Barack Obama’s election left me walking on air for three or four days. A Black man in the White House. A massive youth vote. A broad and varied coalition. The break-up of the Solid South. States won in every region: Colorado in the Mountain West; Iowa in the Plains; Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the South; and outright dominance in the Northeast, Great Lakes Region, and on the West Coast. A true milestone passed.
I went to visit my dad the day after the election just to ask him: “Did you expect to live to see this?”
“No, Son, I did not.” Which is pretty darned empathic for my dad.
And yes, I even got busy with the waterworks: when I heard the story of the 106 year old woman whose father had been a slave, and who had to pick extra cotton in order to afford the poll tax in the 1930s so that she could vote for Roosevelt, my heart melted. For her to have crossed all that time and endured all that struggle, and finally seeing this, left me feeling wonder and awe.
In short, like many Americans I felt euphoric about the election.
Then, true to my melancholy and critical self, I started to indulge in some serious buzzkill by the following Saturday. This is the thought that got loose in my consciousness steering my thinking in a new direction: what about the other 46%? What about all those people who didn’t vote for Obama?
Certainly this group is not monolithic. Tax hawks, hardcore Second Amendment backers, anti-abortion ideologues, racists, and the merely unsure and frightened. Added together, they made up nearly 59.5 million voters. As my sweetie would say: “That’s not a joke.”
Remarkably, little has been said about these persons in the press in the four weeks that have passed since the November 4th election. Why on Earth would we ignore so many people?
Part of it happens to be a condition of the times: with the economy continuing to meltdown, all eyes have shifted to that ongoing crisis and the fear it has inspired.
The other part of it may be subtler: we don’t have a forum or narrative for engaging the issues and the individuals involved.
Be that as it may, we can’t ignore these issues and individuals indefinitely. So how do we engage these issues? What do we say to these individuals? Successfully moving forward on these fronts goes beyond dealing with a large and disaffected constituency: it cuts to the heart of achieving success in implementing change all of us can believe in and act on.
The isolation and cultural distance between the 46% that didn’t vote for Obama and those who did can be quite wide. Think about it: people in Utah, Texas, and the Dakotas, not to mention the other dyed-in-the-wool red states and precincts, face a mass of difficult and confusing thoughts and realities in the wake of Obama’s election. What does it mean to have a Black chief executive? How will a Black man behave in this situation? Will this liberal take away my guns? How will an alignment between the Executive and Legislative Branches affect policy? Will America remain strong?
Frankly I have no idea what to do about this beyond letting the new President do his thang. He’s evenhanded enough that these individuals won’t be kicked to the curb. He understands that we need all 306 million Americans at the oars rowing hard to get to where we need to go, and do avoid the worst of the mass of rocks up ahead.
As for me, I’m not going to hop on a bus or a train and try to reach out to these individuals. I’ve found too many persons with stridently different opinions hard to communicate with. They seem more interested in dominating an argument than in learning from a conversation. It seems that someone who watches enough FOX News comes to think of discourse as a matter of volume, not depth or discernment.
And then there are the more extreme folks who go beyond feeling frustration to acting out.
The November 23rd edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that Klan activity has increased in the wake of the election. More remarkably: many persons have expressed surprise at this. Not me. Too many persons who cannot make sense of the changes at work in America will respond with fear, anger, and hostility. So far, this has not coalesced into a highly visible and coherent expression, but it could as economic difficulties continue. Both the fringe (e.g., the KKK and their ilk) and the more broadly anxious and confused feel beset. The former have begun to contemplate conspiracies driven by an overflow of outright animus; the latter remain paralyzed by anxiety, confusion, uncertainty, and that old American favorite, fear.
Neither group has much to work with that would help them learn to adjust in a more productive way. Do they have Black (or even non-white) friends that they can talk to about these issues for a different perspective? Nope. Could they call upon some oddball college types in their social set who enjoy adventure and travel in “exotic” locales (from Thailand to Thai Town)? Not likely. Do they delve into a wide and varied reading list? Doubtful. Do they watch movies, TV, other media that might help them imagine a different kind of America than what they see in their own hometowns? More than likely they like the stuff that keeps them numb and dumb. (Yes, I’m being bit coarse and snobbish, but I want my points to be pointed here.) They are on their own because everyone they know is just about like them. So all of these people tend to mirror back all of these feelings and emotions in sort of an amplifying echo chamber. Those who live in Sarah Palin’s “Real America” find little reason to engage with the rest of us because we are pretenders and deceivers by the standards of “Real America” and everything that they know, sense, and experience confirms this. Given this, feeling and thoughts drive in one direction, virtually without resistance from the immediate environment.
Fortunately, they will encounter more resistance from the society at large than similar groups did during, say, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, or even the Indian Wars. Clearly, a large number of Americans have thrown their lots in support of a new direction, one that breaks sharply from phobic, mean-spirited, and divisive social belief system and the politics arising from such beliefs. This resistance should check some behavior, but it won’t touch the underlying beliefs. This may not be a problem as long as the anxiety doesn’t break into outright violence and/or lead to actions that undermine efforts to steer the US away from worsening economic conditions. If the actions of the other 46% go in this direction, the other 54% will need to confront them directly and prod them into a more productive role. How? That remains to be seen, but we need to consider the possibility.