A friend of mine asked me when I called the election (all the screaming and honking came 1⅔ hours after I started celebrating*), and I said, "Ohio." A truer answer would actually have been "June, when he won the primaries": I felt pretty strongly from the beginning that Obama would win if he got the nomination. And the turning point of the primaries, in my opinion, was the Caroline Kennedy endorsement.
When Caroline and then Ted endorsed Barack Obama (that was the order, wasn't it?), they did, together, two similar but separate things: they confirmed and at the same time they communicated who and what this candidate already was (confirming what many of us already saw and communicating it to the rest of us, to whom an Obama–Kennedy comparison coming from anyone else would most likely have seemed like something in the range of nonsense to blasphemy). The endorsement of the daughter, I believe, outweighed the endorsement of the brother, for all the respect he commands and deserves. "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them," she wrote. "But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president—not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."
At that moment, Barack Obama went from being an exciting outsider, a longshot—recognized for the audacity of hope, but not taken seriously as a truly viable candidate—to being the inheritor of the Democratic Party's proudest and most beloved political legacy. And as close as one might argue Bill Clinton to be, the cigar will always go to JFK.
So, in a way, this election was won in January. And it is not just a victory for Obama, not just a victory for the Democratic Party, not just a victory for the United States, but also a victory for the Kennedys.
How I called the election
I learned about FiveThirtyEight.com from screenwriter Jim V. Hart in mid-September and checked it continually from that point on—and checking back now I see that on Sep. 19 Nate Silver gave Obama a 72% chance of winning. (That was up to 85% on Oct. 1 and up to 94% on Oct. 13; by Election Day it was 99%.) But really that just gave me confidence in my beliefs: it didn't generate them.
Why did I feel so sure way back in 2007 that Obama would beat whomever the Republicans nominated?** The answer is simple—and offensive. I thought like a retarded person.
I really ought to come up with a better way to put that, but I might as well present it in all its ugliness, especially since I'm sure that's always how it will appear in my internal vocabulary, if only because I came up with the idea while sad and angry as could be, right after Bush's
reelection in 2004. Part of what made that election so hard was that Bush had lost in 2000; to see him actually elected (arguably) was an incredible blow and shook my faith in America (for real). And this helps to explain not only the anger behind my terminology but also the idea itself.
Here's the deal:
- One thing that drove me crazy in 2004 was—to quote myself in a Nov. 3, 2004, e-mail—"for example the fact that 58% of Bush supporters say we shouldn't have gone to Iraq if Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, along with the fact that 56% of Bush supporters (statistically the same, probably) think that Iraq DID have weapons of mass destruction—and 55% of Bush supporters think that Iraq GAVE al-Qaeda SUBSTANTIAL SUPPORT and another 20% think that Iraq had been DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN 9/11 (!)..." Put simply, many people flat-out did not know what the hell was going on.
- Another thing that drove me crazy in both 2000 and 2004 was the way that first Gore and then Kerry creamed Bush in the debates, and then afterwards you'd hear the commentators saying, "Well, Gore looked stiff and haughty, but Bush looked relaxed and likable!" It's the old beer test, but it's one thing to judge a candidate's character by how well you can imagine drinking with him (I'd say not a 100% crazy thing) and another thing to judge his performance in a debate by that standard. I was shocked and horrified by how irrelevant the debates' content actually was. I'm not sure it would go too far to say that the content was literally meaningless, as far as the elections themselves were concerned.
- I forget whether this occurred to me before or after Nov. 3, 2004—I believe it popped into my mind as a vague, nagging doubt before the election—but I feel strongly that one lesson to be learned from Bush's
reelection was that running against something is a dangerous game. What had given me false confidence leading up to that election—the intensity with which so many Americans loathed George W. Bush—translated, I think, into good news for the GOP. Why do they say there's no such thing as bad press? Because a chant of "No Bush! No Bush! No Bush!" includes a chant of "Bush! Bush! Bush!" Freud said years ago that there's no negative in the unconscious (and no one made this connection, that I saw, but his theory seems to have been proved a while back, when a study showed that if you tell an elderly person not to take something with food, that instruction will fade in his memory and become "take this with food," such that it's always a better idea to say, "Take this on an empty stomach"): the nos, nots, and don'ts just drop right out. That's interesting in itself, but as it applies to the election it basically comes down to this: although subtlety is nice, it's not only lost on many people but also can mix things up and backfire explosively.
- When Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California against...well, I forget who, and that's sort of the point...I thought he was a surefire winner, not because I knew anything about California politics, but because I figured, very cynically, "Schwarzenegger is famous, Schwarzenegger is a name, Schwarzenegger is exciting." (As for the kind of exciting, see the bulletpoint directly above.) And I'm going to go ahead and treat as the same point the fact that reportedly there's some kindergarten somewhere where they routinely poll the little children about presidential elections, and whoever wins that poll is always the winner of the election—and you could explain that by saying that maybe their parents are coincidentally the perfect sample of American voters, but much likelier it's just that these kids "vote" for the candidate whose name they know best.
So as early as Nov. 3, 2004, I had decided that the best way to predict the outcome of an election was to "think like a retarded person"*** and to go entirely based on who feels right. As early as Nov. 3, 2004, I was saying that the Democratic Party's only hope was to get a candidate with either charisma or a name...and I felt that charisma trumped a name. Hillary Clinton, in my opinion, is basically Bill without charisma. And once Obama himself started getting pretty famous, I started thinking, "Huh...charisma plus a name?"
