Furiously looked around after work this evening to see if I could buy a newspaper -- too late, I should've realized, given that on such an historic day of course everyone would be looking to souvenir a snapshot of history. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I ought to write my own thoughts about the events of the past 24 hours, to capture it before the euphoria has ebbed away (not to mention memory of the details). So I log onto Vox, and waddya know, my last blog topic was... Barack Obama.
It seems odd that almost 5 months to the day, a dream-like proposition has come to pass; an African-American, with as we all know by now a middle name like "Hussein", is the President-elect of the United States of America.
My friends, coworkers and I had been talking for awhile now about the election, with increasing intensity as the big day drew closer. We touched on recurring themes in our conversations:
- We lamented the fall in standing of Senator McCain, who, in his desperation to realize his own dream of ascending to the highest office in the land, sacrificed his own principles and standing with those who admired him so much in the days of the Straight Talk Express. When he repudiated his previous positions on tax cuts for the wealthy, his distaste for fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, his intention to leave alone Roe v. Wade among other things, it became hard to know what he really stood for save pandering to his Republican masters.
- We expressed a certain schadenfreude at McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate (notably on the basis of only two meetings -- I had more interviews for my job at Microsoft!). Palin was a great pitbull with lipstick (and the biggest fillip to Tina Fey's career that she'll probably ever get) but as the campaign wore on, it became increasingly clear she was the punchline to an ongoing joke that such an intellectual lightweight could be within the proverbial heartbeat of the presidency. And SNL became the funniest part of the week -- not even The Daily Show or The Colbert Report could match it for laughs over the course of the campaign.
- We worried (justifiably as it turns out) over Prop 8 in California. Both the Catholic and Mormon Churches poured huge sums to get this up, to constitutionally define marraige as between a man and a woman, and ban same-sex marriage. At 52% support, this puts in doubt the gay marriages that have taken place since the California Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. This amendment is a significant symbolic setback for the cause (although not directly affecting the situation here in Washington, where same-sex civil unions are recognized).
- Certain phrases crept into our daily lexicon in reaction to either their overuse or significance as gaffes: "spreading the wealth", "my friends", "maverick", "Washington outsider", "health of the mother", "socialist", "pallin' around with terrorists"... Oh, and if I never hear about Joe the Plumber again, it will be too soon.
Even though I was rarely pulled out of my Democratic, broadly liberal, broadly left-wing Seattle bubble, it could still be exhausting mentally chronicling the unfolding of the campaign.
I was bemused by the vagaries of the American system of voting -- the fact that each state is responsible for administering elections, each with their own distinct methods of voting (punch holes, levers, touch screens etc.), and the fact that you vote for all manner of things at the same time, not just congressmen (like our MPs), but also governors, judges, attorneys-general, propositions for the state, for your county... the list could probably go on and on.
What is starkly clear is the polarization of the American electorate. The New York Times electronic electoral map can also drill down by the county which parts of the country are deep blue, light blue, light red and deep red. It is only on the fringes of the continental US and Hawaii that are blue -- the coasts where the majority of the population live, together with inland population centres like Chicago. The remainder of the land mass is plainly red. What I still don't understand, when Palin made much of the "anti-America" urban elite versus the "pro-America" heartland folks, it wasn't pointed out that the First Dude's membership of the Alaska Independence Party is surely an explicit example of anti-Americanism? Last I looked, seeking secession is not a particularly patriotic stance to take.
McCain made an attempt to play to the very American antipathy towards taxation. "Socialism" became the big straw man of the Republican campaign, thanks to Obama's somewhat ill-judged comment about "spreading the wealth". Unfortunately, most people don't seem to parse that any taxation is redistribution of wealth. How else do they expect to pay for the services that society enjoys, and which generally are required for society to function and contribute to the country's productive capacity (and which ought to subsequently generate more wealth)? Not all of these are best provided by the private sector, especially those whose returns on investment are measured in a timespan that exceeds a typical politician's electoral term. And as balanced budgets seem to be the Holy Grail, the law of unintended consequences gets invoked as tax cuts in one area necessitate tax increases in another or else deficits (!) will ensue. I don't like paying any more tax than I have to, but at least I can recognize there is an unwritten social contract between myself, government and the rest of society that says one of the ways we all help each other for the greater good is through taxation, and that my contributions are paid back to me over time in many ways, direct and indirect.
