I have never actually thought of myself as too idealistic. I have never believed that human beings can live on earth without war and I have never believed that one man could save the world. I have always tried to balance idealism with pragmatism.
The year 2008 was one of change and transition for me, though not the change that Obama was talking about. Like millions of Obama's constituents, I was 17 years old and graduating high school. I was unsure of myself and I was put into a situation where I had to grow up, fast. That summer, I took a position volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign in Gainesville, Florida. Skipping out on my high school graduation, I took a red-eye flight from the San Francisco Bay Area to Florida to make it just in time for orientation. When I got there, I saw something special: people of every race and age putting in the work to see the one man whom they believed could bring them change. I saw middle-aged women braving the sweltering Floridian heat; African Americans who finally felt inspired and girls in hejabs. The diversity took me by surprise, as it symbolized what everything America had to offer.
So there I was, working with college students at least four or five years my senior and with other volunteers sometimes two or three times my age. I met potential anti-Obama voters who believed Obama was anti-Christian or a Muslim, and I met many others that believed that he was "the One" that would strengthen America's hand at home and throughout the world.
The summer heat was a killer. Every 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. shift felt like the longest day of my life, but our goal was the same and that made it worth it. Everyone was there for a reason: whether for universal healthcare, a desire for the United States to stop its wars, or just as Obama put it simply: change.
I will never forget one of my colleagues saying, "If we win this, I can see over thirty years of progressive politics. We're going to change America, completely." At the time I believed it. Okay, so I might have been a bit idealistic. But who didn't feel idealistic during that time? America had just been through a rough stretch with the Iraq War raging, and only a few months later did the economy falter. We needed someone to look to after years of disastrous policies, so we anointed Barack Obama as our savior.
It has been over three years since Obama had assumed office, with what I believe to be mixed results. Obama took up a monumental task but he has unfortunately succeeded only in several aspects. Many of his former followers are now alienated, or have turned into reluctant supporters. Barack Obama merchandise, such as shirts, coffee mugs and stickers are nowhere to be seen. Republicans have set up roadblocks against many of Obama's campaign promises, such as the closing of Guantanamo Bay, immigration reform and a potential engagement with Iran. The euphoria that we felt has receded dramatically over a span of one term. Currently, Barack Obama's signature reform, universal health care, seems to be on the verge of being repealed.
But there has been a lesson learned in all of this. Our political system is broken. If a man such as Obama is unable to change the system then how can we expect a simple election of any presidential candidate to make a fundamental difference? The options are few and the American people are forced to choose the lesser of evils. Is that what elections have become? To choose a president based on how less he will hurt us, rather than how much he will help us?
Shady lobbyists still have a substantial influence on our politics. Republicans have done their best job in saying no to everything Barack Obama has said, while Democrats have adopted positions that go against the very core belief that got them elected in the first place, in order to get re-elected. Congress has proven to be nothing but inept and corrupt. Dylan Ratigan said it best when he proclaimed that our Congress is being bought and extracted. The influence of money has also increased with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission prohibiting the government from restricting money from corporations and unions.
Despite all of this, giving up is not the answer. The question I pose is: where does change actually come from? We see that one man can't make a system evolve on its own -- not when there are so many outside factors working against him. Are there other ways for one to exert positive influence in the political world?
One thing that Barack Obama said during his 2008 campaign still resonates for me to this day: change doesn't happen from the top down but from bottom up. Many voters believed that the election of Obama was the final step. This is a false notion, real change requires the American people to get involved more than just filling out a ballet box. Whether it be getting involved in media or advocating a specific legislation, American activism can once again make a positive difference in the world. To do this we need to strengthen the role of new media (Facebook, blogs, etc.) for it is the single most important medium in today's society.
New media has give us the opportunity to strengthen the role of regular citizens to get involved in various democratic processes and to disregard demagoguery that has plagued American politics for far too long. We can see this in more radical examples such as the Arab Spring, which were initiated by simple facebook, twitter and blogs -- essentially the basic, free flow information that we sometimes take for granted.
One thing is certain: we can do better. We should do better.
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