Phillip E. Wegner: The day it all didn't change
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 1:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 1:08 p.m.
Watching President Baraka Obama’s victory speech this morning, I couldn’t help but recall the exhilaration so many of us experienced during his previous speech four years ago.
On that occasion, I wrote in The Gainesville Sun (“The day it all changed,” November 9, 2008), that the joyous celebrations that broke out in many places were “evidence that something profound has changed in our nation.” I went on to compare the crowds in the streets to those that had appeared in Berlin in November, 1989: in both cases I believed (and still do) that these people gathered together in “spontaneous exuberance over the opening of unexpected possibilities.”
If the celebrations in 1989 signaled a sense of the beginning of an end for the people of eastern Europe of the long nightmare of the Cold War, then, I reasoned, those in 2008 may very well have marked a similar conclusion of the fearful period in American history that began on September 11, 2001. I suggested that the parallels ran deeper as “both were the culmination of transformations that only months earlier had seemed a long way coming, if not altogether impossible; and both were made possible by the actions not of political leaders or state institutions but of the efforts of people coming together to say no to the continuation of the status quo.” Finally, I concluded that both might be taken as enduring object lessons in the hope “that real substantial change is possible.”
In many ways, my experience of this year’s election is very different. My happiness this morning has far less to do with what did happen than what did not come to pass. And yet that too may be its own cause for celebration, and not only for Obama’s supporters but all those who believe in the ongoing democratic experiment known as America.
My personal situation is also very different this time around. In 2008, I was living in Florida, and my family was actively involved in the national campaign, more so than we had ever been previously. This year, I experienced the last months of the election from afar, as I have been residing in Sweden for the coming year (which has also meant a lot of very late Saturday nights and even early Sunday mornings watching online the Gators remarkable turnaround this season).
Many of the people I have encountered here, and not only those working in the university, have been deeply interested in this year’s election. This is in a large part because they have found in it deeply disturbing portends of changes in the very nature of a democratic process they admire.
Two things in particular stand out. First, this election witnessed another dramatic rise in campaign spending, including the funneling of extraordinary amounts of money into select campaigns by Super PACs, corporations, and a miniscule handful of very wealthy individuals. Much of these funds were used for cynical advertising campaigns of partial truths and disinformation designed to confuse and discourage the voting public. Personal wealth it seems now gives a few individuals exceptional power to determine our nation’s future.
Secondly, there have been blatant efforts in a number of crucial swing states, Florida included, to suppress voter turnout, especially among women, people of color, and the nation’s young. This, coupled with the permanent disenfranchisement of 1 in 40 people of voting age “due to a current or previous felony conviction” (according to a study released last July by The Sentencing Project), changes in voter registration laws, and increasingly stringent identification requirements, including the confusion in Florida over the signature requirements for absentee ballots, means that the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process risks being denied, often on the most spurious grounds, to more and more of our citizens.
However at the same time, the grassroots responses to both developments have been encouraging. I was especially pleased when I heard the news last Sunday that 200 people in Miami-Dade County vehemently protested a decision to close early in-person absentee voting. Their chant of “Let us vote!” could very well serve as a popular rallying cry for electoral reforms to come. Obama too noted this morning, to a roar of approval from his audience, that in the coming years, “we have to fix that.”
So if there was a major victor in yesterday’s election it might very well be the democratic process itself. This time around at least, the lesson is that money cannot buy an election, and people will fight for their rights to participate in democracy they still hold dear. This might be enough for a renewal of the hope that blossomed forth so movingly four years ago.
A good deal of my scholarly research involves exploring the dreams for a better, more just, and fair world to be found in modern literature and culture. For that reason, I was struck especially by a line late in Obama’s speech: “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
There is a good deal that I disagree with in Obama’s activities in his first four years in office; the failure to respond more vigorously to the ongoing economic crisis by even more substantial investment in our aging and crumbling infrastructure (as Paul Krugman and others have long argued is necessary); the retreat from a truly universal health care plan; his slowness to bring to a conclusion the regime-changing wars and off-shore interrogation centers initiated by the previous administration; his backing of some ill-conceived educational reforms; and his sometimes less than aggressive struggle for the equal and fair treatment of all American people. I am also sure that some of these disagreements will not end during his second term in office. But as Obama rightly put it in his speech, “These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”
Because this at least has not yet changed, I find myself this morning again guardedly optimistic. The election results keep a stubborn hope alive that real, substantial, and life-affirming changes are still possible, if not today then in the future, but only if we are willing to work as people and citizens of our nation to achieve them.
Phillip E. Wegner is the Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar Chair in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida