Obama and “the Elecular”
By Tom Engelhardt
The following email came in from my friend Wendy, very early Tuesday morning: “At 6:22, I am standing in a block long line on w. 65th. In 33 years I have never stood behind more than ten people for a prez election”
Keep in mind that we’re talking about New York City, where the election result was never in doubt. At about the same time, at our neighborhood polling place, my wife found a more than hour-long line winding around the block, and my son, on his way to work, had a similar traffic-jam experience. For a friend downtown, it was two-and-a-half hours. Again, this wasn’t contested Ohio, it was New York City.
So don’t think I wasn’t excited — even thrilled, even filled with hope — when, at 11:30 that morning I hit my polling place and still found a sizeable, if swiftly moving, line of voters of every age, size, and color, and in the sunniest of moods. Normally, on voting day, I just waltz in. But it was a pleasure to wait and imagine. Even then I knew, as Jonathan Freedland wrote recently of Tom Friedman’s new book, that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” But believe me, that didn’t stop me from thinking about what the turnout might be like in states where it mattered, or what that might mean. And it didn’t stop me from remembering another moment, more than four years earlier.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was walking the floor of a packed Democratic Convention in Boston, interviewing dutiful delegates. They were intent on nominating John Kerry as the Party’s candidate because they were convinced he was the man who could “win.” Despite no less dutiful cheering as speakers rattled on, there was a low hum of conversation, a sense of distraction in the air — until, that is, a politician I had never heard of, a young man from Illinois named Barack Obama, was introduced as the keynote speaker.
All I can say is that I’ve never been in a crowd so electrified. It was visceral, as if the auditorium itself had suddenly come alive. I felt it as a pure shot of energy coursing through my body. Like others in that vast arena, I simply didn’t know what hit me. When it was over — and it took a long time for that surging din to ebb — when I could finally shout into a cell phone, I called my daughter, who, by an odd coincidence, was in the nosebleed section of the same arena with a camera crew. What I said to her (and then repeated to a friend in another call soon after) was: “I know this is going to sound ridiculous but I think I just heard a future president of the United States.” (And then, in my report from the convention, I actually wrote it down: “He was a knock-out. Call me starry-eyed, or simply punchy as a day inside the Fleet Center ended, but there’s always something about genuine enthusiasts that just does get to you. I thought to myself when Obama was finished and the place was truly rocking, maybe, just maybe, I listened to a speech by a future president of the United States.”)
Soon after, a friend commented that people had said the same thing of Julian Bond back in the 1960s. And I promptly forgot all about it until my daughter reminded me of it this spring.
Last night, that electric moment came to mind again — as a journey of unbelievable improbability reached its provisional, slightly miraculous endpoint. And, while the results poured in, I had another visit from the past. I remembered a day in 1950. I was six and my mother had taken me to one of those magnificent old movie palaces then still on Broadway in New York City to see a cowboy flick. At its climax, with the hero and villain locked in primordial struggle on a mountainside, the bad guy went over the cliff. As it happened, my father had mentioned this dramatic plot development the previous evening and so, as the villain dropped into the void, I yelled out into that darkened theater in sheer delight at being in the know, “My Dad told me it was going to happen this way!”
It’s one of those typical kid stories — embarrassing and yet with a certain charm — that families tend to hang onto. And 58 years later, it came to mind as Barack Obama and the Democrats were storming through the electoral landscape. With various friends gathered at my house for a party meant to wipe out the misery and memory of a similar party four years earlier, I had the same primordial if irrational urge to shout out: “My friend Steve told me it was going to happen this way!”
I’m talking about Steve Fraser, my partner at our book publishing enterprise, the American Empire Project. Back in February 2007 at TomDispatch, he explored the possibility that this would be a “turning-point election,” and not so long after became convinced that it would be. Maybe it was that 2004 electoral “hangover,” but I couldn’t convince myself of the same and so, increasingly, obsessionally, began checking out daily polling information on the campaign and trolling the Internet for endless commentary on the same.
When I’d call Steve to discuss the odds of a turning-point election actually happening, though, he would have none of it. Such a result was, for him, a given, and he had better things to do. He never wavered.
I can’t claim the same. These last few months, I developed the Internet equivalent of a series of physical tics. The Daily Kos poll at 7:30; Rasmussen at 9:30; Gallup after 1; those repeated visits to Nate Silver’s superb FiveThirtyEight.com, to TPM Election Central, to RealClearPolitics.com, and, of course, to Pollster.com to stare, and then stare again, at the prospective electoral map, to run the cursor over state polling averages that often changed not a whit from week to week. If this wasn’t addiction, what was?
And so this morning, I woke up to a unique headline in my hometown paper — just OBAMA in inch-high letters — to genuine relief, but also to a kind of weird emptiness. It was over and it was, I realized, several things at once, including, of course, the Bush era, which should have ended in 2004 (or never begun), and which has been the nightmare of my adult life. Of course, you need to add in, as well, the end of a nearly thirty-year cycle of triumphant Republicanism (with that sorry Clintonista interlude) that left the country flat on its proverbial back.
It was also Barack Obama’s remarkable victory, the turning-point election of all time — at least in the sense of ending what Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln began, what could not have happened without a great and brave movement in the 1950s and 1960s that demanded of America what its founding documents, its most basic ideology, insisted should already be so.
A black president of the United States. A black first lady. In my younger days, no one could have convinced me this would happen in my lifetime. A massive movement of millions of young people on the ground, committed to, not alienated from, a future government — yes, that, too, was something we hadn’t seen in quite a while, except perhaps on the evangelical right.
Today, it’s clear enough that Obama’s electoral juggernaut has swept a landscape already devastated and devalued by the Bush administration — and that’s no small thing. But there was another it as well, one that’s harder to put a name to, another kind of juggernaut that managed to make its way under my skin and into my life — into the lives, I suspect, of so many Americans over the last two years, and that I hold responsible both for those tics and that emptiness. It’s what left me asking this morning: What hit me? What in the world was that?
And, really, what was it? We persist in calling it an “election,” or an “electoral campaign.” But you could catch something of what else it was in the journalistic bravado, combined with awe (or, perhaps, if such a word existed, I mean “self-awe”), as the TV news people made their Monday-night pitches for election eve viewers. They spoke with a kind of pride of “the longest campaign in U.S. history,” “the most exciting presidential election in our lifetime,” “the most closely followed election campaign in recent years,””the most expensive election in,” and so on, while my hometown paper front-paged it Monday as: “A Sea Change for Politics as We Know It.”
A sea change. A tsunami of entertainment, or was it distraction? An eternal election campaign. Two years of the most everything — the most money, the most small contributors, the most large contributors, the most ads, the most polls, the most lobbyists, the most extensive ground game, the most places (Internet, email, YouTube, Facebook, bloggers, text messaging, cell phones), the most jokes, the most appearances by candidates on late-night talk shows or TV satirical programs involving themselves, and, of course, the most talking (or babbling) heads and media pundits, always predicting, assessing, sizing-up, telling us what the candidates “must” do, and do, and do, 24/7. Whole programs, whole cable stations, whole news cycles, whole websites devoted to nothing but the constant discussion of well, what? More spinners, bloviators, and pundits than previously existed on the face of the Earth. The most, the most but only, naturally, until the next time when, you can be sure — as Howard Dean’s Internet fund-raising experiment was to Barack Obama’s — the most of 2008 will prove but a baseline for future mosts.
So let me just ask again: What was that? What just happened? I don’t mean Barack Obama entering the Oval Office on January 20, 2009. I mean to me. I mean to us. I mean, what were all those talking heads on MSNBC, and CNN, and FOX doing? What were those bizarre feedback loops and YouTube videos of “events” you’ve already long forgotten? What were the gazillion ads and the gazillion discussions of them, and really, what were all those polls, hundreds and hundreds of polls, more polls than humanity has probably ever seen? What were they all about?