One argument for reducing taxes is that government can't be trusted with your money and that private enterprise is best placed to hold onto it (at least until this economic crisis came along). Republicans must be adept at dancing on pinheads, because on the one hand they shout that government can't be trusted with taxpayers' money, and then on the other they want you to vote for them, to enter... government. On that note, in spite of Obama promising the majority of Americans, the 95% whose incomes are less than $250,000 a year, a tax cut, many were still convinced they'd be worse off than under McCain, who promised them nothing while keeping the already-wealthy, wealthy. Presumably, that pioneer can-do spirit is projecting itself and convincing people that they are closer to affluence than they really are.
We witnessed yet again the role of religion in politics, which has such a strong influence on the discourse (witness Prop 8 above) in spite of the notion of separation of church and state. As the most obvious example of this, Palin's primary qualification seemed to be her credibility with the religious nutjobs that came out for Bush in 2000 and 2004, and so-called values voters, mainly rural folk who represent small-town, wholesome values which, by implication, are far more morally upright than the values of the urbanites of big-city Sodom.
The $70 million that was ploughed into Prop 8 though, pales into insignificance to the funding required of a modern election campaign. Barack Obama raised $150 million in one month. That's going to add up to some serious money! And the way this money is spent blanketing television ad spots with contradictory messages from the opposing parties. How is a political junkie let alone a lay voter going to decipher what is true and what is deceptive? "I approve this message" has become an all-too-familiar refrain lately in between segments of Heroes and the Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Starting from about 5pm onwards, one eye was on work, the other on the election returns that started rolling in from booths on the east coast. The New York Times was open in one browser window; their election site was pretty good: a popup dashboard had state-by-state summaries, together with an aggregation of the calls of the various TV networks on the electoral vote count. Another window had FiveThirtyEight.com open and their blow-by-blow projections. At the end of the day, Nate Silver and co proved to be stunningly accurate in their predictions -- definitely a site to look to in future elections.
I was in attendance at a friend's election party when Obama came onstage to declare victory. It was barely an hour prior that Jon Stewart, my voice of reason throughout this campaign, It was definitely one of those "where were you then" moments that we'll look back on years from now and reminisce about how, regardless of what is to come next from our President-elect (and even the least cynical among us have to admit that expectations of him are improbably and perhaps unachievably high), at least on that one night an escape valve had been opened, our anger towards the last eight years had found an outlet, and that anger was now supplanted by (dare I say it) hope.
Impromptu street celebrations ensued in Seattle. While I didn't get to witness the spectacle first hand (something I regret just a tad), I learned later that a great throng congregated on Pike and Broadway, and erupted at the declaration of victory; and similarly in downtown on 1st, down by the Showbox where The Stranger was hosting its election bash. When I finally left Richie's party at around 12.30am, the sound of horns could still be heard, Broadway in parts was still blocked off, and people were still walking the streets wooping for joy. One can only imagine what the outcome would've been like had McCain won -- would the disappointment have manifested itself in unpleasant ways, given that Obama's election was demonstrably such a carthartic moment for the crowds?
On this night following The Victory, I am struck most by a few things:
- This campaign was nasty, and the central focus was almost all Obama, arguably even after Palin came along. When you're trying to get people to vote for you, you don't campaign on a platform of not voting for the other guy and hope to win as the fallback choice. Suggesting he's a terrorist sympathizer, questioning his patriotism, that he's secretly Muslim, all these ploys that appeal to the worst part of people's natures -- it was distasteful and a far cry from the campaign that both sides promised in its early days. The booing that was heard at McCain's concession speech was a low-point for me, when McCain himself could plainly see the Frankenstein he had helped nurture.
- The overwhelming desire for change that saw Obama win in such a lopsided fashion (349 to 162 electoral college votes according to NYT as of this evening). Obama's election is significant not only in the bridge-the-racial-divide sense; it may finally reverse the anti-intellectualism of American society, at least towards its political figures. Dubya won in large part on his folksy charm, but just because you'd enjoy having a beer with the guy does not make him qualified to run the country. Palin was the second iteration of this pattern, but you know, as they say, "Fool me once, shame on you" and um, "Fool me" ... well, just don't get fooled again.
- The global sigh of relief and in some cases genuine surprise that someone like Barack Obama has been elected President. The Economist (which endorsed Obama's candidacy) put together polls of the world at large, and an overwhelming majority preferred Obama over McCain. It also highlights the difference in world-view that seemingly must exist between Americans and non-Americans. One has to wonder if insularity or a fundamental disconnect in value systems or both are to blame for this phenomenon.