Back in DC for the night of nights; maybe I should be in Ohio or Florida, but no. This is where it will be, this is where it will feel right to be, should, against enormous forces and challenges Barack Obama win the presidency for the second time. It’s the second time that nails it. Just as caught in a dream, it’s the second knock on the door that wakes you — even though the first has already changed the course of your thoughts — so it is that only a repeat of the historic event renders it an event, in retrospect, in the first place.
Washington DC, city of enlightenment, of rationally planned streets that make no sense, of narrow terraces in the shadow of the pharaonic Monument, city of marble halls, and street-side bars, of book stores in rows, and the grave-grey Pentagon squat in the corner, dreaming of death far away. A city given by the French to America to embody shared revolutions, both of which would soon take different paths. It is the only such city in the country, the rest of it either rambunctious collisions like New York, or post-modern wastelands. The kids in the bars are all young associates, interns, freelancers, jabbering on phones, reading Politico over a daquiri, the suits stride across sidewalks to limos with doors-opened, the hookers walk brazenly through the gilded hotel foyers.
Now, Obama is in Chicago, making one stop at a local office, and then taking his traditional pick-up basketball game. Joe Biden did one appearance in Cleveland, but only because his plane had to stop there, or so he said. But Mitt? Mitt worked Pennsylvania, told his staff he wanted something to do. He was snappy in response to questions, and speaking by rote last night, which suggests he thinks he’s lost it, perhaps based on internal polling. He says he’s only prepared one speech, a victory one. He’s in Massachusetts, a state that would vote for Kim Jong-un before it would go for the man who was their governor for four years.
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The TV is hysterical, though not as much as it was last night, when Fox News sounded — and here’s my Godwin’s law card for ’12 — like the last night in the bunker, everyone eating cream cakes and checking their horoscopes to see if FDR’s death would turn the battle. It’s Benghazi, Sandra is Katrina, Benghazi, etc. MSNBC is more rational, though partisan, and it’s a measure of the state of play that you now look for the merely rational, rather than the critical, and free-minded, in your commentary. There’s reports of huge voting queues in Florida, Virginia and Ohio, machines flipping votes, malfunctioning, argghhh.
Wall-to-wall statements of the uniqueness of American voting, beacon to the world, etc, as the thing falls apart like a Congo … well, like anything in the Congo. This 18th century machinery wheezing and grimacing as it deals with a 21st century reality, like a traction engine pulling up at the stoplight. You want to shake them. Paper ballot! Electoral Commission! Uniform laws! In Columbus, Ohio, Bob Fitrakis has already issued his first lawsuits, challenging software patches put on voting machines. Patches to do what? No one knows. Hysterical laughter on Fox, no concession speech, is that for a reason?
So there is that. But merely to get to the point where the election can be stolen from you, there is Citizens United, there is bosses telling their workers how to vote, there is birth certificates, there is repeal, there are the Blue Dogs, there is a posturing Hollywood left, there is the Clintons and the Democratic establishment, there is everything, everything. For Obama, too, there is the battle against his own shortcomings — an arrogance borne of being a special person in a special time, very decided limits to his abilities, in politics and negotiation, the symphony of politics that few fully master. There is a party that is really a series of balkanised fiefdoms — and then there are the compromises, the collusions, the reversals, the cuts and free rides, the bombs and drones.
“Yes, the compromises have been many, terrible, well criticised and easily caricatured. But here is the thing that makes many of them worthwhile: Obama has succeeded.”
Washington, city of reason, written down in its incomprehensible streets, is the perfect foil. You go to do something and, beyond the narrow limits of your purview, it sprawls and reverses in ways you could not know, and into which you must wade, to retrieve, half a third, a quarter of what you wanted, less and less. Wandering this vast country, this repository of fantasy and desire, this machine for making the imagined fetish real, you could ask how that could even be done, how anything could be imposed. Certainly Bill Clinton didn’t. After an early effort, he decided to go with the flow, try and share some of the wealth coming in from a globalising process that he must have known would lead to disaster. And no Republican has tried since Reagan and including him. Every fantasy has been fed, to the wreck of America — a wheezing backward ramshackle place, falling away from itself, as China, India, northern Europe streak ahead.
So here it is America, the field of all our dreams if we are honest, the thousand miles of twisted cities and exurbs, basic cable and freeways, megachurches and strip malls, and a million more things besides, a culture whose absolutely specific nature cannot be seen, because it is so inserted into every other culture , whether by DVD or lethal drone. For those of us drawn into this place, drawn to explain something about ourselves by way of a detour through it, Obama’s rise, success and presidency represents the point at which fantasy meets some sort of real. That he represents something to the world is less important than that he represents something to millions of individual Americans — from the MS sufferer who couldn’t get insurance, and now can, to the Ohio auto worker who would have been left to die, to the unemployed mother whose benefits Clinton would have cut in a heartbeat, to the soldier back from Iraq, and the Iraqi who no longer faces that soldier at every checkpoint.
Yes, the compromises have been many, terrible, well criticised and easily caricatured. But here is the thing that makes many of them worthwhile: Obama has succeeded. A national health care plan that has been sought for a century — and in earnest since 1948. A reorientation to education and industry. A commitment to the idea that communities should not simply be left to die. Two women, one Latina, on the Supreme Court. And on and on. Indeed the things that Obama has done in passing — Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — occupied the Clinton administration for months and years.
By contrast there is: “legitimate” rape, Ayn Randism, Israelophilia, hysterical exceptionalism, Mormon heaven, a five trillion tax cut to abolish a deficit and a war with Iran. And much more. So this has become not merely a fight for a human society, not merely a fight for reason, but a fight for both, each defined in terms of the other. This, America, is the front line, for social democracy, for basic humanity, for, the phrase that inaugurated the country, common sense. Those of us with a more insistent vision can then turn on how that vision is implemented and make that challenge.
But now, the thing to do is to shift the ground. The defeat of Romney tonight is a defeat for plutocracy, for the toxic fusion of religion and suprematism. That is where the line lies. Obama has drawn it. Others might have. No one else did. That is why this is a historic night on earth. For if Obama prevails, the arguments can be had, here, on that ground. That is reason in full force, a reason capable of reflection, tested against the world, eschewing narcissism and fantasy to change the world for the better. In America, and beyond.
That is what is at stake. That is what it was for. That is why we are all involved, and why the world waits, with bated breath, for the drop of a ballot, the press of a lever in Columbus, in Richmond, in Reno, in …