“Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
President-Elect Barack Obama
516 Years since Columbus discovered America.
232 Years since the first democratic government was established in the United States of America.
143 Years since slavery was abolished.
138 Years since black people got the right to vote.
54 Years since it was agreed that “separate but equal” was bullshit.
26 Years since the coinage of the Bradley Effect.
3 Days since Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States of America.
Those Obama posters proclaimed “Change,” but I don’t think it ever really occurred to anyone, not even to his most avid supporters, just how sudden, and overwhelmingly personal this change would feel. In the past three days the most profound change I have witnessed has been in people’s perceptions. Perceptions of their personal identities, of their cultural identities, of their national identities, and their perceptions about the very process of affecting social change, and personal opportunity.
These changes that happened, literally, overnight, are undeniably going to be important in shaping the future of this country, and the world. So as every trend forecaster and futurist gets down to the task of figuring out how the result of this election is going to impact our culture, I offer these three-day old observations.
What Obama’s victory means for:
1. Black People – As Sherri Shepherd summed it up on the View, “People of color, we’ve always had these limitations on us. I remember, somebody in my family said one time, when I said I want to be a comic, and an actor, they said, ‘No, you will get a job at the post office. They don’t let people like us do that.’ And so, to look at my son and say, ‘You don’t have to have limitations’… It is an extraordinary day for me.” Unlike too many examples of black achievement in the past, Obama’s win does not signify an exception, but rather a symbol of opportunity for all people of color. The idea that there is only so far you can go if you are black, or that you can only succeed up to a certain point, has been shattered, and I think it’s possible that something in the very sense of black identity itself has been affected here. This is such a huge deal that it’s pretty impossible to really grasp the full magnitude of what this will mean for the future of the Black community specifically, and race relations in the in the U.S. in general yet.
2. GEN Y – Much like black people, I know, from personal experience, that the general under-30 population is feeling something right now that they’ve never experienced before either. The picture below was taken in the Mission district in San Francisco on election night:
Sean Bonner, who took the photo, later wrote, “19th and Valencia. One of the last places in the country I would expect a crowd of people waving American flags. But sure enough it happened. I talked to people today who said for the first time in their lives they hung flags in and out of their houses and finally understood what patriotism is all about. That’s kind of a big deal if you think about it.” It’s a huge deal. Think about this: The first election that my generation was old enough to vote for was stolen. All the other elections we’ve ever known involved George Bush. Neocons aside, the general population born after 1981 has never known what it’s like to not feel resentment and embarrassment about our country. We’ve never felt like our country reflected US, until now. As with the Black community, I think the impact of Obama’s win on the future of the youth of this country, and the future of our affect ON this country that we can now feel is ours to care for, is still unimaginable.
3. America’s perception in the rest of the world – A friend of mine who’s leaving for a tour in Europe next week said to me, “It’s going to be SO different traveling abroad now.” At first I wasn’t completely convinced. My dad has a joke. He says, “Anywhere in the world, Russians and Americans walk into a bar the same way. Loud and obnoxious. Americans do it because they think they own the bar. Russians do it cuz they think they can beat up anyone in the bar.” And it’s not like the way Americans walk into a bar changed with Obama’s acceptance speech. But something definitely did change. “I travel a lot,” Sean Bonner also wrote, “And I’m constantly faced with people from other countries saying ‘Well, you are cool enough but obviously you are the exception, the rest of your country must be idiots to have voted for that Bush guy.’ When I try to tell people that not everyone voted for him, and even people who did vote for him aren’t 100% down with his actions over the last several years, they usually scoff and point out if the country didn’t like him he’d get kicked out, so clearly people are behind him. That’s not something I heard from one person in one country, it’s a feeling I got repeatedly all over the world. The US electing Obama over McCain is a clear message to everyone else on this planet that the US isn’t happy with the leadership we’ve had and we want something to change. This is good for all of us.”
4. Politics – Politics–and I do mean the political process itself, not simply “being political”–is not just for your conservative, older uncle-in-law anymore. Politics is YOURS. Something really remarkable about the Obama campaign is that it offered an outlet for channelling that political youth energy that since the 60’s has been expended on efforts “outside the system,” INTO the system. (Counterculture is dead, after all). I think having felt cheated and ignored by the political process for so long made the prospect of trying to affect institutional change seem impossible. The low-hanging fruit of “personal growth” has all but replaced institutional change as the means for solving society’s problems. But at the end of the day, institutional change, is, in fact, the change we need. So will this new experience of feeling that the political process CAN be ours to affect motivate more of the activists of my generation to give it a rest with the protests-slash-street festivals, and instead put on a suit and tie and do the work it takes to create institutional change? Man, I would really fucking like to hope so.
5. Government – Have you seen this www.change.gov?? Government has NEVER looked like this before. Not just American government. Not ANY government. Fucking amazing! Yesterday, in a cafe, I was watching as CNN announced that Barack Obama had appointed his chief of staff, and I was riveted! Everyone else in the cafe was watching it too. It was the kind of scene that makes you think something terrible is happening on TV, but it wasn’t terrible at all, it was just the new president forming the new government…and it was fascinating! Maybe it’s just cuz it was day 2, maybe this interest in our government that we all seem to suddenly be possessed by will wane, but I’ve gotta say, before, I NEVER used to be interested. Not on ANY day. I think the initiative to run the government in a more transparent, responsive, open way will help to sustain our feeling of personal connection to and investment in the government, and help prevent all of us from slipping back into the general detachment we’d had from it up till now. Consider how a focus on a shared, mutual government vs. on self-segregated communities might affect the dismayingly polarized American landscape we’ve come to know.
6. The American Dream – In Generation Me, Jean Twenge suggests that my generation is too full narcissism and entitlement, that we’ve got massively unrealistic expectations, and we need to be made to face reality, and realize that our dreams are just that. Even for many who did not vote for Obama, there is an undeniable sense of something profoundly impossible having been achieved in his victory. It’s the kind of profoundly impossible achievement that is, and has always been, the hallmark of America, and Obama himself said as much in his victory speech. For those whose dream has been to become Britney Spears, perhaps you might want to take a cue from Twenge’s book. But for those of us whose dream has been about succeeding at doing what we believe in, at doing things our own way, about succeeding at doing the thing that brings us joy and fulfillment, Barack Obama’s victory is a testament to its possibility. The “American Idols” we have had to look up to for too long have either been utterly disposable, recast every season to feed the celebrity tabloid industrial complex, or otherwise icons of unattainable privilege and luxury (think: Paris Hilton). Barack Obama has worked his whole life for everything he has accomplished, and what he’s earned now is the responsibility to do yet more work. I really cannot remember the last time someone like this was an icon of the American Dream, and I can’t wait for a generation of kids who will grow up wanting to become like Barack Obama.