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Starting Anew

I cried less than I thought I would on election night. Even while I was watching President-elect Obama’s victory speech, while it was thrilling, it was still mostly surreal. I didn’t start to bounce with joy until the walk home from the election-night party, and my partners took even longer.

Thing is, Robin pointed out, in many ways this is just the end of the trauma—healing doesn’t take place immediately.

It’s against my code of conduct as a glib, cynical Gen Xer to admit that Obama’s campaign and his win brought me out of an eight-year political depression, which was brought on by the Supreme Court’s stopping of the recount in 2000. I hadn’t even been fully aware of it until it lifted.

But it seems to be true. Even as I railed against it, it seems that some part of me had absorbed exactly what Karl Rove wanted me to feel: It was hopeless; the system was rigged; the votes wouldn’t be counted; I didn’t actually live in a democracy. I still protested (sometimes), called my congresspeople (but not nearly as often as I should have), and kept up with as much news as I could tolerate (which wasn’t really enough to stay fully informed). There were moments of hope, but in my secret soul, the idea of audacious goals like stopping the war and actually getting national health care mostly made me want to go back to bed.

This, looking back, may be one of the reasons we needed Obama to run instead of Clinton. Not because of any particular policy differences. Just because community organizers know about working with people who are cynical, tired, and not used to winning. Because the Democratic candidate needed to reach first-time voters, the registration- challenged, those who’d been disappointed by Republicans they believed in, and people like me, who were going to vote Dem anyway, but might or might not open their wallets or take time they couldn’t afford to get on the telephone and call swing states.

And, of course, he needs us all still, because he’s facing an economic situation so bad that I know some people who seriously wonder if McCain gave up really trying so that he wouldn’t get blamed for the train wreck and the Republicans could sail in in 2012 as the party of change. To do the difficult things Obama needs to do (to quote professor Peter Drier in the Huffington Post, “enact an economic stimulus package that includes infrastructure projects and green jobs, reform health care, pull U.S. troops from Iraq, strengthen labor laws, tackle global warming, help homeowners avoid foreclosure and strengthen bank regulations, and adopt a progressive tax plan”), he’s going to need to take a page from FDR, who famously told some activists, “I agree with you. Now go out there and make me do it.”

(First step, tell him to stop relying on Rubin and Summers, whom progressive economist Dean Baker calls two of the core members of the “high priesthood of the bubble economy,” for his economic advice.)

Along with recovering our ability to act, we also have to figure out how to maintain the coalition that won this election, and widen it where possible. It is not a weakness that we have disagreements about who should run the country and how. Disagreement can be healthy and productive. But as people who’ve studied congregational dynamics tell me, the problem comes when disagreements always break down along the same lines, with two camps of exactly the same composition squaring off on every issue, often deciding their stance because of the group’s position.

There are already attempts to pick apart Obama’s coalition for change. One of them is obsession about the four antigay ballot measures that passed, especially California’s much-watched Prop 8, and an urge to blame the upsurge in nonwhite voters for their passage.

On that point, it is worth taking a few moments to recount some of the points that blogger Shannon LC Cate made in response to this meme: First, there was a huge amount of disinformation in the pro-Prop 8 campaign (for example, saying that churches would be forced to perform gay marriages, which exactly no marriage equality activist has ever advocated, though some religious gay couples have petitioned their own denominations for inclusion). Second, it passed by a much slimmer margin than a similar measure did four years ago, when there was not a huge upsurge in minority voters, and no one blamed “the white people” then. Third, these are not exclusive categories: Not all queers are white, remember!

Also, I will say for myself that while the passage of Prop 8 is sorely disappointing, getting Obama (who opposed Prop 8 mind you) elected was more important. Gay people need jobs, peace, health care, and a functional constitution too. Gay marriage is coming; the next generation doesn’t think it’s a big deal. This is a hiccup, even if a sucky one for those whose marriages are in question.

I’m more worried by the reports of upside-down flags flying in red states (funny how whenever lefties do that they get told to leave the country) and wealthy, well-organized right-wing heels digging in to hamstring the new president. I wish I could convince McCain supporters that in the long run it hurts less to lose fair and square (and I’ve voted the losing side of many a fair election) than to feel like you’ve lost an election and your democracy too. But I realize they’re not ready to hear it. They’re afraid for the direction of their country, and I know what that feels like.

Still, with the challenges ahead—recession, climate change, military withdrawal—it would sure help to have the support, sacrifice, and collaboration of more than 52 percent of the country, as impressive as that margin is in recent history. We certainly can’t let that 52 percent shatter on identity lines. Of the other 48, the true believers and culture warriors won’t be reached, I’m sure. But for most folks, when you move away from a few hot-button issues and loaded rhetoric, few toe any party’s line completely. That’s hopeful.

No matter how you look at it though, building a coalition to support making substantial change will be as hard, or harder, for Obama than winning the election was. Here’s hoping that the new base he built will take on that task with just as much enthusiasm. I’m in.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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