November 4, 2008 is the most historic day I have ever witnessed. Four hundred years ago black people were introduced to this land as slaves. Forty years ago African Americans were finally guaranteed the right to vote in the United States. November 4, 2008 a black man, the son of a teenage mother and immigrant father, who grew up on food stamps, Barack Obama was elected as the forty-fourth president of these United States. As the son of an African American father and first generation Irish mother, this is a day I hoped would one day happen in the lives of my children. For the first time in a long time, America has a monumental historic moment that is marked by achievement and happiness, not tragedy or disaster. This is the affirmation of the American dream, that anyone can achieve anything if they want to. No longer do we have to tell children this, there will now be a face in the history book we can show them. For the first time in my life or study of American history, I saw people spontaneously celebrating in the streets at the results of an election. This wasn’t the Lakers winning an NBA title, this was America, for the first time ever, electing as president an African American. It was at this moment that I saw the new political model that had been ushered in.
I gathered to watch the election with a close group of friends at 120th St. in Harlem. Needless to say, all of us were incredibly nervous watching this election. But our nerves soon turned to excitement as CNN began projecting major states for Obama. Pennsylvania quickly was listed as a win, then Ohio, and then Virginia. Obama had 207 electoral votes at about 10:30 with none of the west coast states reporting yet (victory was a formality in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii). We knew it was over, but we were waiting for when the clock would strike 11:00 and the networks would be able to project the West Coast once their polls had closed. Then it happened, cue the dramatic projection music: Barack Obama is the next president of the United States. The excitement and emotion in that room is something I have never experienced in my life before. The genuine feeling of relief and happiness is something I will cherish forever and am eternally grateful I was able to share it with such a group of people. We ran outside to the streets, one of us carrying a life-size cardboard cutout of the new president elect to 125th and Adam Clayton Powell where there was a large group already gathered watching the reelection of Charlie Rangel and now the election of President Obama.
As we ran down the streets, I heard people shouting in excitement, horns repeatedly honking, and saw people high fiving and hugging. And there was something else that I saw. White people, black people, Latinos and Asians all were a part of this celebration. This celebration was a representation of the coalition Obama had built through the primary and in the general election. Old and young, white and black, people were not focused on what they were according to some box on a survey. At this day, at this hour, we were Americans. I saw parents with their children on their shoulders so they could watch this historical moment. I saw elderly people crying that they never thought this would happen in their lifetime. The energy on this corner was something you could power a nation with, something that can change the politics we have known. This was something that could change the divisiveness that has plagued our nation since its inception. This was something that anyone could get behind and believe in.
The model Obama used was one of broad coalition building. Here was a man who reached across the lines of race and age to bring people together and to bring about change in this country. People of all races, people of all ages were energized to not only vote for this man, but to donate money and time to make sure other people voted for him too. The large increase in registration, the boom of small donations of $5-25 is due to the organizational model Obama built. This model is nothing new. It is used by mayors of diverse urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It is coalition building across race, age, and class. Given the fact America is a nation of immigrants, the time of the election being decided by essentially which major party captured the white vote has come to an end. No longer can the needs of the young and minorities be ignored. Soon there will no longer a majority race in this nation. In order to be elected to the presidency, one is going to have to build a group of whites and minorities, young and old, rich and poor. This is what the mayors of many large cities have to do in order to not only get elected but also to govern. One group is no longer going to be able to hold the power and drive the bus for the party. If you want to accomplish anything at a national level, you are now going to have to follow the model used at the local level by the leaders of diverse urban populations. The nation has reached the point where diverse coalitions are necessary for any success at the presidential level.
As it stands right now the Democratic Party is better equipped for this new model than the Republican Party. Watching their conventions, looking at who they elect as leaders, it is clear the Democrats are more diverse ethnically and economically. The Republican Party, if it has any aspirations of holding the top office in this nation again, needs to figure out how to grow their base. No more pandering to the rich only. Obama liked to point out the words “middle class” were consistently lacking from anything McCain said. That will no longer work as a base, especially at a time when rich and poor alike are feeling are major pinch on their pocketbooks. Stop attacking people who aren’t religious or Christian. People sought and still seek America for freedom to express themselves spiritually so it cannot be a detriment to someone who is not the “right” religion. As the diversity in this nation grows, so will the diversity of our beliefs. Finally, what turned me off the most to the Republican ticket this election, stop trivializing those who work with poor and minorities. One of the most despicable things I’ve witnessed in politics was Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin laughing at and mocking Obama’s work as a community organizer. With a nation this diverse, it is political suicide to mock someone who defers a big pay check at a law firm to help poor and minorities register to vote, find a job, keep their lights on, and find health insurance for their kids.
I don’t know if the Republicans will change their model to match that of the Democrats. I don’t know if Hispanics will continue to strongly support Democrats or will move more to the right which could strongly swing the balance of power. What I do know is that for the first time in our nation’s history, someone who is not a white man is president. Obama got people out to vote for the first time and people who had never voted in their lives. People who had never voted Democrat came over to vote for Obama and his message and philosophy. What I do know is that at 11:47 p.m. EST on November 4, 2008 I got a message on my cell phone that I am going to remember for the rest of my life. It was my 92 year old grandmother, who lives in California. She grew up in the segregated South and saw the vast changes this country as gone through in terms of race relations. The message starts with a couple seconds of silence and then my grandmother softly saying, with emotion in her voice, that she never thought she would see this day. She couldn’t describe how happy and proud she was. What I do know is that she was not the only one who had this feeling. Thousands of miles away, at the corner of 125th and Adam Clayton Powell, her 23 year old grandson felt the exact same say.
–M. Night Crawler