Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes We Can

Tuesday night (actually, early Wed) I watched Barack Obama first address the nation and the world as the President-Elect—to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in Grant Park, in unseasonably balmy Chicago. In the audience, the cameras showed Jesse Jackson crying. In Nova Scotia, so was I.

Finally, we have a chance to do it differently. Now it’s up to all of us to make something of the opportunity. They say being the President is tantamount to getting up every morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Well, it isn’t just Obama’s Herculean labor to muck out the Aegean stables of politics as usual; we all need to get a hand on that fire hose and figure out how to direct that stream of water usefully—lest we drown in a flood tide of teary regret and spilt milk.

We are on the cusp of hope, and I didn’t know how much I thirsted for it until I got so choked up as Obama remind me of my commitment to optimism. While I don’t really know whether we can or cannot, I know there is no advantage to thinking we can’t. I’ll have my oar in the water, pulling in concert with Obama, doing what I can to help build a world that works better for everyone.

• • •
Visiting my in-laws in Nova Scotia, for the first ever I watched a US presidential election from a foreign country. I never fully appreciated how arcane our politics are until I attempted to explain the meaning of what CNN was reporting to a group of intelligent, but mystified Canadians (whom we had invited over for the evening of Americana and to watch the returns—we served chicken wings, pizza, campaign trail mix, and apple pie).

No, it didn’t mean much that McCain carried South Carolina, or that Obama got Vermont; but Obama being declared the winner in Pennsylvania was a big deal.

In Canadian federal elections, they vote for the party (not the leader) and the party determines who will ascend to become the premier. Our Canadian friends liked our system of voting for the person—if only they could understand it.

Is each state’s allotment of electoral votes proportional to population? Answer: sort of. I explained that a state’s number of electoral votes equaled the sum of its Senators and Representatives, which is never lower than three. While the assignment of Representatives is proportional to population (one person, one vote), the assignment of Senators is independent of population: everyone gets exactly two (one state, two votes). I may as well have been explaining the mysteries of matrilineal descent in Swahili.

Finally, in near exasperation, I stated, “I can explain the US electoral system; I just can’t defend it.”

How could they project one candidate the winner as soon as the polls closed, before even one percent of the vote had been tallied? We waded into the arcane world of exit polls, statistical analysis, margins of error… and their eyes glazed over.

In the end, I realized how decades of US elections had trained me to know how to sort wheat from chaff when watching returns (on Tuesday the key markers were the presidential race in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; or the senate races in NH, TN, LA, MN, and OR). I was not surprised that Latinos were voting much more for Obama than they had for previous Democrats; I was surprised that race did not seem to be a factor (among those who reported in exit polls that race mattered to them; 55% voted for Obama; among those who reported it didn’t matter, 53% voted for Obama). It was, thankfully, a neap tide for the Bradley effect.

I knew the Presidential race was over when Obama carried Ohio, yet it mattered a great deal that Obama also won some southern states (Virginia, Florida, and finally, North Carolina), demonstrating strength in all regions. He was going to get a mandate to lead; not a house divided. When Republican analysts lamented the unfortunate timing of Wall Street’s recent free fall, it was the same old song (and time to get another beer).

But when John McCain gave his concession speech in Phoenix, I held my breath. How would he spin it? To his credit, John rose to the occasion and spoke graciously. He gave Obama credit and offered an olive branch (after watching some of the debates, it was far from obvious that he would make this choice). I exhaled. Give McCain credit, he went out with his head held high and he pointed the way to the bridge we'll need in the days ahead (resisting the impulse to dynamite the abutments on his way out the door). The people had indeed spoken, and in his final speech on center court, McCain responded as an American, not as a Republican.

I want the civility and optimism that emerged Tuesday to be nurtured into a future that’s like that every day. I am hopeful.

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