In two days, voters in both my new home state and in Indiana go to the polls. To their great surprise, the votes cast could make a difference in selecting the Democratic nominee. As they emerge, a “representative” number of them will be stopped for interviews by an army of researchers. The cumulative results will be reported that evening, exit polls that will be grist for the ever-present talking heads. Well in North Carolina they have early voting. So I’ve cast my ballot and, while we’re waiting for the final results and treasured analysis, I have some exit thoughts. They may surprise you because they are unlikely to be reflected in any of those researcher’s intercepts.
Remember the setting. This is North Carolina a state with a proud Confederate history, full throttle participant in the subsequent segregation and the political base of Jesse Helms, perhaps the most reactionary rightist ever to serve in the Senate. Even its fabled Sam Ervin who dazzled the nation during the Watergate hearings had a lifelong commitment to keeping the nasty old ways in place. Fast forward to 2008 and here is how I (admittedly a newcomer from the North) cast my vote: for President, an African American; for Governor, a woman; for Senator, an openly gay man. I most assuredly won’t be the only Carolinian voting in that way. Let me repeat, this is North Carolina where my friend Cyril Tyson couldn’t move about or grab a meal freely in the still segregated towns near Ft. Bragg where he was stationed while serving his country. Here in tobacco land, I can’t help but remember that old Virginia Slims tagline, we’ve “come a long way baby.” Yes we have!
With the over covered nastiness and silliness of this race, we seem to be forgetting what we all acknowledged at its start. This is a remarkable year with an unparalleled opportunity to break historic ground. Having been involved in the civil rights and poverty battles of the 1960s and long a supporter of the women’s movement, I often despair at how limited our progress has been. People of color continue to lag badly behind in educational, economic and political opportunity. We can still count and name the few women in high places and not everyone feels free to come out of the closet. But, if anything, the 2008 election cycle is proving me too pessimistic. Who would have thought voting on one ballot for a Black, a woman and a gay, all viable contenders for powerful offices, would be possible in the South? So while we all complain about the length of the contest and, partisans like myself, about the Clintons take no prisoners tactics or the pass John McCain is still getting in the press, let’s take a deep breath and say hurrah for the big progress playing out before our eyes.
I hope and expect Barack Obama to prevail now and in the fall, but I don’t know how Tuesday will turn out and for that matter what surprises might lie ahead for whoever wins those two races. Regardless, at some point the pregame tryouts will be over and we’ll move on to the real matchup. Despite all the pundits’ predictions of trouble ahead, the Democratic Party will come together because all of its members know the stakes are enormously high. Just look at the turnout in each of these contests and don’t fall into the trap of assuming it’s all attributable to Obama or, for that matter, Clinton each of whose supporters will be left so dispirited that they won’t vote. Democrats are mad as hell and they are not about to replay 2004 when they blew it. Let’s also remember that the Presidential choices I had here in North Carolina and others had in previous primaries did not exist on the Republican side. There was no African American, no woman nor, no Hispanic on their ballot. It’s still largely the Grand Old (White Guy) Party. I’m not sure that will last much longer, and while reveling in their present distress, think it will be a good thing for both them and the country.
Considering the real issues that face us, and that seem to have faded from the front pages in the last weeks, one can’t envy the next President. What a colossal mess. Whether or not a federal gasoline tax holiday makes for good policy or opportunistic pandering, the challenges facing a country and world that has not seriously addressed its energy needs are daunting. We may bicker over whose health plan is the best and who will extricate us from Iraq most quickly, but there will be no instant solutions to either. Congress will ultimately have to sort out the healthcare options and it will be very messy. Many of the best experts believe we need a total overhaul and, if nothing else, the much overstated and inaccurate bragging about having the world’s “best” healthcare, will in itself get in the way, big time. Much as we should get out of Iraq without passing Go, that kind of speed may to be thwarted by realities on the ground. Barack Obama says we have to be more careful about how we get out than how we got in. I don’t envy him executing on that seemingly sensible formulation if he ultimately ends up in the place where the “buck stops”.
One of the mantras of Hillary’s campaign has been that words and hope don’t count. I agree that they alone are insufficient, but words set the mind and the mind is, after all, a miraculous thing, unquestionably underused in the last seven years. We’re pretty overwhelmed with what we can’t do and the steepness of the road ahead. That isn’t paranoia; it’s reality. In that context, words can give us courage to move ahead in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. Being able to vote as I did, for whom I did, in the place I did, North Carolina, doesn’t mean that the struggle for equal rights, for tolerance and the full embrace of all, no matter who they may be, is over. But it’s a real start and we should not underestimate what it, and this historic election, portends for the future.