I supported Barack Obama before I knew much about him. That he turned out to be the only candidate I have ever known who spoke in a way that didn't offend the general public and didn't offend me I count as something just short of a miracle, but it has little bearing upon the election because I have little bearing upon the election—it's made this a much, much happier day for me and made this a much, much less cynical process for me, but its relevance to Obama's win is probably minimal. The way the American Retarded Person would view (did view) Obama vs. McCain really came down to Obama's looking better, sounding better, and being just a little more famous. (McCain's "celebrity" ad was never going to work, whatever the polls immediately afterwards may have suggested.)
One of the happiest days of the past year was the day I realized that in these debates, truth finally beat bullshit—not because it was better truth or worse bullshit, but because it was better-looking truth and worse-looking bullshit. Many of my Democratic friends talked about how worried they were about the debates, but I was sunny every time and never surprised by the polls afterwards because I was doing a better job than they were of thinking like a retarded person: the reason why they were so scared was that two elections had taught them that bullshit always beats truth, but the reason I was so confident was that I knew that truth that also sounds good will always beat bullshit that also sounds bad.
The cynical reading is that the truth–bullshit part of that equation is irrelevant. But what I think is that the truth–bullshit part of the equation may just be what gave Obama not just a victory, but a landslide victory...which, by the way, I've been calling since July.****
Every fluffy cloud has a shit lining.
As I write this, California's disgusting Proposition 8 is still too close to call, according to CNN, but a "Yes" to ban gay marriage is beating a "No" to leave it alone, 52–48, with 95% of precincts reporting. So it doesn't look good.
What's funny about this—funny may not be the right word—is that the record turnout by black voters (thanks to Obama) may in fact be partially to blame. CNN's exit polls have white people voting "No" 53% of the time and black people voting "Yes" 70% of the time. Forgive the generalization (I believe polls will bear me out, but a million pardons—seriously—if I am wrong): black people often hate gay people. Yes. It's enough to make a politically correct brain shut down like a supercomputer outsmarted by Captain Kirk.
Can we get a federal gay-marriage-ban ban? When is that going to happen, folks? Now that we've elected a black man, anti-gay discrimination is one of the last things standing in the way of a full realization of American values in our own country.
(I'm not holding my breath for the first "out" atheist president. Or, wait...we already had that! Lincoln: "Christianity is not my religion and the bible is not my book." Jefferson: "I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature." Washington: "Being no bigot, I am disposed to humor Christian ministers and the church." So...can we go back, please?)
What did we win?
The map above is the 2008 electoral map adjusted for population. It comes from a site that in 2004 was a great consolation to those of us who looked at the strictly geographical version and were horrified by all the red; this time it serves to emphasize just what kind of a win we got.
A few thoughts:
- Race in America. When I read it in The New York Times, it struck me all over again: "just 143 years ago, Mr. Obama, as a black man, could have been owned as a slave." Racism—specifically the mistreatment of black people by white people—has been one of our nation's greatest crimes and embarrassments: at its worst, it cast doubt upon our values and made hypocrites of us as a society. As I pointed out during the primaries (when engaged with Clinton supporters in foolish arguments about what would be more important, a black president or a woman president), the oppression of African Americans could not possibly be left out of even the briefest of American histories. A single paragraph could not in good faith leave out slavery. The election of a black man to the presidency symbolizes a correction of a tremendous wrong, and the importance of both the correction and the wrong cannot possibly be overstated.
- Relatedly, our standing in the world. A hypocritical America is a weakened America. Our nation is unique in having been founded not based on land or race but rather on principles and ideals. This, not our military or our economy (ahem), is what makes us a great country. The importance of Obama's election from the perspective of our history of racism is magnified from the outside: that we have elected a black man demonstrates to the world that we may just be what we say we are, that we may actually be a land of liberty and justice for all.
- Relatedly, the "War on Terror." If we are to take seriously the idea that we are at war with terrorism rather than a particular group of people, then the only way it is even conceivable that we could win is the "hearts and minds" route. And as long as folks like Osama bin Laden can claim that American ideals are lies, as long as he can say that we don't stand for liberty and freedom, as long as he can say that we're just a bunch of hypocritical racist crusaders, defined and motivated primarily by whiteness and Christianity (which, please note, bin Laden and Palin alike are inclined to emphasize)—as long as "the American way" is nothing but a particular nationalism and that America is, to quote the Clash, "just another country"—we've got nothing but our might going for us, and when terrorism itself is the enemy rather than a specific group of specific people, then going around crushing the enemy is a pretty good way to strengthen the enemy rather than to eradicate them.
With our election of Barack Obama, our values are confirmed. With the confirmation of our values, our international standing is strengthened. With the strengthening of our international standing, our ability to prevail against criminals, murderers, fascists, and fundamentalists of all kinds is vastly improved.
But in the end, for me, it really just comes down to this: today I am proud to be an American.
* Which left me feeling a little lonely, I've got to say.
** It wasn't that I was sure that any Democrat would win. In fact, as I said yesterday, I felt pretty sure that Sen. Clinton would have lost. If I hadn't felt that way, then (like some people I know) I probably would have basically sat out the primaries so as to minimize damage to whichever candidate ended up winning, whereas instead I pushed as hard as I could for Obama: I probably made more calls (I definitely gave more money, and on a teacher's salary) than I did for Kerry in 2004.
*** I guess "like a kindergartener" would be less offensive and more accurate, except that what is an adult who thinks like a kindergartener but retarded?
**** Maybe before, I'm not completely sure...but I definitely remember saying it in July, right after my grandfather died. (People shook their heads like I was a crazy person: maybe I'd been driven mad with grief.)