On Tuesday, November 4, I took my daughter, Phoebe, with me to vote in Brooklyn, New York. Phoebe is 4 years old and has learned a lot about politics and American government this year – mostly through forced osmosis.
I’ve been voting in the sleepy basement of an elementary school in Brooklyn Heights for many years. At 9 AM, I figured we’d avoid the mad rush of voters. From blocks away, though, I was disabused of this notion. People of all sorts cascaded down the streets, fresh with the sheen of casting their vote.
As we turned the corner on Henry Street, there was an explosion of people. This little polling place was spilling over on to the street. There were lines splintering off in numerous directions, up various staircases and out into the playground. People ate donuts, sipped coffee and talked with great energy to one another.
Despite the massive lead in the polls and what was a forgone landslide in New York for Barack Obama, people came out in record numbers – if for no other reason than this was their chance to be a part of history.
There was a phenomenon in New York and across the nation in the weeks and days leading up to Election Day. A muted and extremely cautious optimism, one that was echoed by the understated and disciplined confidence of the campaign, pervaded the country. Like a woman in early pregnancy keeping a secret, no one dared speak with too much certainty. People were protecting themselves because, no matter how inevitable it seemed, there was simply no way America could have absorbed a disappointment so profound. Those who felt cheated before remained skeptical. Those who just couldn’t believe it was possible remained in a state of incredulity.
It was academic by the time Ohio was called for Obama but there was little celebration. It felt like America had been holding its breath for months. At 11pm EST, the polls closed on the west coast and America gave the biggest collective sigh of relief in history. Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and raised in Indonesia, had defied all odds and become the world’s most important leader. At the same time, after 8 years of alienating everyone throughout the world, in one single day, the United States of America renewed itself as the greatest symbol of freedom and possibility on Earth.
What followed can only be described as a collective catharsis. There are few events in history that have had the same effect on people as Obama’s victory. In the days after September 11, New Yorkers came together in an unprecedented way. The events were so dramatic, so completely primal, that it cut through race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation and everything else, exposing a raw and common humanity. In those days, I witnessed New Yorkers go to extreme measures to help one another. People were crying in the streets to be embraced by utter strangers. Though an almost completely opposite circumstance, Obama’s win is so utterly profound that it is has had a similar effect. We’ve re-discovered that we share a common humanity that is deeper and more potent than all the things that can divide us.
Phoebe and I navigated the labyrinth of lines to my precinct’s booth. As we waited, I explained the voting process. When our turn came, we walked into the booth and Phoebe pulled the big red lever to the right. I picked her up and together we put our fingers on the lever next to the name of Barack Obama, mine solidly on top of hers. Together, we pushed it down and a little X appeared next to the name of America’s first African-American president.
A remarkable aspect of this election was the incredible accuracy of the polls. The technique of aggregating many polls to create a “poll of polls” (as done by CNN and sites like RealClearPolitics) has proved quite sound in this election. It is particularly interesting about what this says about racism and voting patterns. There was much discussion of “the Bradley effect” prior to the election and that the final vote tally would not reflect the polls. As we saw, there was no Bradley effect – either the American citizenry was not basing its choice for president on the race of the candidate or people’s inclinations were represented honestly in the polls.
What is abundantly clear, however, is that economic crisis and war trumps race. It is a credit to both candidates and their campaigns that, with a few exceptions, neither exploited race to his advantage or disadvantage. It is even more heartening that after a history shrouded in slavery and Jim Crow, the overwhelming majority of American people judged the candidates on the content of their character and not the color of their skin when deciding who would be best at solving their problems. While it is hard to pinpoint when Americans may have made this massive paradigm shift, we have never had such an example of it as November 4, 2008, a day that will go down as one of the greatest in our history.
Choices in life are always magnified when seen through the prism of our children. They are the physical manifestation of the future. While we all care deeply about the future of the world, this feeling is never more real than when it applies to our daughters and sons. Having Phoebe with me to cast this vote brought the enormity of this choice for our future into stark relief.
Phoebe and I wove our way through the crowd towards the exit, now wearing our own sheen. I held her hand tight as I led her through the mob. There are so many challenges that she will face – a global economic meltdown, a worsening climate crisis, a growing threat from rogue states and terrorists and others we cannot foresee. We walked out into the daylight. It was uncommonly warm and, as the sun came down upon us, I briefly imagined that perhaps we’ve helped conquer one of our greatest challenges, one that has nearly broken our country in two. Perhaps Phoebe will only read about racism in her history books. At least, now, there is hope.