I voted over a week ago, and I voted for Obama. You may think you know why, but you might be wrong.
Obama’s 2008 campaign for president was the first time I became active in a campaign. I actually made cold phone calls from the headquarters here in town, and canvassed neighborhoods months before the election — alone. I was energized by the potential Obama embodied — of creating structural changes in our country on a wave of tremendous popular support. I was inspired by the profound significance of having an African American family in the White House. The night of the election results, I celebrated with hundreds of strangers, exchanging hugs and tears ina ballroom where we watching history unfold. There was elation in the street as well, which I enjoyed as I drove home. Two months later, I watched the inauguration on TV and about lost it when Barack and Michelle danced to “At Last” sung live by Queen Beyoncé herself.
Like so many, I felt like I was finally a part of something great. I was ready to get to work. I was ready to receive my orders. But none came.
Today in 2012, I am somewhat disillusioned with Obama, but less than many progressives. I was concerned in the months leading up to Obama’s election that too many progressives viewed him as The Messiah. I had a feeling that pedestal-pushing was going to backfire. Like a love affair with someone who can do no wrong often ends in hatred, I saw and heard many progressives express almost as much disgust with Obama in the months following his inauguration as they had expressed toward John McCain in the months prior. Damning McCain and exalting Obama never were healthy approaches to the real problems facing us, since this sort of good-and-evil rhetoric does the convenient job of excusing us from any responsibility. More on that later.
There are things that Obama has done that I’m not happy with. More undocumented immigrants have been deported on his watch than any other. Drone strikes in the Middle East have become commonplace. He has done nothing to roll back the excessive powers Bush placed in the Executive Branch. He put banker Timothy Geithner in charge of reforming Wall Street, which is like putting a McDonald’s executive in charge of reforming our food industry. He hasn’t taken advantage of key opportunities to bring up race or racism (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent piece in The Atlantic). We continue to rapidly devolve into a Surveillance State with limited freedom and privacy (see Glenn Greewald’s writings and videos on this topic). We went into Pakistan, murdered Osama bin Laden in front of his wife, shamefully dumped his body in the sea, then celebrated our behavior as if such barbary were the righteous way to respond to the tragedy of 9/11.
But I still voted for Obama last week. Not because his worldview and life experience is much more closely aligned with mine (and most of the country’s) than Romney’s. Not because his Christianity threatens my rights and values less than Romney’s Mormonism. Not because my access to contraception and abortion remain safe with him and Biden. Not because he seems to genuinely care about the well-being of most people in the country. Not because Europeans overhwelming favor Obama over Romney. Not because he and Biden came out in favor of marriage equality. Not because he allowed young, undocumented DREAMers to pursue their education unmolested. Not because of the benefits I’m already enjoying under Healthcare Reform, or the promise of a slightly reduced unemployment rate.
All of these things definitely matter to me. But the main reason I voted for Obama is the main reasons I voted for him in 2008. He is the best person to most gently guide our nation into its decline.
Empires fall, and so will ours. It already is. For evidence, you need only look at our declining wages, declining health, declining standard of living, declining quality of products (clothing is where I see this the most), declining level of critical thinking and engagement, declining infrastructure, and declining institutions (educational, financial, healthcare, and political). In fact, we’ve been able to prop up our economy for a few years with stopgap measures like the stimulus and auto and bank bailouts (funny how we decry socialism and then engage in socialism when capitalism leads to inevitable failures!). But these only keep the illusion alive.
The truth is that our nation’s status quo is unsustainable. Our level of consumption is outrageous and immoral (we’d need 6 more planets if every human consumed like the average American). Our level of inequality is socially unstable. Like Katrina, Hurricane Sandy once again uncovered the staggering inequities that we nonchalantly take for granted in this country. The top fifth of New Yorkers makes 40 times more than the bottom fifth — a gap that’s not only growing, but rivaled only by a few developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
We keep wailing at our government to provide us with more jobs. There are two problems with this. One, there are less jobs today thanks to technology and outsourcing to locales where workers are not only cheaper, but often more competent than we are. Two, we are expecting government to solve a problem for us, even when it means “creating jobs” at the expenses of the environment or any sustainable model of economic development. We shouldn’t be struggling to revive a defective economy focusing only on growth and GDP, but create a new economy entirely, based on what Gus Speth calls “people, place and planet” in America the Possible.
