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Journal Entry

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Assorted thoughts on the election

  • I didn't get to stand in line; I cast my vote for Obama a couple of weeks ago, handing the envelope over the post office counter.

    I didn't get to see them declare Obama the winner; when I forced myself to go to bed at 3:30 a.m., after two and a half hours spent clicking and clicking and clicking, they still hadn't called Pennsylvania, Florida, or Ohio. Esther woke me up the next morning with "Obama won!"

    There was no one honking or yelling or crying or high-fiving in the streets. The Swiss approve, of course -- even heartily approve -- but discreetly. At breakfast with the kids, we talked about it, celebrated a little, and I knew intellectually that this was an unprecedented day; but it didn't sink in until I was at work and sneaking time to watch the speeches and read the news on the internet. There were times -- watching Obama and his family take the stage, or when they cut to Jesse Jackson -- when I burst out crying, but, being in my office at work, I had to do so in a silenced, muffled, dry-heave kind of way.

    So it was actually weirdly reminiscent of being in Switzerland on September 11, 2001, except with the emotions flipped.

    As then, I've been bathing myself in an orgy of on-line news and video, trying to reach across the Atlantic through the ether to feel like what it must be like, there. Watching Will Smith on Oprah, and reading Alice Walker and why white-run comedy shows are so incapable of making Obama funny, unlike, say, this guy.

  • Marring the joy, of course, is the bitter pill of the three anti-gay-marriage referenda that passed on the same election night, including Prop 8. Weird and alienating atavism, is what that is. I like what Karen says about it. I have faith that a cause so obviously just cannot help but, in the end, prevail; but in the meantime I can only say to the voters in those states: you stupid, selfish losers. How can you possibly make void other people's already existing marriages in order to "defend" yours?

  • Sure, if you wanted to take a cynical and superficial view of McCain's concession speech, you could headline it "McCain: Racism over now, so shut up." In context, though, it was extraordinary. He keeps having to shut up a crowd of booing Republican diehards, and by the end he manages to turn them around and actually get them cheering for Obama's achievement.

    I saw some Democratic talking head on some news show snarking that "of course it was gracious, they're always gracious when they lose." But this is not, in fact, the case. Gore was dutiful about how we all should pull together, Kerry makes the absolute minimal polite noises, as does Dole. (I cannot find G. H. W. Bush's concession speech online). None of them come anywhere near an expression of personal admiration.

    Obama's acknowledgement of McCain in his acceptance speech (which was far too dignified, elevated and somber to be called a "victory" speech) was equally above and beyond the usual.

  • Dude, are those baseball guys scary or what? Predicting the election on the basis of their emergent-AI, possibly-Singularity-triggering number-crunching model, they got every state right except Indiana (and Missouri, which they didn't call, and one of Nebraska's electors) and the popular vote within a percentage point. There is something really bizarre about that level of polling accuracy.

  • To those who think racism is over, damali ayo points out that as of January 20th, we are out of black Senators.

  • One interesting discovery of my orgy of youtube-surfing in the elections' wake: I really dig the populist-feminist news show The View. The fact that they swoop in moments from hard-hitting political interview questions (this is after all Barbara Walters we're talking about) to "I like your sweater" and "so: pantyhose?", the fact that they are so overtly emotional (simmering with rage over people hanging Palin in effigy, skewering McCain on his attack ads, crying with joy at Obama's election), that they fight with each other fiercely about politics, interrupting and getting up from their chairs and threatening to knock over their cups of coffee -- and then visibly making up. Granted, at times they verge on self-parody (especially when Walters' restraining, motherly hand is missing). But still -- it's like one of those grim, talking-heads-in-suits news analysis roundtable shows, with the humanity added back in.

    I'm serious: it's a feminist (I use the word advisedly) reenvisioning of TV news analysis, just as the Daily Show reenvisions the anchored newscast through comedy (the principal comedy being that Jon Stewart gives his actual authentic reactions to clips that "real" news anchors would react to with suppressed "objectivity"). It's hilarious.

  • I had a bunch more to say about Obama becoming president, and the mix of emotions it brings.

    There is simultaneously the practical, wary level -- knowing that he's just one talented but relatively inexperienced politician with a what seem largely to be a collection of very intelligent and well-reasoned policies, most of which I like, some of which (biofuels, gay marriage) I don't, others of which I'm unsure of, who's inheriting a huge host of problems and is bound to disappoint us.

