid, for a while, that it was true, because the evidence seemed to support him. But now, at this moment, reality has diverged too much from that narrative. We know that it’s not the right story.
In that story, Americans are too racist to elect a black man. They are too xenophobic to elect a man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama who grew up partly in Indonesia and has Kenyan relatives. They are too fearful to vote for a promise of change. They are too right wing to elect a Democrat. They’re too stupid to notice when they are being played, and it’s easy to manipulate them into blaming the wrong people and policies for their troubles. They are still incensed with anger over the "culture wars" of the 1960s.
In fact, because the McCain campaign was so negative — it had almost no narrative other than "be afraid of the other guy!" — this feels like a referendum on negative campaigning in general, and it feels like maybe it doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work anymore. And it does work on some people. Certainly, there is a sad/amusing contingent of people out there stockpiling guns and waiting for the end times. (And a few scary racist hotheads as well.) But maybe the fact that those people are really extreme and crazy and obvious causes us to overestimate their numbers and influence. And maybe it’s as simple as this: people are swayed by negative attack ads only if they already want to be.
If you were looking for a reason to hate and fear Obama — not just a reason to prefer the other guy — it was easy to seize on, say, William Ayers, and jump up and down about that for a while, and just get madder and madder when other people looked at you and said, "Who?"
And… one more thing. I am pretty sure, now, that most people who were looking for a reason to hate and fear Obama were doing so because he was the Democrat and not because he was the not-entirely-white guy. I think their crisis was political ideology more than race. Which is sort of encouraging and discouraging at the same time.
For the last hundred years or so, the contest for president has been between people from the same two parties: there’s the Democrat, and there’s the Republican. Two brands, if you will. Like Coke and Pepsi. So, the individual running for president might be a particular product, with individual characteristics, but the brand itself has certain expectations that go with it. There’s a platform, a general approach to things, a philosophy on governance and defense and interpretation of the constitution which is carried with the brand, somewhat independent of the individual.
Now, in my narrative (which, like all reality narratives, is at least partly false) the increasingly partisan politics of the past fifteen years or so has been driven by an increased emphasis on brand over individual. I’m going to call this the Coulterization of politics, because it rolls off the tongue better than Limbaugh-ization. This is brand loyalty ramped up to an insane, unhinged degree, where the Pepsi drinkers rant and rave about the Coke drinkers as if they were some kind of supernatural evil, and the drinking of Coke causes people to transform into inhuman zombie monsters who will creep into your house at night and eat your children. Not only does this attitude mindlessly demonize Coke drinkers, but it also carries the unspoken assumption that Pepsi-drinking is some kind of automatic default from which Coke drinkers deviate.
Which is pretty absurd, when you look at it — in most elections, approximately half the country drinks Coke. Sometimes a little more than half, sometimes a little less than half. Sometimes a little more, and they lose anyway, but this isn’t about 2000 and the electoral college. It’s about the long-term dangers of negative campaigning and brand over product.
George W. Bush’s second term has been extremely damaging to the Republican brand.
Yes, it’s about the economy.
But it’s also about taxes and the public good and what Americans want out of their government. People are losing their jobs and their houses at the same time, after years of flat wages and marginal employment, when they are already deeply in debt. But the country as a whole is in the same boat — Bush has presided over an absolutely insane explosion of the national debt. People look around at our crumbling infrastructure and strangled public institutions — vividly demonstrated by first the failure of the federal levees and then the failure of the federal disaster response system during Hurricane Katrina — and say, "Hey, where did all our money go?"
Bush’s time in office has been a perfect object lesson in the dangers of one party getting to do what it wants for too long without any ameliorating factors. The Republicans have had their merry way with the country, and their schemes have been almost entirely unchecked by the mysteriously craven Democrats in Congress, the media, or a modicum of common sense.
This confluence of events is kind of a no-brainer. It’s such a no-brainer that even Sarah Palin, would-be airhead-in-chief, identified it correctly: she blames Bush for her and John McCain’s failed presidential bid.
But she and McCain had a problem, going into the race, a problem that went deeper than Bush. For years now, Republicans in particular have been emphasizing brand over candidate. When the brand is perceived positively, as it was during what I think of as our national 9/11 hangover in 2002 and 2004, people like Karl Rove could crow about establishing a "permanent Republican majority." But when that doesn’t seem to be working out there’s nowhere left for the brand to go.
The Republicans have backed themselves into a corner. By defining themselves negatively, as merely the alternative to those evil, evil Democrats, when people get too disgusted by all the dead mice in their Pepsi cans — well, they don’t immediately change their negative opinion of Democrats, they just vote for them anyway.
I believe it’s possible that the Republicans have simply played out the narrative they chose to follow and must now follow a new narrative, or die and be reborn as something else. The most dedicated Coulterites (and where has she been this election cycle, anyway? Is she smarter than she acts, and she actually noticed that negative campaigning was failing in a big way this time around?) do not believe this. They are convinced that they failed not because they are at the natural end of that particular narrative, but because they strayed from that narrative. They are calling for more, louder, meaner. They are calling out for Sarah Palin to lead them to the promised land in 2012.
(Yeah, guys, you do that. It’s a great idea! Really!)
In 2000, after the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, I called the first annual "wake for democracy" in the Ranch Room, Bellingham’s diviest dive. (I say "dive" like it’s a good thing.) I called another one in 2002, and in 2004, although in 2004 there was also an organized event called "a wake for democracy" — I was no longer the only person who worried for the health of our nation.
But the term "wake" was a little tongue-in-cheek, a bit of a misnomer. Democracy isn’t like an individual, it doesn’t die and then move on. Democracy dies like the summer, fading and drooping into hard winters that might seem like they’re going to last forever, but they don’t. It seems very appropriate that we have our elections in the fall, immediately after Halloween, the holiday where we celebrate the death of summer.
When summer dies, we have faith that it will eventually be reborn. But sometimes it’s a long road from the autumn to the spring.
Simulcast at gothhouse.org