W(h)ither America 2008: We Did It! or We’ve Done Nothing

Two weeks after this year’s historic presidential election, Josh Fischel reflects on the understated nature of Barack Obama’s victory.

A few summers ago, I hiked up Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. At the peak, we saw a few thru-hikers who had just finished the whole thing—a thousands-mile long journey that takes months of gumption and effort. Rather than elation, though, they mostly seemed deeply saddened by reaching this point. The process had consumed them, had re-defined them, and now you could see it in their eyes: What do I do now?

I’m not sure what I expected to feel when Obama was elected. I didn’t find myself amid any jubilant throngs; instead, I went to a low-key party until Ohio was called for Obama, and then came home and stayed up to watch coverage all the way through Obama’s speech in Grant Park. My wife went to sleep earlier because she had to teach all four classes the next day. Part of me wished I’d been celebrating with strangers in the streets, crying deliriously, raising my arms in victory as cars honked their horns in agreement. But part of me—probably more of me—felt just fine watching by myself, not getting too caught up in that moment, lest I experience that sinking, sober moment, like the thru-hikers who didn’t realize that getting to the end of their journey would only lead to more questions.

Instead, I’ve taken satisfaction in saying “President-Elect Barack Obama.” The biggest quasi-rally I went to was two days after the election: a taping of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, the NPR news quiz, where the entire blue audience cheered wildly every time Obama was mentioned. And in watching him make what I think and hope are pragmatic decisions about dealing with the crises that Bush has thrown down in front of the next president.

More than that glazed and frightened expression that comes with finally realizing a dream and then realizing it didn’t provide any answers, I worry about complacency. I worry about hubris, too. Our recent history is littered with bad examples of one-party rule. Will the Democrats have learned their lesson, that incremental change is necessary to shifting our political center back to something approaching a moderate viewpoint?

I like to think that the success of Proposition 8 in California actually served as a wake-up call at the same time that we were celebrating Obama’s election. The opponents of same-sex marriage are on the same side of civil rights as George Wallace, Bull Connor, and Orval Faubus. Among my group of friends, it universally tainted the joy of Election Day.

The answer, of course, is not in protesting the Mormon Church, which poured millions of dollars from out of state into the effort to ban same-sex marriage. Action that seems extreme or vindictive isn’t going to win any battles for public opinion. Shifting perceptions of gay marriage—which could have worked had the ballot initiative come an election cycle or two from now, when people had time to see that gay marriage wasn’t harming anyone—will be important. I listened to a Focus on the Family broadcast about the election, in which one of the participating pastors said of the so-called homosexual agenda, “The things that are stake are just as key to the survival of Western civilization as World War II was when we were facing down Nazism.” That statement obviously seemed horrible and offensive to my ear; I want it to seem shocking and dumb to a healthy majority of voters; then, we’ll have a big vote on gay marriage and justice will win.

But justice won’t win if we think Obama’s victory is the end of our struggles with a myriad of issues. He is, perhaps, a catalyst, but he himself is not a solution. I’m reminded of a song from a terribly sad movie I just saw, Synecdoche, New York, called “Little Person”:

I’m just a little person
One person in a sea
Of many little people
Who are not aware of me.

I do my little job
And live my little life
Eat my little meals
Miss my little kid and wife

And somewhere, maybe someday
maybe somewhere far away
I’ll find a second little person
who will look at me and say, “I know you.”

Obama’s victory came on the backs of countless volunteers who felt like they had something to offer, that together, we could build a re-birth of our country and its actual values. But in the end, we’re all still little people, and it will remain tough but essential to continue to press and criticize amidst the cacophony of empty praise.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.