    And on that level I'm cautiously optimistic: he seems distinctly better than the alternatives, and he has a real shot at being great (our youngest President, similarly inexperienced, similarly remarkable, ended up being great; and the idea I've been hearing that he could be a Reagan of the Left, calling on an internet-enabled progressive movement to put pressure on lawmakers the way Reagan could call on conservative footsoldiers, is fascinating); he could also flop.

    And then there's the mostly symbolic, but not entirely symbolic level in which -- even if he screws up now -- he is already a redemptive figure for American history. That is what I (and Will Smith, and that lady on The View) were crying about.

    And it is worth noting: this isn't just because Obama is black. Two years ago I expected the first Black President to be a Republican who studiously avoided the issue of race and captured a grudging chunk of the Democratic electorate anyway -- someone the Democrats would be handicapped in attacking for fear of accusations of racism. And that isn't something I'd be crying for joy about.

    Obama ran a campaign of enormous dignity and relentless positivity; he addressed the issue race directly and brilliantly; he was able -- perhaps because of growing up as a racial outsider of the post-civil-rights-struggle generation -- to claim completely his place in the black community, and yet at the same time find nothing strange or improbable in the idea that he could be the leader of all of America. He weathered attacks on his character and associations with an easy grace (now that we've elected an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama who had a single mom, did cocaine in high school, ran on a platform of redistributing wealth, and "palled around with terrorists", it's hard to see how anyone can take the character-attack politics that have been a staple of Republican strategy since Lee Atwater seriously any more -- for all that Obama may have been uniquely resilient, and that McCain's campaign was in some sense, by modern Republican standards, relatively constrained in their use of them. They left the whole Reverend Wright thing alone, for example; but my feeling is that it would have gone even worse for them if they had used that stuff).

    Obama seems to have an understanding of this double role; that he is on the one hand just this one, gifted but relatively green, politician, and on the other hand happens to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right character and skills, to allow America to relish a moment of transformation.

  • Can I just say, also, that I am particularly proud of my own people? The Jews were a battleground in this election. They threw everything at us -- scurrilous emails claiming Obama was a Muslim (scandalously, Colin Powell was the only figure in American political life I ever saw say "and so what if he was?"), the negotiating with Iran thing, 28 million copies of an anti-Muslim scare DVD, Joe the Plumber threatening the destruction of Israel, a toast Obama gave at a good-bye party for some Palestinian academic which McCain suggested was equivalent to " a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit".

    Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote, 4% more than Kerry. That is more than any other religion including "no religion", and any ethnic group other than African-Americans.

    Turns out we don't scare that easy. And we care about justice more than we do about pandering to us.

  • Newsweek's behind-the-scenes campaign trail series is quite fascinating.

Posted by benrosen at November 6, 2008 01:16 PM | Up to blog

I will have to give thought to your note to respond to it with more than trivia, but I do want to chime in that we are unlikely to be out of African-American Senators when Sen. Obama becomes Pres. Obama, because Sen. Obama will probably be replaced in the Senate with an African-American legislator. There are two or three for the Governor of Il. to choose from, and it's hard to believe he will drop that ball.

And of course there could be two or three other special appointments, but I doubt that we'll get an African-American appointed out of Massachusetts, because they aren't next in line. Which is worth noting in itself.


Posted by: Vardibidian at November 10, 2008 12:43 AM

I like Scalzi's last point in your linked post about Obama offering the country a chance to change, with the caveat that, from what I've observed, Obama seems to understand that, even aside from specific policies, his job is to rally the American people together.

PS. Hi! I usually lurk on your LJ feed.

Posted by: Rachel Heslin at November 10, 2008 09:10 AM

nice post - I'd love to hear more about what conversations you're having out of country. And it's nice to know someone else cries into their monitor while at work.

Posted by: Ben Parzybok at November 10, 2008 09:19 AM

I found the transcript from 1992 and excerpts from 1988, and you are right, Sen. McCain's speech spends an unusual amount of time talking about the victor, and does so in terms that are unusually effusive. Pres. Bush did not say that he "deeply admired" Gov. Clinton. But of course, to the extent that it makes sense to talk about being the First Black Anything as an achievement of an individual, there was something there to "deeply admire" that there was not in previous elections. So although it was clearly wrong (just factually wrong) to say that his speech was like other concession speeches, I think it's analytically wrong to ascribe the difference to Sen. McCain's rhetorical style or personal feeling.

