Letting the American Reality Sink In

Whenever something big happens, people always say “remember where you were on that day,” as if you will forget. On November 4th 2008, something big happened – Barack Obama, was elected the 44th President of the United States. Remember where you were that day, and where you were when it finally sunk in that our country had detached itself from its past and set a mandate for the next generation of Americans.

At 2AM on November 5th, I found myself in Central Square, watching a small group of students wind down the night’s festivities after Harvard Square had overflowed with hundreds of ecstatic millennials an hour earlier. As “yes we can” echoed off the walls of buildings on the dimly lit and increasingly deserted city streets, my attention was caught by a middle-aged African-American man, who stood by himself holding a small American flag and quietly observing the scene.

On any other day, he may have seemed out of place amongst 20 first and maybe second time voters reveling in their adrenaline and alcohol-fueled euphoria. But this day was something different. The reality that we had elected our country’s first African-American President was starting to sink in, and we were all excited to share in the moment.

As my mom told me on the phone, “I am really happy for your generation. For my generation, the last happy moment in politics was 1960.” Barack Obama was born right around that time, on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu Hawaii, a day in our nation’s history when a man of his skin color would have to ride on the back of the bus, and use different bathrooms than people with white skin. My parents were part of the youth generation that founds its inspiration in JFK, Martin Luther King and others who showed them a way out of the evils of racial segregation and discrimination that were still allowed under our Constitution.

Today’s youth generation knows of the ’60s only through textbooks and our parents’ Bob Dylan CDs, but I believe that it is our detachment from this time that has most prepared us for the idea of an African American president. This 2008 election has incited the youth to shed their reputation as the apathetic voting demographic, with 24 million Americans ages 18 to 29 casting ballots. This increase in by at least 2.2 million over 2004 puts the youth turnout somewhere between 49.3 and 54.5 percent, meaning 19 percent more young people voted this year than in 2004.

But even beyond an impressive overall turnout, the youth voters flocked overwhelmingly to Barack Obama, who won amongst 18 to 29 voters 66-32 percent, according to CNN exit polls. This was the highest share of the youth vote obtained by any candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age in 1976. The sharp contrast between youth voters and voters over 65, which voted 53-45 percent in favor of John McCain may be further evidence that there are different driving forces at work between the generations.

Obama’s support from minorities and women voters was also key to his victory on November 4th. African Americans composed 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, surpassing the previous record of 11 percent, and Obama managed to win a close to unanimous vote with African Americans (95 percent). Obama also won big with Latino voters (67-31 percent versus McCain), which undermined fears that competition between Blacks and Latinos would drive these voters towards McCain and his somewhat loose policies on immigration. Obama even won handily with Asian-Americans, by 62-31 percent. Obama also did very well with women (56-43 percent), particularly driven by his appeal to middle-class suburban voters. In fact, the only demographic where he didn’t fare well as a whole was with white Americans, who voted 55-43 percent in favor of McCain, strongly driven by voters above 30 years of age.

I watched Barack’s acceptance speech from inside Tommy Doyle’s, holding two beers, and shouldered between several complete strangers and a cardboard cut-out of the President Elect. I had never seen “TD’s” so crowded, or so introspective as he proclaimed “we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.” This promise to end partisan politics, echoing his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, was something that I always wanted to believe was possible. As I watched political pundits play games with the electoral map for weeks on end, suggesting the Barack could win Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, and even Arizona, I got even more anxious, but Liberals (myself included) refused to believe that anything was possible until election day.

We tortured ourselves with the idea of the Bradley Effect – the idea that people would tell pollsters they would vote for a black man and then change their mind at the actual polls. But we had no reason to worry. The polls predicted a seven point win for Obama, and he won by exactly that margin. But even without the benefit of hindsight, we probably could have taken comfort in the fact that Bradley’s loss in the California gubernatorial happened over a quarter of a century ago, and that our country had come a long way since then. We have to give our country more credit than suggesting that we will be forever mired in racial confusion.

Indeed we have come a long way, and we can use the shifting of the electoral map as evidence. Barack won Bush States like Ohio and Florida, traditionally very red states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, and even Virginia, a state that has not voted for a Democrat in 44 years. To people my age, a 53-46 percent win in the popular vote and winning 349 electoral votes begins to sound like the characteristics of a landslide. That would be a fair assessment given the context we have of the very close elections in 2004 and 2008, where Bush won with 271 and 286 electoral votes, respectively.

But there have been many Presidents who have controlled the electoral map, sealing their mandate across all parts of the country. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 525 electoral votes, winning every state except Minnesota, which he blamed on his decision to rest on the final day of the campaign rather than making a speech there. In 1972, Richard Nixon have won 520 electoral votes, and in 1968 won the popular vote.

There is still a polarization that exists in this country, and it will not simply go away when Barack Obama is sworn in to office on January 20th. John McCain won most of his states handily, often with strong double-digit margins, an indication that Obama still has a lot of work to do in unifying the country. With Christopher Shays, New England’s last House Republican losing his election this year, the House and Senate will increasingly be divided between red and blue. Obama’s election year has made strides into red territory, but he will need to be a President that can do more than work with the bi-coastal democrat-friendly states. There is a long way to go before our country is united, but we have made the best choice to move us forward.

On November 4th, 2008, we chose a leader who has inspired the youth and diversity of our nation, moved us past politics of division, and who has begun to reshape an unfriendly electoral map and move this country towards a unified goal of change.

The country will ask a lot from Barack Obama. This will be the first time in history that an American President is faced with both a severe economic crisis and a war upon entering office, and it will be the first wartime transition of the Presidency since 1964. Americans are concerned with jobs, their retirement savings, war, healthcare, energy dependence, and we selected Obama not because he has the answer to every single problem we face in his back pocket, but because he has the judgement to move the country forward while uniting its many constituencies.

November 4th, 2008 was the day that we bridged generational, racial, geographical and gender divides to create an American Reality, where there had only been a Dream before.

As Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech, borrowing words from Martin Luther King Jr – Election Day was “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

Once that sinks in, we can start moving this country forward.