The Voracity of Hope
So, here we are.
After years of ambiguity over the direction Barack Obama was taking as president, after months of nausea at the repulsive tactics his Republican opponents and the inexplicable support for Mitt Romney (the most worthless presidential candidate of my lifetime), after weeks of stress headaches whenever there was chatter about poll numbers or election results, I finally woke up this morning to a world in which our incumbent Democratic chief executive had won a second term, and rather handily at that.
Of course, I enjoyed a honeymoon phase of about six hours, laughing myself into stomach cramps at the busted predictions and shameless recriminations coming from the usual right-wing blowhards. I watched Karl Rove discover the limits of his omnipotence on FOX News; I watched the poltroon behind Unskewed Polls flopping like a landed trout when his numbers proved as wraithlike as Paul Ryan’s potential for leadership; I watched the whole Internet suddenly discover what the rest of us have known for over twenty years: that Donald Trump is a braying, shit-footed jackass and that no good whatsoever can come from associating with him in any way. All these things I watched with delight and amusement, but eventually, even the blood-black giggles of political schadenfreude must give way to a recognition of new realities.
Now, I’m not gonna lie: after all my hard-left trash talk, after all my resentment of the Democratic mainstreamers who called me a shitbird for even considering the idea that Barack Obama didn’t deserve my vote, after all my cynicism of the bought-out game that is American presidential politics, when the time came, I stepped into that booth and cast my vote for the incumbent. (I voted Green for the Bexar County Railroad Commissioner, but it turns out that move didn’t pay off.) I voted early, though, which left me a whole four days of further self-recrimination and doubt over whether or not Obama, who I believed was going to win the race albeit by a slimmer margin than he actually pulled off, was going to be worth re-electing. During that four whole days of social-media boilerplate about how he’s better than the alternative (which would be truly helpful if I were a salt-crusted idiot, or if I didn’t think having only two choices wasn’t part of the goddamn problem in the first place), I got to torture myself thinking about drones, and Guantánamo, and targeted killings, and state-sponsored assassinations, and the USA-PATRIOT Act and all manner of affiliated security-state monstrosities, and the pointless water-treading in Afghanistan, and the continued disgrace of the drug war, and the president’s standoffish attitude towards labor unions and globalization and the environment, and my severe ambivalence about the bailouts, and his letting the GOP roll over him time and again, and the compromised sell-out that is Obamacare, and the kid gloves with which corporate criminals are treated, and all the other items on the litany of complaints held by those of us who wish the President really was the raving socialist the right likes to pretend he is.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Obama’s rhetoric. He can sell a speech and no mistake, and every time he opens his mouth, he rekindles in me the muted spark that made me believe, an eternity ago in 2004, that he might turn out to be the progressive liberal the country so desperately needs instead of the compromising technocrat we’re stuck with. But it wasn’t Obama’s victory speech, strong though it was, that made the fading memory of hope come flooding back like a tea-soaked madeleine. True, there are a lot of things to be thankful for with an Obama win, entirely aside from the fact that it means we didn’t elect that empty cardboard shell of a plutocrat that was running against him. First and foremost, of course, is the thing every candidate ought to blow a very loud horn about but are usually too chickenshit to do so: the fact that another four years with a Democrat in charge will keep the recidivist caveman element in the Supreme Court in check. Obamacare, as half-assed as it is, is also a victory; it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what we would have gotten if Romney had won. With an Obama victory, it’ll get a chance to actually go into effect, making it exponentially harder for a future GOP president to repeal it; no country on Earth with any form of socialized medicine will give it up voluntarily. And, of course, there’s the possibility, however slight, that a lame duck Obama will finally uncompress his spine and start really pushing for the agenda he was too compromised to fight for the first time around.
But the hope of President Obama, born again hard, isn’t the one that’s had me full of good adrenaline today. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in my life as a lefty, and one of them is that FDR is dead and he ain’t coming back. It’s almost always a fool’s game to place your faith in a leader except as a symbol; the power has to come from where it has always come from: the people. It is only through union and solidarity that we can hope to advance a real progressive agenda; it doesn’t take a majority, either — just enough people to make so much noise that it can’t be ignored. And it was from the people, whose attitudes and demographics are changing in a way that’s crippling to the movement conservatives, that I got this unexpected dose of hope.
