“We’re going to win this shit, man! We are, we’re gonna win it!”
-Ali Zaidi, NH for Obama organizer, September 26, 2007
My earliest political memory is Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Sure, I had heard my parents talk about some crazy guy named Perot when I was six, but the first political event that I can recall at all lucidly is the impeachment. And at the time I didn’t get it. Even a nine-year-old could see that there was something wrong with invoking the most drastic tool of the Constitution, one I had read was reserved for crooks and tyrants, against a man for doing what I knew some of my friends’ parents had done. It seemed completely bizarre. How could government work like that?
Things didn’t get much better from there. The first candidate I ever supported was Bill Bradley; I went to a rally or two, held a sign outside the debate at Dartmouth, and watched as the man got crushed. Next came the general election. I backed Nader, out of both a foolish focus on issue purity (he’s for single-payer health care! he’s for gay marriage!) and because I thought, after the impeachment, that the system was fundamentally broken and only someone outside the mainstream could fix it. And the outcome just confirmed this disillusionment. The man who won a plurality, who lead by 500,000 votes, got caught up in a month of litigation before losing. It was more bizarre than the impeachment. How could a democracy send the loser of an election into the presidency? How could that happen? By this point I was so sick of it all that I started Googling around to see what this whole communism idea was all about. Impressionable 10-year-old Dylan didn’t stick with that plan (thank God), but the damage was done. I still remember being told by my 6th grade journalism teacher that two planes had hit the World Trade Center towers, and responding, “Somehow, Bush will find a way to mess this up.” No one should respond to a national tragedy like that. No 11-year-old should respond to a national tragedy like that.
More importantly, no one who responds to a national tragedy like that should be proven right. But I was. A year later, the person everyone knew ordered the attack was still at large, despite us having sent thousands of troops to the country he was hiding in, and Bush didn’t care. He was too busy getting ready to invade Iraq. This beat out both the 2000 election and the impeachment. I knew Iraq didn’t order the attacks. I was totally baffled that mere possession of biochemical weapons could justify an all-out invasion. I was offended that no one seemed to care that Hans Blix was saying time and time again that no weapons had been found.
But mostly I was saddened that we had no opposition party. The Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate and the Minority Leader in the House had both voted for war, and about half of the party’s members followed. There was a chance for redemption. Howard Dean was running an absurdly strong campaign; he had been governor of Vermont for as long as I could remember, and I knew him as a solid, centrist governor who caught a lot of flack from both sides. He wasn’t as left-leaning as I would have liked, but he was the only serious candidate opposed to the war. I flirted with supporting Wes Clark after he announced, but eventually I started volunteering for Dean. He opposed the war, and he was going to win.
And then he didn’t. In January 2004, after the looting in Baghdad, and the start of the insurgency, Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and every state thereafter rejected the candidate who opposed the war and nominated one who had voted for it. On the collective lapse of national reason that was the Iraq war, there was precious little difference left between the parties. Still, I rooted for Kerry in the general. And then he lost too.
That’s politics as I grew up with it. And that’s politics as most people my generation grew up with it. We saw a bitter, deadly game, one where Presidents nearly got booted out of office for their personal lives, where losers won elections, where Presidents respond to attacks on American soil by briefly pursuing the attacker and then invading a random country for little or no reason, and where the American people and the opposition party go along with that for years on end. We got tired of it, and we got cynical.
But for some reason, a first-term Senator from Illinois is getting young people more active in politics than they’ve ever been in history. He is able to cut through our fatigue, our disillusionment, and tell us there can be something better. Some of this is due to his record; Obama’s early opposition to the war and lack of connection to the first term of the Bush administration grant him a distance from the traumas of that period that Clinton does not have. But mostly, it’s because of the speeches. It’s because of hope.
Obama gets bashed a lot for talking about hope. It’s called a smokescreen, a veil behind which to hide his lack of experience or substance. But for me, hope is something concrete. Hope is the ability to carve out a new politics. Not perfection, not a Common Cause dream world, but a politics where the Clinton impeachment wouldn’t happen. One where Iraq wouldn’t happen. Hope means exorcising the demons of our youth, the demons of a politics that destroys.
It’s an amazing thing to see happen. If your impression of an Obama intern was of a Flight of the Conchords-watching, Daft Punk-loving, deeply sarcastic hipster, then your impression was more or less right. And this manifested itself on the job; we’d alternately refer to our occupation as “changing the world” and “spreading hope, taking action, and effecting change”. But even as we cracked snarky jokes, we all believed it on some level. When we said we were changing the world, we all, at least a little bit, meant it in the most literal and unironic sense. This man, and more importantly the movement he started, had changed us. We could be earnest. We could be do-gooders. Obama likes to joke about critics who want him to be more experienced, about how they want to “boil the hope out” of him. Well, Obama boiled the cynicism out of us.
That’s what Obama represents. He represents something better, something we’ve never had. More than that, he represents our ability to achieve that better world. He has lead a generation to become engaged on a level never before seen, and if that sticks even a little bit it’ll have an impact greater than what he alone could ever achieve. Obama has been a key force in our self-enfranchisement, and that’s no small thing, either for us or for the nation.
That’s why I teared up when I saw the news that Obama will clinch the nomination tonight. It’s a vindication not just of Obama’s candidacy. It’s a vindication of my first serious involvement in a political campaign, and that of thousands of other people my age. It’s a victory not of one man, not of one campaign, but of a generation of newborn activists. It wasn’t just Obama that won today. We won too.