Our Fragile Dream

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

It had already been a long day for me, and for the country, when I rode the train downtown to Grant Park on the night of Nov. 4. History was crowding against my thoughts — my car was full of joyful, youthful, rock-the-vote noise — as I looked out the window into the Chicago night and saw a bright orange (papaya-colored, really) quarter moon hovering over the horizon, beautiful and strange beyond reckoning.

I had never seen anything quite like it and was shaken with a sense of wonder: Where am I? Am I dreaming?

Later that night I heard a young man from Illinois — our new president-elect — say: “America is a place where all things are possible.”

I had to listen to him on a giant screen set up in the park a few blocks north of where he was actually speaking, along with several hundred thousand or a million others. All I know is that the crowd was enormous, raucous, loud, young, diverse (but Chicago crowds always are) and wildly excited. A cheer surged in the night, one of many, and suddenly I was drenched from behind with . . . maybe it was water, maybe it was champagne, but probably it was just lite beer.

By then the speaker was telling us how we had overcome fear and cynicism to put our hands on the arc of history “and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day” and for a flickering moment I felt drenched with enthusiasm as well as beer. Yes we did, by God. This was the cry of the night — yes, we did! We worked hard, we Americans, to get to this moment beneath the papaya-colored moon and the hovering helicopters. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt the raw energy of hope so palpably.

The next morning — a few hours ago as I write this — a friend left me a phone message: “I feel as though we’ve gotten our country back.”

I feel this too. I just don’t know what it means.

My joy (and relief) that Barack Obama prevailed in this election is enormous — certainly the size of last night’s crowd — but there’s a deeper joy here as well, and an accompanying sense of dread.

“America is a place where all things are possible.” That’s the problem. Thus 135 million people can turn out on a golden (and in some places rainy) fall day to vote, to put their hands on the arc of history, but a few million more can be purged from the voting rolls before the day began. Indeed, an unknown number of voters or would-be voters ran into problems that sometimes prevented them from voting and — mainly because of the terrifying uncertainty of electronic voting — may not have had their votes counted at all, or not counted as they were cast.

Obama won — his landslide was too big to be denied. But I urge that we not be complacent or smug about this dream we call democracy, because it is a fragile dream: that principled cooperation will hold its own in the arena of history with the naked struggle for power and control. This will only happen when citizenship means being more concerned with the fairness of the electoral process than with who wins. In other words, Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain on Nov. 4 was less important than the growth and strength, or lack thereof, of democracy itself.

The fair-elections movement may be the most important democratic development of the last eight years. Our “freedom” isn’t taken for granted with quite the complacent arrogance — even by the media — that it used to be. And the infrastructure of fair elections, independent of partisan politics, is growing.

Before I went down to Grant Park, I spent most of Election Day hanging out at the Chicago office of the law firm DLA Piper, which provided pro bono space for the Election Protection Hotline volunteers giving help to voters in this part of the Midwest, mostly in Illinois and Indiana. Some 80 volunteers here were on phones helping voters with problems large and small from 6 a.m. till the polls’ closing 13 or so hours later. Nationally, Election Protection Hotline fielded 79,343 calls for help or assistance; around 2,500 came in to the Chicago call center.

The most serious problems were from voters whose names weren’t listed on the rolls in their precinct; who were being wrongly (in Illinois) required by judges to show identification; and who reported unduly long lines caused by machine malfunction and other problems. The array of potential troubles was formidable. An Indianapolis woman, for instance, called the hotline to report that she’d been told that her early vote hadn’t counted because the judge failed to initial her ballot; she needed to revote. This she did, but she feared many others either didn’t get that call or would have been unable to do so.

Still, this is a day to celebrate both Obama’s victory and the huge outpouring of voters who wanted to have a say in this election. I saw long, snaking lines everywhere in Chicago on Tuesday, and I’m sure that was the case across the country. Election Day — Democracy Day — isn’t a national holiday (yet) but it felt like one.