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The Voting Booth Doesn’t Give Change

On an election night touted as historic, some tired, old, run-of-the-mill discrimination took place. As Barack Obama won crucial swing states, voters in three states supported bans on same-sex marriage, and in another, they voted to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.

I’ve been jaded most of my life, but I still can’t get my mind around the concept of legislating discrimination. People actually devoted time and energy to making a case for limiting certain people’s rights, and a majority of voters in each of those states agreed it was the right choice. What disgusts me most is that two of these states, California and Florida, went to Obama. [Update: The California measure, Proposition 8, has not been officially decided. There are four million absentee and provisional ballots as yet uncounted.] Apparently some of Obama’s supporters want to effect change in Washington but prevent change in their home states. Or maybe they thought effecting change is like making change, as if a voting booth is like a vending machine: insert a vote for Obama and someone else’s civil rights make a clinking sound in the coin return. The change they need obviously doesn’t include the change I need.

Despite my railing, I’m glad Obama won. His victory has seemed likely for a few weeks, and as I watched the results come in last night, it was pretty clear he was going to win. Yet when the networks started calling the race in his favor, I had trouble catching my breath, and my vision was blurred by tears for a few seconds. Not a joiner, I surprised myself by the words that flashed through my mind: “Maybe we can.” (“Maybe” is as far as I’ll go with my guarded optimism.)

Then the pundits ruined it. All the self-congratulation about Americans electing a black president seemed like a way of avoiding a discussion about why it has taken the citizens of this country so long to do more than imagine a president who is not white, male, and straight. As we celebrate, we should feel disgusted that we haven’t made it happen before now, and realize that we’ve only taken a small step toward revising our collective view of who can be a leader.

Obama’s first great challenge will be to get his most dedicated supporters to see him not as a promising candidate but a working president. He is not my hero, so I have no problem with this. I think he’ll be an effective president, and maybe even a great one.

I worry that, for some, Obama is a fad and that they miss the various other reasons it’s remarkable that he won. He is intellectually curious, relatively compassionate, and he communicates effectively and consistently. But he also has flaws, and those will become more apparent as he starts trying to fulfill his promises–it happens with every change of administration. We need to give him room to prove himself rather than fawning over him and obsessing about every decision he makes. I’m tired of the comparisons to John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders. If he has learned from them, fine, but many of our challenges are unprecedented.

Effective leadership should inspire us to act as citizens, not mindless devotees. Change is a do-it-ourselves project.


2 Responses

  1. Great post, James.
    It looks like you have some good company; other activists are ready to begin again: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/11/5/13351/5326/393/654565 I’m going to join in this time.

  2. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the dust to settle in order to see who’s left standing. Or what, for that matter.

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