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
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
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
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
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
American Empire Project. Back in February 2007 at TomDispatch,
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
It was also Barack Obama's remarkable victory, the
turning-point election of all time at least in the sense
of ending what Frederick Douglas, 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
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 fundraising
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 Sara 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
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.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt