When planning this trip to America I arranged to stay a few nights with H, an inspiring activist who has been a candle in the darkness for many young people over the last eight years. H warned me that “if Obama loses you won’t want to be here”. She also told me her father would be staying with her.

Arriving in the afterjoy H introduced me to her father D (who asked I avoid names for this piece) and we started rhapsodising about the victory, the speech, what might now be possible, why this time might be different. D said, “During the primaries, when H was supporting Hillary, I told her, ‘This is the most impressive man I have met since Dr King'”.

Hold it.

“You’ve met him?”

“Oh yes, four times. I volunteered on his Senate campaign. He wouldn’t know me, but I had a smoke with him once. When he was Senator he visited the clinic and slipped out and I followed him. I thought, ‘This isn’t doing him any good or me any good, but it is kind of cool'”.

Kind of, just a little bit.

I tell this story not to announce that I am a mere two handshakes from greatness (I did my skiting on Facebook) but for what it says about D, and Obama.

Because when he was volunteering to get Obama elected to the Senate D was homeless, living from room to room, his possessions packed into a single suitcase. He was also struggling with mental illness and fighting to get disability support that would get him off food stamps. Such a life is tough anywhere, in the freezing cold and danger of southside Chicago it’s beyond my imagining.

Yet he found the time, the energy and the courage to volunteer to elect a Senator. Think about that next time you’re too tired to do a couple of hours of letterboxing — I know I will. He isn’t name-dropping with the King reference either. He was involved enough with the civil rights movement that the suitcase, before a tragic event, included personal letters of thanks from Coretta Scott King.

In one sense, this story is a condemnation of America. What other wealthy country leaves its heroes on the streets, lacking the safety of medical care, let alone with welfare that will not even allow the recipient to buy toilet paper? But it’s also a validation. Because what other country is as likely to produce such heroes? Americans may be less likely to vote than citizens of almost any other democracy, but they’re much more likely to volunteer — even before Obama.

The crowds that attend candidate rallies should shame the rest of us. Americans are shocked when I describe the tiny attendance at Australian party rallies and candidate debates. I’m told that while I’ve been over here one of the favourites for Lord Mayor of Melbourne couldn’t be bothered turning up to a candidate debate. This isn’t nearly as outrageous as the fact that it’s unlikely to do his chances any harm. Americans wouldn’t stand for it.

Far beyond politics America is a much more publicly engaged culture than Australia — you see it everywhere from the fortune people spend on Halloween lights (knowing lots of lights also mean spending a lot on candy for strangers) to the extent of volunteering to feed the homeless or make university societies live. The level of philanthropy is also vastly larger, even allowing for the size of the economy.

Australian’s lack of public engagement makes us far more vulnerable than Americans, should our democracy, welfare and public health and education ever be stripped to anything close to the level that exists here.

I don’t hold with the idea that civic commitment is a response to low taxes and lack of government support. After all, the amount most Americans spend on healthcare more than makes up for the tax savings, and the uncertainty associated with knowing you’re one expensive disease from penury can’t help encourage one to think of others. On the other hand, the knowledge that the population is more likely to pitch in may have encouraged people to accept the lack of government support.

D is probably right that Obama doesn’t know him or his story, but I’m guessing he knows a few like it. He understands the passion that drives people like D, and the peril in which they live. Whether, between the Scylla of Climate Change and the Charybdis of financial meltdown he will be able to do much about it I don’t know, particularly weighed down by a Congress still in hock to special interests. But when you hear stories like this, you know that “Yes We Can”, and “We are the people we have been waiting for” are more than empty marketing slogans. This win really did belong to D and millions of others, not just to one, even The One.

Peter Fray

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