For the past eight years election days have sucked for me. I remember going to bed on election day 2000 with Al Gore having been declared the winner in Florida. I slept like a baby, safe in the knowledge that the Clinton legacy would be secure. Secure in the knowledge that the American people had made the right choice. I woke up around 6 a.m. and turned it to Fox News only to be greeted with the breaking news: Florida Too Close To Call. The nightmare had only begun.
I was old enough to vote in 2002 and did so, casting my first vote for Rep. Jim Matheson in the Sally Mauro gymnasium, my old elementary school. It felt good to do something meaningful for my country and my party, the party of my fathers. The Madrigals have been Democrats for at least as far back as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were union Democrats, the kind of people that had three pictures on their living room walls: a picture of Jesus, a picture of the current Pope, and a picture of either FDR or John F. Kennedy. For them the only ideology that mattered was the one that would help their family. The Republicans, they knew, were out for the rich, the entrenched power. The Democrats were for the workers and the poor, the helpless, the voice crying out to be heard. In other words, they were for us.
But my vote did very little in the grand scheme of things. The Republicans went on to increase their majorities in the Senate and to cow the Democrats with ominous warnings about the threat from Al Qaeda. The following year these same Democrats stood in lockstep behind an unthoughtful president's belligerent foreign policy. A cocky, surefire, shoot from the hip philosophy that has wasted so many lives and so much treasure. It seemed as if the Democrats had forgotten themselves, destined to be ignored by the country because of their cowardice.
The next year I went to college in the heart of Salt Lake City, one of the few truly liberal places in Utah. It was good to meet other young people who could talk intelligently (and sometimes not so intelligently) about politics. It was good to talk to these people about facts and philosophy and not just the perception of a candidate or party. In other words it was good to finally grow my political convictions from just a feeling of indignant outrage to an intellectual outrage at the state of the times.
I was determined to do something, to make it so that this time would not be like last time. My brother, Joshua, was determined too. We paid attention, we watched, we read, we prepared ourselves. In January of that year I was given an opportunity to go to New Hampshire to support the candidate of my choice. I chose Howard Dean as the man who I wanted to lead my party into the general election. I believed in Dean and believe to this day that had he been put up against George W. Bush that that election may have turned out very different. But it was not to be because a week before I left Dean screamed and it no longer mattered what his policies were. He had become a caricature for the right and in the minds of the masses who paid only a passing bit of attention to the politics that shaped their lives. He was trounced in New Hampshire and I had to settle for second choice.
John Kerry was, and is, a man of honor. But he wasn't a political fighter, the kind you need to be to survive in modern American politics. He didn't seem to believe in the grand speech or the soundbite that would make the evening news. His campaign was honorable but not vivid enough. The problem was that for most of his supporters it was a campaign against Bush not for John Kerry.
I remember going to Utah Valley State College to see Michael Moore rally the troops on his Slackers Uprising Tour. It was a fairly conventional political rally, of the kind I saw while in New Hampshire. This type of thing is uncommon in Utah, to be sure, and it seemed to energize a lot of young liberals in the state. The problem was that these types of stunts equally energized the right.
On election day these energized groups came out in droves and...reelected George W. Bush and strengthened the control of the Republican Party in both houses of Congress. I was devastated. Couldn't the American people see that these men were fools? Couldn't they see that this man had turned record surpluses into massive deficits? That this man had wasted American blood and treasure in an elective war whose only purpose seemed to be to strengthen his own war powers and cow the American political process for his own purposes?
It felt like my country no longer cared about the same things I cared about. How infuriating and sad it was to believe only the worst things about my countrymen. And then there was the gloating.
Bush came on the TV the next day and proclaimed that his narrow victory in the electoral college was a mandate for him to assert his agenda even more forcefully upon the American people. With a cocksure smile he proclaimed his mandate and a new plan of conservatism for America. The American press was proclaiming the death of the Democratic Party, much as they are proclaiming the death of the Republican Party now. A common question was, "Can the Democratic Party win elections anymore?"
Yes we can.
I remember seeing Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was a stirring speech, to be sure. It almost seemed a throwback to the kind of Democratic optimism that characterized Kennedy and Roosevelt. Here was a candidate, a man, willing to stand up and speak the truth: We are not a country of disparate, divided interests. "There is the United States of America." It brought home to me that the kind of thoughtful politician we were told about in grade school could be alive and well in America.
When the primary season began some two years ago it seemed almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton would sweep away Democratic opposition and barrel into the Fall of 2008 with the kind of inevitable momentum that would make her the first woman President of the United States. And then a funny thing happened: Barack Obama began to speak. I've heard a lot about Obama's rhetoric, mainly with a skeptical eye towards a sly politician. And yet these people seem not to recognize that sophism and philosophy are not necessarily in conflict. A beautiful word can be the reflection of a beautiful idea. And a clunky, broken phrase does not necessarily speak to wisdom or anything at all. Words in themselves are lifeless, it takes a man or woman to bring them to vivid reality. Every right action should begin with an idea, who's expression through action can be shared through the medium of speech. Speech, then, is only a phase of thought on the way to purposeful action.
Perhaps this an explanation of Obama's success. Perhaps America was so moved by the idea of Obama and his speech that action became inevitable. And yet behind this was a keen set of minds that set their sights on the opposition, their strengths and weakness, and set about thoroughly destroying them.
I feel almost sorry for a country or terrorist organization going up against Obama or Axelrod or Plouffe. These men orchestrated one of the most brilliant campaigns in American history. They not only dismantled one of the most well funded, organized, and popular candidates in the history of the Democratic Party in Hillary Clinton, they also destroyed the Rove-Republican establishment. Four years ago it was asked if Democrats could win elections anymore, not it's being asked how many decades it will take for the Republicans to recover. To be sure, George W. Bush had much say in the downfall of the Republican Party, but it also took a new kind of politician to hasten the downfall.
My election night this year was very different than in years past. For the first half of it I was at an Obama calling party trying to get voters in swing states out to the polls. Good news came early: despite McCain's last ditch efforts, Pennsylvania would go to Obama. When the polls closed in New Mexico I came home to await the news. The states were counted off first in a trickle and then the momentum began to build: Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Virginia! We were going to win, but why weren't they announcing it? And then at 9 P.M. Utah time, California came in like a Deus Ex Machina and made Barack Obama the president-elect.
I never thought an election would make me so emotional. It wasn't just a validation of the past eight years of struggling and griping, it seemed to be a validation of a faith in my country that always lingered in the back of my mind behind a veil of hardened skepticism. America can make the right choice afterall. I believe in no gods and yet I take this core belief in spirit of human progress as my religion. We can, if we are willing, overcome bigotry and ignorance to stand in the light of reason. To those forces that would divide us and deny to us the truth that we are a people of shared interests and that through dialogue and patient study we can unite together in peace towards the goal of a more perfect world we can stand up and shout "Enough!" and our voices will be heard.
A new day is coming in America. I am filled with nothing but optimism, even as the dark clouds of world events close in. We can overcome.
Yes we can.