A couple of Fridays ago, I was in a bar on West 48th nursing a Hoegaarden and trying to salvage a date that was quickly moving into no-man’s land when an Irish fellow named Pat (it could have been Nat, too – it was loud and I was buzzed) came up to me and said, “You’re an Obama supporter, aren’t you?” I said, “Why, yes I am.” I explained that I liked Obama’s consensus approach to leadership and what I saw as a Buddhist-syle centeredness. Pat, a gentlemanly fellow with brilliant white hair and an easy smile, talked about his daughter, also an Barackite who, much like me, had just graduated from college and was living in Brooklyn. I remember thinking, he seems proud of his daughter, and less altruistically: I wonder if he’ll hook us up. After a few minutes my date got impatient and said we had to go and I said goodbye to Pat and we walked down the street to see Tom Stoppard’s “Rock & Roll,” which was excellent.
I’m only now realizing how odd it was for Pat to open a conversation with such a simple, declarative question. What identified me as an Obama guy? I fit the key demographics: young, educated, urbanite, professional (at least, in a collar shirt and slacks I looked the part), and black (Lie: I’m white). But this is New York, which Hillary carried in the primary by a solid 18 points. Perhaps it is a singular Irish skill, after a long history of occupation and tyranny, to see past the surface of things.
During our exchange, I had struggled to tell Pat and his kind, blue, watery Irish eyes what I believed to be the fundamental difference between Obama and Hillary supporters. I said something like, “The difference, I think, is, ah, that Obama supporters believe in transformation and Hillary supporters don’t.” I didn’t mean transformation as a synonym for “change” – Obama’s flogged the word Change so hard it’s black-and-blue. I was trying to find a reason, rooted in personality, for why Obama was reaching some people so powerfully and causing others to turn away dismissively.
Looking back, this thought was shaped largely by the animosity between HRC and O supporters that blew in like an unexpected storm after Super Tuesday (which is largely a moot point as Obamentum gathers support from HRC’s core demographics). It felt like the Democratic party was at the brink if schism over, improbably, a difference in character between the two frontrunners. Hillary and Barack have very similar policy goals, so it made sense that voters were selecting on the basis of something other than policy. Broadly defined, the narrative in the media was, “people have to choose between experience (realism, cynicism, etc.) and hope (dreamism, change, etc.).” Perhaps, I reasoned, a fundamental right-brain vs. left-brain opposition was dividing Democrats and Independents into two camps – one that experienced Obama’s abstract message as a real, visceral feeling, and those who didn’t (and thought those who did were a bunch of ninnies).
Forgive the tired rhetorical trick: “Transformation,” as defined by Dictionary.com, means “The act or process of transforming.” That doesn’t tell us much. Here, transformation means the appreciable change from a state lacking agency, optimism, or control (the “bad place”) to a state that offers all these things (the “happy place”). For the last 8 years, we’ve been in a very, very bad place, bereft of any inkling of happy place. To some people (actually, rather a lot of people), Obama represents an opportunity for transformation in our country that originates in a shift of the individual from disengaged to active; From frustration to anger to action. At this point, it looks like Obama might very well be the next President of the United States. My fear is that his million(s) of keen supporters will vote him into office, sit back, and wait for a sea change in policy akin to his brilliant rhetoric; They will have forgotten that it’s not up to him – it’s up to us.
I wish I had gotten Pat’s info, so I could include him in the email blasts I send to my friends. He had a youthful energy behind his eyes and conversation that I was drawn to, and even though I was a little drunk and a little cocky in front of my date, he was happy to trade thoughts on our favorite candidate. My enthusiasm for Barack Obama was somehow legitimized by his own – a young man and an old man getting revved up by abstractions like Change and Hope. Perhaps experience counts for something after all.