Barack Obama's inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 2009
On this election day I'd like to suggest a re-read of the guest post, "The Rewrite," by Teju Cole, written and published here the night of Obama's election four years ago.
What a different day that was, quivering with hope and anticipation! I was thrilled about the election of our first black president, but less dewy-eyed about his prospects for changing things than many of my friends. Still, my husband and I saw it as a momentous, historical occasion, so much so that we drove from Montreal to Washington that January to attend the inauguration. ("Inauguration Journal," The Cassandra Pages, Jan 2009)
As it turned out, I was unfortunately right about Obama vs. Congress, Obama vs. the status quo, Obama vs. the conservative media machine, Obama vs. the military complex, Obama vs. Public Fear, Obama vs. the Israeli lobby...on it goes. I wonder what he really thinks, when he sits down and talks to Michelle after a long day. Has he moved in his deepest convictions, or simply woken up to the divisive, mean-spirited, nearly-gridlocked reality that is U.S. politics today? I still think he is a good man, brilliantly quick to grasp the nuances of any subject -- and therefore I'd much rather have him at the helm than any Republican alternative. But, regardless, if he wins it's still going to be politics as usual.
When I visit the United States these days, I'm struck with the general level of frustration, bitterness and anger among not only the disenfranchised, but the solidly middle-class: people who've had good educations, worked hard, saved money. They see their children growing up in uncertainty, with fewer opportunities than we had, at a time when corporate greed runs rampant, aided and abeted by the government. These are people with common sense and a sense of fairness who see neither in the way their government operates.
I'm a writer, and have long valued the power of the spoken and written word. Obama came to office largely on the strength of his ability to speak. I think we all felt he spoke from his heart, and I don't doubt that still. But as we've seen, rhetoric may be golden, but it can turn out to be flimsy gilt foil rather than 24K; loftly rhetoric doesn't change the minds or hearts of people who are determined to work for their own self-interest and that of those who pay them with gifts, favors, trips, and contributions. Neither words nor good intentions can turn around the ship of insider-government: the way things are done and have always been done in an entrenched power structure. And even more tragic than that is the fact that how ordinary citizens feel, or what their live are like, is less and less a factor in what actually happens. The idea of representative government itself, in the United States, has become an illusion, but one we stubbornly cling to.
As a Vermonter, I was always proud to cast my vote for the independent Bernie Sanders, first for the House of Representatives and then as a Senator. I was proud to vote for him again this year. He's that very rare bird in Washington: honest and straightforward, outspoken, truly representing not only his constituency but the neediest within it, morally uncompromising, and beholden to few. He was a fixture in Vermont politics as long as I lived there. When we first sent him to Washington the naysayers insisted he'd always be on the fringes, unable to accomplish anything, unable to get his voice heard, but he's proved them wrong.
The difference, I think, is that Vermont is one of the smallest states, where a man of Bernie's integrity can cut across party lines and capture people's hearts not only through rhetoric but by actually doing what he says he'll do, day in, day out, year after year. I doubt if he could have been elected in, say, New York, the much larger state where I grew up. By virtue of its small size and tradition of local debate and control, Vermont has also been able to pass controversial, ground-breaking measures, from environmental protection laws to the early adoption of same-sex partnerships. Lately, the state has been pushing toward adopting its own single-payer, European-style health care system; today's election will probably decide whether that initiative continues to go forward or not.
I doubt if the Founding Fathers anticipated the sheer size to which the United States would grow, or the enormous difficulty of governing such an entity either at home, or in its capacity as a world power. If I have any hope for the future, it lies in greater local control, greater citizen involvement, and more insistence on representatives following the will of the people. Here in Quebec during 2012, public opinion expressed on the streets, during a summer of protest and unrest, forced the Liberal provincial government to call elections, which they then lost. Revelations from a province-wide, ongoing inquest into political corruption forced the mayor of Montreal to resign last night, and will have many other far-reaching consequences.
The demos in democracy is, after all, us -- and yet, over time, we've slowly handed over our own rights to others who have twisted them into something almost unrecognizable. It's an illusion to think they mean what they say, and an even greater illusion to think they're going to give those rights back without a struggle, a collapse, or a defeat. The Book of Kings told it like it was, in the dawn of written history, and that story has been written and rewritten over thousands of years: the basest qualities of human nature don't change, nor does the basic human struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. Voting is crucial, but it takes a lot more than that.