The thing that I really noticed about the speech as I watched it was a lack of emotional connection between the speaker and the crowd. John Kerry threatened to embrace his entire crew of campaign workers, individually and collectively. Bob Dole was joking with the crowd, but seriously talked about them being "a constant source of inspiration". Michael Dukakis banters (in his way) with the crowd and talks about his pride in the young people who got involved in the campaign, and his hopes that they would go into politics and public service.

Although John McCain does say some nice things about his supporters, I thought that there was very little there, and very little affection in the tone. He also conspicuously does not say that he is proud of them or of his campaign generally. In fact, he bizarrely takes blame for mistakes in the campaign, rather than taking pride in it, outcome and all.

Now, that could all be just John McCain's discomfort in speaking to crowds, an unusual trait for a successful politician but not a character flaw by any means. I don't want to overstate the importance of the speech, particularly as my analysis of it may be due as much to my own biases. But someone (particularly someone paid to comment on public speeches) wanted to talk about ways in which this concession is different from the last few, that's the sort of thing I would want to hear about.


Posted by: Vardibidian at November 10, 2008 06:05 PM

Nice post. I'm a fairly cynical person politically speaking but I keep having to pinch myself and hold back a tear or two as well when I see some of the headlines from the day after the election. Watching the day-to-day stuff will be a lot more sobering, but it is amazing how this win has reenergized a bunch of jaded gen-x'ers not to mention many minorities who until now have felt disenfranchised.

As far as McCaine goes, I had always liked the guy before this election. He did really seem to be one of the less ideological and more honest Republicans (or politicians in general) out there. Something happened here where his campaign decided that this was not going to work against Obama and that solidifying the base (which initially was completely deflated about his candidacy) was the primary goal. The problem was that at least in this election, the base had pretty different interests from the independents who often go red. One could argue that McCaine would not have won in any case, but at least he might have retained a little more dignity if he hadn't caved to the base as well as all the negative advertizing that his campaign devolved into...

Posted by: Levi Wallach at November 11, 2008 12:52 PM

V: Obama will probably be replaced in the Senate with an African-American legislator.

Okay... and that will make four since Reconstruction.

Rachel: Thanks for delurking! I like your post, and also find the online application form to get a political appointment with Obama a brilliant touch. I am certainly hoping that the brilliant efficiency of Obama's political campaign carries over to management of the Federal government. It is something of a different scale, though, and I know from the business world that sometimes managers who are very good at running small, focussed insurgent startups are no good at all at running very large, more static organizations. It was clear from the Newsweek article that Obama's campaign team was tight, focussed and no-drama -- perfect for achieving a specific end. But in power, Obama will necessarily have to work with lots of powerful stakeholders, some of them probably quite high-drama. The strategy followed in the campaign of simply ignoring the traditional Democratic party power brokers and interest groups, for instance, and moving faster and more nimbly than they, may not work at all in government. And the Newsweek article seems to indicate that Obama made some very freshman errors as a freshman Senator -- not only alienating McCain (who was initially favorably disposed to him) but at one point pissing off both McCain and Ted Kennedy. On the other hand, the campaign also shows that Obama learns fast. I am hoping for miracles in the first hundred days, but I think a repeat of Clinton's learning curve is probably more likely.

Ben, you know, they haven't been talking about it here -- not the Swiss, anyway. Some people say something approving and congratulatory, but it doesn't really seem that gripping for them. I got one overt racist comment from a fellow school parent who apparently thought I'd sympathize -- or else was trying to be amusingly provocative -- and said something like "so they had to go and elect a Black President, huh?" I think I looked utterly taken aback and embarassed and mumbled something about how I had voted for him... which was probably, in the final analysis, more effective than all the blisteringly clever esprit de l'escalier rejoinders I came up with later.

V.: I am ascribing the difference to neither McCain's rhetorical style nor personal feeling. I think personally McCain always thought -- I get this mostly from that Newsweek article and his body language in the debates -- that Obama was a shallow upstart, a good talker but unreliable, somebody who might eventually become a decent Senator in a decade or two but had no business jumping right into the Presidency.

