Election-night symbolism

November 11, 2008

Last Tuesday night, I went down to Chicago's Grant Park to witness
Barack Obama's election and victory speech. At the event, I was struck
by the fact that the crowd was at its loudest and most excited not when
Obama and his family took the stage but earlier, when CNN projected him
as the winner. There was no drama left when the networks finally called
it: they waited till the West-coast polls closed, by which time the
outcome had been certain for some time. Yet seeing what we already knew
to be true confirmed by faraway TV anchors—who don't exactly have a
pristine record on this sort of thing—was somehow at least as thrilling
as being present for Obama's first speech as president-elect.

It
shouldn't have surprised me to see the symbolism of CNN's "breaking" the
"news" compete with and mediate the experience of the thing itself.
Yes, the concrete reality of the scene at the park was remarkable.
Strangers from different walks of life, invested in Obama's candidacy
for same and different reasons, celebrated together as friends. It was
incredible to see older black adults—who walked and stood and waited in
line at an event more hospitable to younger bodies—joyfully embracing
white college students. (And don't miss this set of photos, from which the above photo is taken, via April Winchell.)

Yet
I found myself preoccupied by the symbolism of the location. This was
the site of violent clashes between police and protesters during the
1968 Democratic National Convention. Forty years after the assassination
of Bobby Kennedy—on the heels of that of Martin Luther King—robbed the
youth, antiwar and civil rights movements of their best hope for
electorally induced change, Obama built a successful coalition around
similar groups. Right where thousands voiced their isolation from
establishment politics, hundreds of thousands watched their candidate
win. In 1968, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Police Department
confronted protesters with disproportionate force. In 2008, Mayor
Richard M. Daley joined with the CPD in planning and executing a
smoothly run celebration.

My friend Rose participated
in an impromptu election-night celebration at the Lincoln Memorial,
which last Tuesday more than ever conjured images of both Lincoln's and
King's contributions to racial equality. The symbolism of the Lincoln
Memorial is very different from that of Grant Park, if not quite
contradictory: Obama represents a crowning achievement of the civil
rights movement, even as his inspiring message and relative youth
represent the hope to finally move on from the cultural and political
divisions of the boomer generation. That's a lot to pack into one
candidate and one election.

Obama's win is meaningful to many people and for many reasons. (Even a prominent conservative LDS blogger is feeling the hope.)
Inevitably, there will be disappointments when the realities of this
pragmatic, often conventional politician's governance clash with the
idealistic tone and symbolism of his campaign.

But Tuesday, the
literal and the symbolic met as we both elected Barack Obama president
and celebrated the real progress represented by electing Barack Obama president.