I am no Libertarian. Government is important and essential to do for us collectively what we cannot do ourselves. But we’ve forgotten that we own the government — or we’re supposed to — and we have become lazy and complacent in solving our own problems creatively, in community.
Elected officials are always trying to get elected or hold onto their seats, so no politician is going to come clean with the U.S. public and say “look, we’re an empire in decline, there are no more jobs, we can’t keep consuming the way we have much less base our economy on our levels of consumption. So let’s figure out a new game plan together.” Can you imagine?!
Actually, I can, which is why I’m more in alignment with the Justice Party or the Green Party. However, I still voted for Obama because the risk of a Romney presidency is too great, and that risk is real if too many of us vote for “third parties” — here’s one perspective on that topic from LA Progressive. The gross inequalities in France and the conspicuous consumption of its ruling elite right before the French Revolution keep coming to my mind these days — maybe because Les Miz is hitting the big screen this winter (coincidence or serendipity?) but also becuse I see parallels with the U.S. today. A Romney presidency might push the rest of us 99% right over the ledge of complacency into all-out mutiny and revolution.
And maybe that would be the upside of a Romney election. The potential of an Obama re-election is continued complacency among progressives. In his brilliant piece on the “Empire State of Mind” that has shaped even Obama’s presidency — in which the super wealthy see themselves as super entitled and persecuted, and the rest of us accommodate, admire, and want to emulate them — Imara Jones talks about the danger of the fantasy world all of us live in regarding wealth, and the danger this poses to democracy and our society. He wonders if we’re ready to reconnect with reality, and so do I.
Still, Obama is the best person to continue to lower us gently into a decline that doesn’t have to lead to complete collapse or total destruction. There are a few reasons I believe this, which have everything to do with the kind of person I believe Obama to be, and less about his policies. First, everything I’ve read about Obama suggests a real person who is brilliant, willing to be vulnerable, genuinely caring, and even tempered (see Michael Lewis’s recent Vanity Fair piece as an example). Second, I believe Obama is in touch with his feminine side, witness his relationship and frequent mention of his two daughters, his relationship with his strong wife, and his politeness in the first presidential debate and respectful demeanor towards the moderators in all three (penis sword fighting with Romney in the second and third debates notwithstanding).
Third, Obama, and his family, are more similar in looks, life experience, and philosophy with the majority of the Earth, the majority of the U.S., and the future of both. This can, and will, help ease our transition to being a participant in the world than its overlord.
This isn’t an easy transition for anyone to lead. In fact, a recent study found negative attitudes towards African Americans — both implicit and explicit — are higher now than in 2008, and now held by a majority of U.S.ians (take that, “post-racial society” believers!). Obama’s race is estimated to have cost him up to 5 percentage points in 2008. But the fortitude, integrity and stamina required to face real, daily struggles of race, class, and privilege are the qualities we need in a leader.
My hope is that Obama’s second term is characterized by more boldness and real change. Unencumbered by the need to campaign for a second term and forged in the fire of one, he may become the Democrats’ Reagan, as Andrew Sullivan outlined nicely in Newsweek. My hope is also that more of us average Janes, Joes, Juanas, Josés, Jamals and Jamilas will wake up, hold Obama accountable to move real change forward, and take greater personal responsibility for embodying those changes and moving them forward in our lives, families, communities, and institutions.
Some of those changes might start with caps on campaign spending (imagine how those two billion dollars might have been better spent!) and reform of where those dollars come from. From there, a reform of voter identification and where, when, and how we can vote. A complete revolution of our consumption-and-inequality-based financial system starting with the repeal of Citizens United v. FEC. An overhaul in the tax structure. A huge increase in the minimum wage. More collective bargaining and unions. A complete revolution in quality education for all, and free healthcare for all. A complete revolution in how we power and fuel our machines, and how we feed our bodies. A reduction in the power of the executive branch and the level of surveillance in our lives. A movement towards racial equity and reparations for Native American nations. Full equality in pay and democratic representation for women in all spheres. A lack of tolerance for violence against women and children. Access to birth control and abortion at all times to everyone. Marriage quality for all. A commitment to integrity, people-centered values and community over profit and competition. And a reasonably-sized lifestyle for everyone.
It IS possible, and only WE can make this happen — together. No one is coming to save us from ourselves.
So VOTE! And when you do, vote for people, place, and planet … not profit, plutocracy and powerlessness. And regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s election, continue every day after November 6th to stand up for people, place, and planet in your words, decisions, actions, and purchases.