Whatever it was, it was supersized, a Big Maclection. It glued eyes to TV sets and the Internet, and, above all else, it — what we kept insistently calling an “election” — was bloated beyond belief. Like, say, the Pentagon. It was, in short, imperial.
And it never ended. In fact, we hadn’t made it anywhere near November 4, 2008 before you could feel the next round, the next “election,” revving up. 2012 was already on the drawing board. Would it be Sarah Palin v. Hillary Clinton? Was Mitt Romney still in the race? Would the Republicans roar back, or would they be a rump white party in the wilderness of the deep South and deep West for a generation to come? Think of it as the eternal election.
Millions of people devoted themselves to this election. Knocked on doors. Made phone calls. And yet it — the thing I’m talking about — was the very opposite of individual.
The vote last night was surely a crude and belated American judgment on the misrule of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, on the economic catastrophe they had such a hand in bringing down on us, and even on the Iraq War and the President’s woebegone Global War on Terror, but despite the commitment of millions, this was not simply an election, not in the old-fashioned sense anyway. Even though perhaps 130 million people ended up in voting booths, following about a trillion “serial elections” that we call “opinion polls,” it wasn’t primarily for or about us. It was for and about them. It was, above all, an event for, and geared to, the media itself, which fed it, stoked it, and lived off it. All those tics of mine were surely secondary symptoms of a process they controlled (but undoubtedly understood little better than we do).
To me, there’s something distinctly human, and small scale, about an election. A single individual casts a single vote. That vote theoretically matters. It helps determine your fate. You are, to use our President’s phrase, “the decider.” And yes, Americans did finally decide something last night. Yet, when I look at these last two bizarre years of “campaigning,” nobody can convince me that we were, in any but the vaguest sense, the deciders in this election, or that, underneath what was indeed human and thrilling, there wasn’t something deeper, larger, colder, quite monstrous, and still growing.
The Elecular of 2012
Sometimes, reality simply outruns the words meant to describe it. Historically, when a new Chinese dynasty came to power, the emperor performed a ceremony called “the rectification of names” — on the theory that the previous dynasty had fallen, in part, because reality and the names for it had gone so out of whack, because words no longer described the world they were meant for.
After the Bush years, we desperately need such a rectification. And perhaps we need a new word — maybe a whole new vocabulary — as well for the “election season” that never ends, that seems now something like a grim, eternal American Idol contest. Just to start the discussion, I offer a modest one, “elecular,” a combination of “election” and “spectacular,” or maybe “electacle.” Or using “campaign,” “camptacular” or “spectaculaign.” None of which catches the darker side of this strange, overwhelming gauntlet through which “democracy” must pass.
Do I understand this? No. Like the rest of us, like the very talking heads on FOX News or CNN or Charlie Rose, or well, you name it I’m immersed in what Todd Gitlin once termed “the torrent,” which is our televisual civilization, of which this last campaign was such a part.
I can’t help but think, despite the quality of the man who somehow ended up atop our world, that this was indeed an imperial election, far too supersized for any real democracy. Yes, Americans crudely expressed the displeasure of a people who had had enough, and thank heavens for that, but our will? The People’s Will. I doubt greatly that the People’s Will is going to make it to Washington with Barack Obama.
On this small, noisy, endangered planet of ours with its almost 7 billion high-end omnivores — that’s us, in case you didn’t know — something historically quite out of the ordinary and wonderful just happened, and something historically quite out of the ordinary and disturbing happened as well. One man changed history. One juggernaut ran over us all.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Barack Obama is but a man. One man, living these last years like the rest of us at the heart of a juggernaut — and I don’t mean his campaign — that none of us really understands.
In the meantime, if things get worse, there’s always the elecular of 2012 to look forward to.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years, has recently been published.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt