The day after Election Day is always a time for reflection (and coffee, Pepto, wheat toast, and whatever other concoctions cure a hangover). In my lifetime, none has ever been as nationally momentous as November 4, 2008.
For three obvious reasons, last night was an historic landmark - the election of the first African American president, the success of a campaign that was more grassroots than any past, and the very bold progressive mandate the country delivered thanks both to the sheer size of the victory and to the candidates making clear this was an ideological choice between Reagan-ism and Roosevelt-ism. While I tend to try to live up to the "there's no crying in politics" rule, I'll admit it - I, like so many others last night, shed more than one tear of happiness and hopefulness.
In the weeks ahead, pundits, pollsters, prognosticators and prevaricators will inevitably analyze the election to death, tell us that these stark results somehow mean America is more conservative than ever, and insist that the only Serious and Responsible thing for an Obama administration to do after such a resounding election is to perpetuate the status quo. Indeed, we're already seeing this from most of the commentariat, and now, even from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), whose first declaration after seeing his Senate majority increase was, "This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology." Reid's comments echoed Sen. Clarie McCaskill's (D-MO) yesterday, when she told Fox News the first order of business for a President Obama is to appease John McCain's supporters.
This is par for the course -- this is how the system works. And we shouldn't be surprised nor demoralized by it. We should instead simply listen to what the two presidential candidates themselves said last night.
McCain, gracious and honest in defeat, said what almost every Establishment voice refuses to say - and that apparently includes congressional Democratic leaders fearful of the huge responsibility they now have. The Arizona senator said simply: "The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly."
Minutes later, Obama said: "This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change."
They are both correct. America did speak clearly, and this election is only the chance to turn that unified American voice into action -- it isn't concrete action yet, but it sure could be.
In the coming days, I guarantee you there will be many reasons to feel cynical. Hell, only hours after one of the most powerful and inspirational election victory speeches about "change" in recent memory, we learn that Obama is considering appointing various Clinton administration officials to top White House posts - some of them the corrupt hacks who played a key role in passing the lobbyist-crafted policies that origianlly deregulated our financial system (Glass-Steagall repeal), gutted our domestic economy (NAFTA, China PNTR), and shredded the social safety net (welfare "reform").
These moves are troubling -- but as I told Amy Goodman's Democracy Now audience last night, we must carefully balance our skepticism with optimism. I'm not saying we should be naive - but what I am saying is we shouldn't judge Obama only on personnel decisions, because we shouldn't automatically assume he will outsource his own vision to his minions. However corrupt those minions' personal politics, record and history may be, we shouldn't get too bogged down in inside-the-Beltway debates over people like Rahm Emanuel (potentially Obama's new chief of staff) - people who may seem important, but who are, in terms of importance, mere fleas compared to the president himself.
I'm also not saying we should avoid pressuring Obama to fulfill his concrete campaign promises and last night's overpowering progressive mandate - and that's true whether Obama puts the same old D.C. hacks or a whole new crop of progressive thinkers around him. He may put the most corrupt and parasitic team around himself, or he may put the most honest and principled team around himself - but that's way less important than what we force him to actually push for.
As someone who both strongly advocated for Obama in the primary and general election, and also questioned him on some of his policy positions, I think that (despite the naysaying of some partisans) support and pressure can be as complimentary as the carrot and stick. Indeed, I think real movements and concrete change come only with both. Yet, I also believe that we should make sure the pressure we harness is the kind that assumes that Obama is at minimum trying to act in good faith for progressive goals, at least until he gives us clear reason to believe otherwise.
Why do I, a perpetually perturbed idealist-cynic and a campaign-scarred pessimist-optimist, say this? It has something to do with the above photograph of the Colorado Democratic Party election night festivities in downtown Denver. That photograph could have been anywhere in America last night, as millions experienced the same scene. And what's significant about that seemingly poorly shot picture is not the CNN headline declaring Obama the victor. It is the foreground and the background juxtaposition - the exuberant crowd in one city looking at another exuberant crowd in another city, an optimistic America looking at an optimistic America and celebrating together.
That's what last night will be remembered for, even as we head into debates about what Obama's first priorities should be (stay tuned for my newspaper column on Friday about that). Though the post-election political coverage is all about D.C. jockeying for cabinet positions - that's not what this election was about. Though the television broadcasts that delivered last night's news were chock full of professional pundits and D.C. operatives and political insiders insisting that we needed their analysis to tell us what happened - we didn't. Because for once, this wasn't their election, it was ours; this isn't their presidential candidate, he is ours; and if we keep pushing and remember that election night was the start of our work and not the end, it won't be their government, it will at last be ours.