Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Election Is Over -- Now What?

Well, the election is finally over. For the first time since before I was born, Indiana is blue, and I couldn't be more ecstatic. I didn't do a lot to help Sen. Obama win yesterday, but I didn't sit on my hands, either. I spent countless hours writing this blog. I took time to talk to friends and family to try to explain my rationale for supporting Sen. Obama and to try to address their concerns (and, if I do say so, I think that I was largely successful). I attended campaign rallies and information sessions, bought and wore an Obama t-shirt, proudly displayed an Obama bumper sticker on my car (and my wife's car), and posted an Obama sign in our yard. And I spent yesterday serving as a volunteer member of Sen. Obama's "army of lawyers" stationed at a poll in Muncie, Indiana, working to be sure that every eligible voter that wanted to vote had that opportunity (without regard to party affiliation...). I may not have put my life aside and joined the campaign in Iowa or New Hampshire, but I feel as if I did do something -- even if very small -- to make last night possible. And of that, I am immensely proud.
But what now? I have mixed feelings about the election being over. On one hand, I've thoroughly enjoyed blogging about the issues and the problems and the candidates. It gave me a sense of purpose (even if I did become a bit obsessive at times). The number of people who've been reading my blog has increased dramatically, which I'll admit did not hurt my own ego. I've enjoyed the conversations that I've had over dinners and at family gatherings. My brother-in-law and I have probably never had as many substantive conversations as those that we've had in the last few months and an ongoing email thread among my extended (and widely scattered family) has been a terrific opportunity for all of us to connect in ways that we can't do at bar mitzvahs and weddings. So, while I will certainly find new things to write about, I will miss much of what has gone on these last few months.
Then again, I won't miss the more negative aspects of the campaign. I would have preferred to have spent my time writing positive thoughts about the issues rather than taking time to refute baseless attacks or try to even the playing field by showing that Sen. McCain was not the idealized heroic figure he tried to portray. I would have preferred writing about why I support abortion rights or why I think gay marriage is not a threat or why I preferred Sen. Obama's healthcare proposals or why I think that we should negotiate with our neighbors; and I would have preferred not to have spent time writing about G. Gordon Liddy or African witchhunters or lobbyists or offensive campaign ads. That's not really who I am or what I'm all about, but it is what I felt that I needed to write about.
More importantly, I won't be sad to see an end to some of the strife that has infected civil discourse these last few months (and years...). As much as I enjoyed that email discussion with my family, I was troubled that the passions evoked by the campaign allowed one brother to use the word "hate" when talking to another; as much as I enjoyed discussing the issues with friends and family, I was troubled to see instances of racism and bigotry where I did not expect it; and as much as I enjoyed the opportunities to communicate and share with my friends and family, I was troubled by just how polarized some viewpoints were and how unwilling some people were to engage in open, honest debate without resort to talking points and simple (often hurtful) rhetoric. An honest examination of a candidate's record and proposals is one thing; a recitation of unsupported talking points or unsubstantiated rumors is something else; and comparisons terrorists or to Hitler or Mugabe is simply beyond the pale. (And, for the record, to address the comparison that Hitler, like Obama, was able to draw large crowds to rallies, I would suggest two major differences: Hitler used the rhetoric of hate and exclusion; Obama used the rhetoric of hope and inclusion.)
It saddened me that some people would just take something that they heard and assume it to be the truth and I was gratified when I saw others taking the time to actually think about issues, let alone research those issues or the history behind them. I will acknowledge that I, too, used harsh words. But, whenever possible, I made a concerted effort to back up my allegations with sources and citations and I did my best to try to explain, in a reasoned manner, my viewpoints.
Over the last few months, I've repeatedly noted my concerns about the level of vitriol that has infected political debate and discussion. I recited the story of my campaign for county office several years ago in which a voter told me that "Democrats don't have a right to serve in office, because you're all traitors" and I've bemoaned campaign rhetoric that emboldened supporters to shout "terrorist", "traitor", or "kill him". I've written about campaigns that alleged that the opposing candidate was "godless" and the failure in responding to that attack to rebut the presumption that atheists were somehow lesser members of our society. I've written about the smears based upon a person's race or religion and noted prominent statements (such as that by Colin Powell) that recognize that this sort of bigotry stands in opposition to the very foundations of our society. I've worried about rhetoric that presumes that some areas and some people are more "American" than others or that presumes that those who disagree with a certain philosophy are somehow "anti-American". I've lamented exclusionary laws and policies and xenophobic rhetoric. And I've discussed how damaging the politics of personal destruction are, not just to the targets of the attack, but to our democratic process itself.
Just yesterday -- election day -- my 9-year-old daughter came home from school crying because her friends had been mean to her just because she wanted Sen. Obama to win. My wife and I have tried to explain to our kids that we vote for candidates on the basis of their positions on issues that are important to us and that it is imperative that, as they grow up, our kids learn to think about those issues and make choices and decisions for themselves. Sure, we'd love for them to grow up with ideas that reflect ours, but we'd prefer that they grow up willing and able to think rather than just mimic. But while we tried to impart this lesson to our children, they were being confronted by "friends" whose parents instructed their own children to repeat vile lies to our kids, including that Sen. Obama "was a terrorist who had killed people", apparently in the hope that our kids would somehow sway our vote. Maybe that is one of the reasons that we let our kids go in to school a bit late this morning; instead of sending them off to the bus, we let them watch President-Elect Obama's victory speech on TiVo. We told them not to gloat at school. But we also told them to hold their heads high and be proud of last night's historic events. And I suggested to them that if anyone was mean to them today, they should just smile and say, "Yes We Can".
I have no idea what it must have been like to live through the Civil War. But we've all read about how that war and the issues of slavery and state's rights tore not only the nation but also families apart. How many times have we all heard about brother facing off against brother. Today, we're not faced by issues anywhere near as momentous or contentious as slavery. But the issues that we do face, whether economic issues like taxation or social issues like abortion and gay marriage or civil issues like patriotism and voter rights, seem to be having many of the same corrosive effects. And that worries me. If an issue like progressive taxation can bring one brother to use the word "hate" (even if only rhetorically) in a discussion with another brother, if the questions surrounding our "associations" can lead others to question our very patriotism, if discussions of the candidates' merits and of the electorate can lead one family member to question whether another family is a racist, if our own deep-seated prejudices can allow us to believe unsubstantiated rumors or make us want to believe the worst about a candidate, just because he or she is different, if a lie, told often enough, really does become the truth, and the use of a lie really is an effective campaign tool, and if parents will resort to using children to try to sway the opinions of their neighbors, then I have grave concerns about how our country and our civil society will be able to repair and heal these differences and move forward without tearing ourselves apart.
Which, I guess, brings me back to one of the main reasons that I voted for Barack Obama. Sure a great speech is just a bunch of words. But the content of his speeches, the desire to look beyond skin color, to look beyond party affiliation, to look beyond any of the myriad divisions and distinctions that have been used to tear us apart, is a powerful idea. And, though ideas may not be tangible -- I may not be able to take those ideas and use them to feed my children -- our country was founded and succeeded on the basis of ideas, and idealistic ones at that. For too long, we've allowed ourselves to be a collection of interest groups and for too long too many politicians have used wedge issues and the fear of each other and the unknown as a means to their own success and petty ambitions.
Maybe I'm an idealist; maybe I'm naive. But I do believe in Barack Obama's idea of hope and I reject the politics of fear and division embodied by Sen. McCain, Gov. Palin, and much of the Republican party (and if you still don't see that fear and division were at the core of the McCain campaign, not to mention many Republican Senate and House campaigns, then you simply haven't been paying attention). I want our country to be a better place, but I want our country to be one in which diversity, both in terms of who were are (whether race, religion, or any of the other categories used to divide us) and in terms of our ideas, is valued. I want our country to be a place where people are not afraid to stand up and articulate their ideas and their visions for the future and to debate those ideas and visions with others in a civil manner and with an open mind and willingness to, if nothing else, at least listen without first passing judgment. And I want our country to stop valuing mediocrity and again place a value on education and intellectual prowess. There is nothing wrong with a little "deep thought" now and then, and, when it comes to resolving the most important and difficult issues facing us, I'd much prefer leaders who really think about those issues and have the intellectual capacity to understand not only the challenges but the options and potential solutions and unintended consequences.
I don't know if Barack Obama will be a great President. I hope that he is. But I do think that if we at least give him a chance, if we all make a little effort to stop shouting at each other and start talking to each other, if we all spend a little more time thinking about issues instead of just repeating what some talking head tells us is right or true, then maybe, just maybe, America can live up to the ideals that we all learned back in junior high civics class and that the Founding Fathers believed would lead our country forward. One portion of President-Elect Obama's speech last night had a particular resonance for me:
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state [Abraham Lincoln] who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House -- a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends ... though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.
We are living in difficult times. I hope that we are now at the beginning of a new more positive epoch for our country and the world that has so often looked to us as the example of justice and equality. I hope that my children won't have to explain to their children why some people hate others because of their skin color or because of their religion or because they have different ideas. I hope that my children never again experience the politics of hate and can, instead, grow up in a land where hope is not just a word.

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