In San Francisco. Walking along Van Ness toward the wharf. Came across this nightclub exterior ‘round ‘bout the corner of Broadway . . . give or take a block or so.
It got me to thinking—a propos of nothing more than the title, I guess—about the U.S. presidential election.
“What? What would possibly make you makethat
connection?” you say . . . (I know, I know. My mind is a simple thing.)
But . . . sad as it is to say, in this country, for an African American to win a presidential election might actually require a magic spell. At least some might aver. That particular, pessimistic, author calls it the “The Coon Affect” (sic). Well, whatever name it goes by, the fact is that the United States has only had five African Americans campaign for president in its two hundred and thirty-two years—Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, Jesse Jackson (twice), and Al Sharpton—all five trying their hand in the past thirty-six years, and none of them managing to steer their campaign caravans out of the parking lot.
Despite the grave doubt that Americans are ready for an African American president, a recent poll suggests that this particular ride might actually make it all the way down the road and end up parking in that big driveway on Pennsylvania Avenue. Although both democratic candidates currently fare better than John McCain in head-to-head matchups, it is Barack Obama who holds the current edge.
A magical possibility in the offing? Check back in eight months.
Disquietingly, though, the poll results suggest something else that isn’t quite as auspicious: Americans harbor a degree of fear about Obama’s safety. According to the poll:
Nearly six in 10 expressed concern that someone might attempt to harm Obama if he were the Democratic nominee. Concern for Obama peaks among African Americans: More than eight in 10 would be concerned about Obama’s safety, including 55 percent who would be “very concerned” (20 percent of whites expressed the same level of fear).
I have to confess, it is something I worry about constantly. I see him strolling across a podium in real time and my brain is feverishly a-scramble erasing visions of a hand swiftly snaking through the crowd, extending a shiny metal piece, followed by a muzzle flash, an explosion of tissue, and sixty million dreams of a new kind of America seeping quickly from one slumped figure.
Well, I tend to be a tad more paranoid (not to mention melodramatic) than your average liberal blogger. But I did recently have dinner with a high school social studies teacher who suggested (with only a trace of cynicism) that Obama’s only hope for avoiding getting a bullet directed his way is to pair up with Bill Richardson, a fellow minority who, like Barack, is of mixed parentage. Macabre as that may be, were Obama to become the nominee, he might have to do a little thinking about social insurance, even before he begins drafting policy positions.
It is too early to tell whether the Obama candidacy will produce what the bar on Van Ness promised. It is clear, though, to numerous visitors of this country over the years, that elections provide a certain kind of magic (though not all of it necessarily good). To foreign eyes, elections are American democracy’s great innovation, yet also its greatest flaw. Consider what one of the country’s most astute visitors, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed back in the early nineteenth century:
On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government. It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has exceeded all its former limits.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book I, Chapter 13
In fact, Tocqueville had very little positive to say in democracy’s defense. At least in terms of social phenomena and the moral order. He saw democratic elections as “tend(ing) to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart” and to “awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.” He opined, in fact, that, under our system of elections, “complete equality” was illusory. Finally, citing Pascal—and in a fit of dark prognostication, he argued:
the people are excited in the pursuit of an advantage, which is more precious because it is not sufficiently remote to be unknown or sufficiently near to be enjoyed. The lower orders are agitated by the chance of success, they are irritated by its uncertainty; and they pass from the enthusiasm of pursuit to the exhaustion of ill success, and lastly to the acrimony of disappointment. Whatever transcends their own limitations appears to be an obstacle to their desires, and there is no superiority, however legitimate it may be, which is not irksome in their sight.
So, there you have the view of the great French social analyst. On his account, the Obamas and Hillarys and McCains are all pursuing personal advantage—or fronting for folks who are. They stir up the pots of those who then agitate for success which—no matter how much they manage to garner—is never enough. They end up as disappointed as they are dissipated. In short, the outcome of electioneering is disgruntlement. Democracy will make “the people” as grouchy and invective as Rush Limbaugh, and as lucid and forgiving as Ann Coulter.
Fortunate, blessed, lucky us.
As for me, a humble once and future American social participant, elections in the United States strike me as among the select few definitively American activities. For, elections encapsulate the ambition, the passion, the promise, the hustle-bustle, and the seeming openness of life in this country. It is certainly not the case that anything is possible in this land, true . . . but elections offer the illusion—and occasionally even the prospect—that it might be so. One only has to look to Arnold Schwartzenegger to believe.
Well . . . okay . . . you caught me. I admit it. I tend to wax unrealistic. I am an inveterate optimist. In fact, when I think of American democracy, I tend to hear words similar to those of Marketa Irglova, in her Academy Awards acceptance speech:
. . . the fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just the proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up.
Thus, when I think of Barack Obama (and to a lesser degree, Hillary Clinton), it is Marketa’s vision that comes to mind. I see that sign outside a San Francisco bar and I begin to hear words penned by Marketa, along with Glen Hansard; you know, the words that go:
Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You’ve made it now
Falling slowly sing your melody
I’ll sing along
Until the votes across the country add up to the slogan in the window—or better: in order for the votes across the country to add up to the slogan in the window—I’ll sing along.