But I think McCain also is flexible enough (people's strengths are their weaknesses, and the same character trait that made McCain's campaign weirdly erratic, probably served him well both as a fighter pilot and a conceder of the election -- his restlessness -- the ability and inclination, to change strategy on a dime based on new information), and practical enough, and romantic enough about democracy, to realize that the People Had Spoken and that it was the moment to set his personal distaste for Obama aside and to throw his support behind him fully and passionately. (This is a very military virtue, after all -- to find the guy serving with you on your level a complete ass, but when he is promoted to be your CO, to immediately and wholeheartedly entrust in him your complete loyalty -- a very pro-survival way of doing things in a combat situation.)

You'll note McCain does not praise Obama's policies, legislative achievements, or executive judgement -- to do so would be, coming from him, horseshit, I think. But nor does he simply say "now it's time to all stick together", or "first black president isn't that cool". He praises what he can legitimately praise, what he is legitimately admiring of in Obama -- his flawless campaign waged without the backing of party leaders, his authenticity, and his grassroots appeal. Not merely that he fought a Presidential campaign, but how he did so -- by inspiring millions who felt themselves to be disenfranchised. In his concession speech, McCain does not ignore the historic moment, but nor does he reduce Obama to "first black president". He does not imply for a minute that Obama achieved the Presidency because he was black; he does not deny Obama any of the credit of his historic achievement.

It's a decision to do everything in his power to inspire, in as many his followers as he can, loyalty to Obama as their new President, without lying to them, by focussing on the parts of Obama the man (not just the first-black-president) he actually finds inspiring and worthy of leadership. I think that, in front of this booing crowd, is far more impressive and worthy of praise than if it did proceed from personal feeling or rhetorical style.

I think you are right on that McCain is discomfited by his own supporters. We saw in earlier rallies (eg the one where he snatched back the mike from the woman who was all Obama's-an-Arab) that McCain was kind of flabbergasted and freaked out at the racism and vengefulness that he and Palin had conjured up in the crowds. Initially I ascribed this to McCain being pressured into doing attack politics that he didn't believe in and regretting it, but the Newsweek article series offers a more interesting and plausible interpretation. Namely, McCain never did authorize attacks he didn't approve of, but his understanding of the political implications of the attacks he did authorize was pretty naive.

McCain, if Newsweek is to be believed, thought of attacks on Obama's character and judgement as perfectly legitimate, since, for him, those were the real issues. He also drew a very firm line as to what kind of attacks would not be allowed, for reasons of principle as much as prudence: no using Reverend Wright, no attacks on Michelle Obama, no reference to Obama's lack of military service(!), nothing leveraging racial stereotypes. By drawing these lines, I think McCain tried to assure himself that he was not using racism or xenophobia. He approved of the Ayers attack not because he doubted Obama's patriotism, but because he thought of Obama as a kind of weak-willed, fuzzy-minded get-along-with-everyone appeaser. For him, serving on a board with Ayers and talking to Iran were of a piece: signs of weakness and poor judgement.

I think that's the argument McCain thought he was making. His advisors -- and Palin -- knew damn well that linking Obama to Ayers had everything to do with Obama's middle name and xenophobia (though they also probably told themselves it had nothing to do with race). McCain seemed honestly shocked when, at his rallies, folks started making the leap from "has piss-poor enough judgement to hang around with and try to talk to terrorists and America-haters that you and I would throw out on their asses the moment we saw them" to "is an America-hating terrorist". I think by the concession speech it was clear to McCain that he'd created a monster, that Obama had taken the centrists and the mavericks and left him with the racist rump of white America, and that was another reason he was relieved to be shut of the whole business.

And this episode, if my reading of it via Newsweek is correct, is kind of an object lesson in the blindness produced by white privilege -- McCain just totally misjudged where the line was, and was wounded and angry when John Lewis, a hero of his, compared him to George Wallace.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 11, 2008 10:35 PM

My first reaction is to be sad for my son the expatriate.

My second reaction is to recall that the most impressive thing I heard on election night was from Henry Louis Gates (later written up here:
https://www.theroot.com/id/48731). He said that all the black struggles, from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow to beatings and murders during the civil rights movement, all of it was worth it now that it led to this moment. I was blown away by that.

Posted by: Mom at November 12, 2008 01:54 AM

Yes! I am so proud of us Jews too. I made the virtual "Shlep to Florida" and am so proud, especially, of my Florida Jews who came through. I wouldn't have been able to take a repeat of last time. I must say I was skeptical but couldn't be happier.

Posted by: Lauren at November 19, 2008 10:54 PM
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