For one thing, three states approved gay marriage — and not by judicial appeal, a perfectly acceptable method of advancing civil rights, but one which conservatives will always smear with the tar of illegitimacy, but by popular vote. I’ve always thought it would take a Supreme Court decision to finally break the back of the forces of homophobia, but a generation growing in number and strength doesn’t seem to give a shit who marries who, and knows too many gay people to accept their demonization. Even in Maryland, the spectre of black churchmen was largely a non-factor in the decision to ratify gay marriage. For another, marijuana was legalized in as many states. This is somewhat more problematic; while a Supreme Court decision would, I believe, ultimately find bars to gay marriage unconstitutional, there will always be a divide between the states and the feds over drug policy that may never be breached. But the ballot initiatives proved, at least, that there is a growing sense that our war against drugs is futile, unfair, and unreasonably destructive of life and liberty.
California, too, engaged in a bit of clear-headedness about the absurdity and cruelty of the security state, softening up the unconscionable “three strikes” law and hopefully preparing it for a death blow. The forces of old and evil received what might have been their strongest rebuke when it came to the fate of ugly, mean men who have appointed themselves the definers and defenders of rape: Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Roger Rivard, Joe Walsh, Tom Smith, John Koster, and Paul Ryan himself — all of whom raised eyebrows with intemperate 18th-century comments about who owns a woman’s body — were unceremoniously dumped from the body politic like flecks of dead skin. It’s probably a bit much to hope that this is our Scopes Monkey Trial moment — the modern equivalent of that sledgehammer blow in 1925 that sent religious fundamentalists skulking home to the backwoods, forsaking politics as hopelessly godless and corrupt, not to return for a good three decades. But it’s a good start, and it’s one that came from the bottom up. It wasn’t part of either party’s campaign platform, but it bubbled up powered by pure popular outrage until the left made hay out of it and the right was forced to answer to it — and their answers, of course, were uniformly wrong. Even Puerto Rico laid its money on America’s golden era not being quite over yet, and have, after a century, asked to join a more perfect union.
Beyond all this, too, beyond the specifics of ballot initiatives and binding resolutions, there are demographic trends that let a little progressive light shine through the gloom. Everyone knows what’s happening, but this time, it’s the right — less worried about seeming racist and more willing to spell it out, albeit in ugly terms, that’s speaking frankly about it: the era of white majority is beginning to fade. LBJ’s observation that you can get the dumbest cracker to vote your way by telling him he’s better than the smartest Negro is close to being a mathematically unviable proposition. And the GOP’s ‘outreach’ to blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, and other fast-growing minority groups has been a total disaster, largely because they’ve spent 40 years nakedly begging for the approval of America’s most dyed-in-the-wool racists and xenophobes. That means there’s a giant voting bloc that, if they aren’t entirely inspired to vote Democrat, have no reason on God’s brown Earth to vote Republican. Right-wing predictions that the Republican “war on women” would backfire as a liberal fabrication blew up in their faces when it turned out that women don’t like to be told what to do and not do with their private parts any more than men do. And while there’s a rump of noisy right-wing ideologues amongst the booming youth, they seem to be exemplified by the likes of hapless provocateur James O’Keefe, and are vastly outnumbered by the live-and-let-live generation that’s voting (D) in large numbers.
None of this is to say that things are peaches and cream in America. Most of these rays of sunshine have little to do with economic issues, and for people like me, the labor struggle is the only struggle. (This may change with shifting demographics as well, though; with black and Hispanic populations on the rise and more politically engaged, there will be millions of new voters who are quite used to working-class struggle and likely to express that in their party affiliation.) Almost nothing has changed in the House or Senate (although it’s immensely satisfying to see Elizabeth Warren in Ted Kennedy’s old seat), and Republicans, as dispirited as they are today, will surely roadblock any progressive legislation Obama proposes, even assuming that he finds the gumption to do so. But those are wars being fought in the sky, and here on the ground, even as the post mortems for the failure of the Occupy movement are cooling on pundits’ windowsills, we’re actually seeing some progressive populism that would have been unthinkable in the last dozen or so years. It doesn’t take a nation of millions to roll the New Feudalism back: it just takes a few hundred thousand here and there, organized, unified, and always acting together. Brothers, sisters: let nothing divide us. There is one thing I can say about hope: when it gets what it wants, it always wants more. We got another term in office for our man: now let’s get more.