What the Obama victory means for us.

Like the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the attacks of September 11th, people will forever remember where they were on the night of November 4th, 2008.

I had the privilege of being in Grant Park, Chicago.

▲ The skyline from Grant Park.

The skyline from Grant Park.

Some background:

An old friend was moving back to Toronto from San Diego – and we decided a cross-continental road trip gave us an opportunity to make a planned stop at Barack Obama’s Final Rally.  We drove from Los Angeles, through Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, and western Illinois, arriving in Chicago on Tuesday morning.

▲ Thrilled as the landscape changed from 1 to 2.
▲ Thrilled as the landscape changed from 1 to 2.

Aside: I managed to prove my ineptitude by tearing a ligament in my ankle in a little Halloween mishap (thankfully, it wasn’t my driving foot). Ambling down Michigan Avenue on crutches, I was approached – more than once – by people who wanted to express support for this evidently crippled youth in an Obama t-shirt trying against all odds to get to a voting booth.  It usually went something like this:

Sweet older lady: “Oh, look at you!  You poor thing, heading to the polls.  That’s just wonderful, isn’t that wonderful?  Good for you!”

Me: “Uh, no ma’am, actually I can’t vote here.  I’m Canadian”.

Sweet older lady: “Oh”.  Pause. “Well then, where are you headed in such a hurry?”

Me:  Points south. “The rally.  In Grant Park”.

▲ Tourists line up to take photos in front of cardboard cutouts of Barack Obama and Joe Biden at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum on Michigan Avenue.  A little to the right, the cutouts of John McCain and Sarah Palin looked rather lonely.
▲ Tourists line up to take photos in front of cardboard cutouts of Barack Obama and Joe Biden at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum on Michigan Avenue. A little to the right, the cutouts of John McCain and Sarah Palin looked rather lonely.

The rally:

There were just 70,000 tickets to the original Grant Park rally (preferentially distributed to Illinois residents – and they were sold out claimed almost immediately), so an overflow event was created in the north end of the park.  With rumours of an expected overflow of a million people (and a total park capacity of only 100,000) we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get anywhere near the venue.  But somehow, that’s where we found ourselves on Tuesday afternoon.  A surprisingly orderly mass of people had assembled by 2 pm for an event that wasn’t supposed to begin until 8:30, and by 3 o’clock we began to file in.  Locals and out-of-towners alike filled the field in front of a large video screen on which we could all watch CNN’s election night coverage.

▲ Leeor documented my progress.  We're almost there.
▲ Leeor documented my progress. We’re almost there.

It was a truly mixed crowd.  I was standing in a sea of people of every colour and hue – from around Illinois, around the country, and even some like us from around the world.  Many were youths, but every living generation was represented in Grant Park.  Though we came from every walk of life, our purpose that night was shared: to witness the making of a history we were all invested in.  The excitement was palpable.

I’m not one for political rallies, but I found myself struck by the unspoken camaraderie in the air – not the flimsy friends-by-association raucousness you get at sporting events, but a quieter understanding of common hope and conviction.

CNN’s (inescapable) coverage prompted and punctuated the crowds’ cheering.  With every prediction of a state going one way or another, the crowd reacted – cheering or booing, but always with enthusiasm.  The inevitability of Obama’s win was generally known before Tuesday by anyone following the campaign polls, but as real voting data came in from jurisdiction after jurisdiction, it became increasingly clear what was going to happen.  One swing state after another lit up blue on the jumbotron.  People were on their cellphones constantly – calling, texting, photographing – this was a connected crowd, and something that I’m sure is now the norm.  (Confession: I myself was busy trying to reach friends in CA, OH, VA, RI, NY, and Ontario, until we collectively brought the cell networks to their knees.)

▲ The crowd in Grant Park, as far as the eye can see.
▲ The crowd in Grant Park, as far as the eye can see.

But it wasn’t until the polls on the west coast closed – at 10:00 pm in Chicago – that Wolf Blitzer proclaimed, against a backdrop of bold red letters, that Barack Obama would in fact win the Presidency.  The crowd erupted in deafening elation.  Complete strangers hugged and high-fived and shouted themselves hoarse.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was all the tears I saw that night.  Many people around me – young and old, black, white, and in-between – were crying tears of pride and hope.  To be so engaged in this process and its outcome as to be moved by it is a beautiful thing – and entirely too rare.

▲ Showing off Obama buttons.
▲ Showing off Obama buttons.
▲ Chicago's packed streets as the exodus form the park began.
▲ Chicago’s streets were packed as the exodus from the park began.

The excitement morphed into a quieter thoughtfulness as we watched the speeches: McCain’s gracious concession, Obama’s inspiring call to action.  The cheers gave way to something more contemplative.  Has this all just really happened?  And after it was all done, we walked home.  The streets of Chicago’s downtown were packed – we could see crowds in every direction. We walked with some new friends we’d met at the rally, and once again, I was asked why this event was important enough to two Canadians that we’d drive all the way from Los Angeles to witness it.

November 4th wasn’t just a victory for Barack Obama.  Not just for the Democrats, and not just for the United States.  It was a human victory – one that belongs to us all.  Though we so often forget, we’re all in this together.

Why do us foreigners care so much?

Obama is an inspiring new visible-minority leader 1 with an unprecedented ability to motivate and mobilize for positive change, and that is a great thing.  But the international perspective is much more specific: this is about a return to multilateralism.  There are so many fundamental values most of us share – contrary to common American media portrayals, the U.S. does not have a monopoly on freedom and democracy.  Yet without a proper view of the whole, that big picture perspective that Obama makes seem effortless, we become individual silos – be it people, parties, or nation-states and we’re more often pitted against each other.  The US of A has fanned these flames harder than anyone else under the Bush Administration.

That the United States should choose to recognize this, and engage in meaningful cooperation with others – not simply by entering a series of bilateral agreements with individual nations, but to actually support multilateral institutions and (wait for it) finally put away Cold War-era notions of power to embrace a postmodern system of global collaboration – this is our hope.  Barack Obama has captivated us so much because he seems to understand this so well – through his life story, his experiences abroad, and his own articulated foreign policy strategy.  If you really wanted to go back to a racial analysis, you could say it’s in his blood.

Yes, we agree that democracy is a value that ultimately should be embraced around the globe.  But how contradictory is it to “enforce democracy”?  Can’t we find other ways to export this great institution?  Yes, we agree that the environment is a critical issue – but it’s an inter-jurisdictional one by nature and can’t be tackled by any one nation alone, nor can we wait for the developing world to ‘catch up’ and make commitments we ourselves refuse to make.  Yes, we agree that the free market is fundamental to our civilization, and is an engine that can solve may problems – but not all of them.  Let’s ensure that as a society, we use this tool where appropriate, and work as a global community to determine its parameters and standards.

I could go on.

We hope, desperately, that President Obama will turn the United States into something I’m convinced it really wants to be: a beacon of hope that leads by example, holding others to the same high standards it sets for itself, and working with others to make things better.

If he does, I am certain that international leaders will rally around the United States in a way my generation has never seen.

  1. Let’s toss aside the early analysis that calls this an election about race – it wasn’t.  Although this sets a hugely positive example, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that racism in America was somehow eliminated yesterday.  Let’s see this for what it is – a gifted individual who succeeded on the merits of his ideas and abilities, in spite of racial prejudice.  Let each of us – from any minority group, visible or invisible – draw inspiration from this.  And let’s be clear that there are other democracies around the world where a minority has ascended to his or her nation’s highest office. Back to post

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