“If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman on the occasion of a distant election, “I’d name the still-small voice vibrating – America’s choosing day.”
On this day after voting day, as Whitman’s “final ballot-shower from East to West” finishes, we are reminded once more that an American election, aggressively campaigned and well conducted, yields not the measure of men or parties, but of the country itself. Despite all the talk of spin, strategy, polls and personalities, an election ultimately tells us what America can conceive, what it is capable of, what indeed it demands.
The demand at the start of the 2008 presidential campaign was for change.
Americans wanted an end to a war that should never have started, they wanted an end to economic policies that were widening the gap between rich and poor and pushing the middle-class into the yawning chasm between, they wanted to replace a president who been dubiously elected with one who had secured the trust of the great mass of Americans.
A unreasonably young Illinois senator recognized the demand, and the frustration that underpinned it.
With the most disciplined campaign run by a Democratic contender for the presidency since the days when Jim Farley was organizing Franklin Roosevelt’s races, Barack Obama made himself the tribune of America’s yearning for a transformational moment.
He was the physical embodiment of change – an African-American contender in a land that had only nominated and elected white men before him.
But it was Obama’s message that mattered.
He spoke to America in a language of common purpose that was starkly at odds with the blunt talk of recent elections. Pundits and critics praised and derided Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but they tended to miss the fact that from the start of his campaign the senator was not merely speaking – he was saying something.
Something about America.
The Democratic nominee’s final statement to the electorate on the eve of the vote distilled his message down to a single line: “I ask you to write our nation’s next great chapter.”
Note, please, that Obama did not ask voters to empower him to make the change, nor even to help him to achieve it.
“If you give me your vote,” he said, “we won’t just win this election – together we can change this country and change the world.”