Show Up, Dive In, Stay At It.
When Barack Obama became the president of the United States in 2008, I was in my third year of college. It was a historic night not only for the country and the world, but on a personal level as well. Voting for Barack in that election was the first time I’d ever voted for anything or anyone.
It was kind of a big deal.
Before the election of 2008, I consciously chose to steer clear of politics. When I’d see those people with clip boards, I would go out of my way to avoid them. If asked to sign anything I would say no as calloused as possible and continue on my way.
Leading up to the election, I found myself confronted by a gentleman on campus near the library. “Oh no,” I thought. “There’s another one.” There was no one near me to distract him and I knew he was going to ask me to sign whatever it was that he was collecting signatures for. At the time, I was already struggling with a severe case of social anxiety, so talking to people was often a very painful and frightening experience for me.
“Would you like to sign a petition to legalize medical marijuana in Michigan?” He asked me, holding a pen in his hand.
“No.” I replied in my methodically rehearsed manner. Unlike those other times when a petitioner would just move on to the next person, the man instead retorted, “Well, why the hell not? This is really important and you should want to be a part of it.”
His words stopped me in my tracks. Afterall, I did think it would be great for the state of Michigan to legalize medical marijuana. I knew there were people in jail because of it that didn’t deserve to be trapped in the system for such a harmless plant, but I was afraid to actively participate. I was scared and apprehensive to ever put my name on a list.
“What if putting my name on that list makes me a government target or hurts me somehow down the road,” I generally thought to myself. But after a few seconds of contemplation, I walked back up to the man and signed his clip board. “Fine, there you go.” And then I went on with my day, not feeling like my signature was going to mean a damn thing.
Jaded as ever.
When I was approached to register for the 2008 election, I met it with a similar apathy. The only real discernible difference was that, suddenly, my hoover-dam wall of cynicism developed a small crack in it. I’d heard that legalizing medical marijuana had actually made it onto the Michigan ballot and I felt motivated to do my part again. I remembered the man with the clipboard. He was actually part of a progression…and I was too because of him by proxy.
I went to my polling station to cast my ballot both for Barack Obama and for the legalization of medical marijuana. I got my I voted sticker and stuck it to my sweater. The nation waited all day to hear those results, and finally, while hanging out in my dorm’s student lounge area, it was announced that he had won. Wow. He did it. We had our first black president of the United States. Kids were running around, screaming, yelling out happily that Barack Obama won. That hope had won. The youth of America made a difference.
Everything felt new and exciting. Just to know that Barack Obama was going to be in charge filled me with a confidence I hadn’t yet known or experienced in my life prior. Growing up with George W. Bush in the white house had tainted me with such despair and cynicism that I had no idea how it felt to feel anything to the contrary. It felt like my country was on a path towards racial equality, gender equality, and everything else that we had been waiting so long to jumpstart.
Through these past eight years, I’ve trusted that Barack would keep the country on track, so I didn’t decide to get back into the politics game until 2016, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton came to Iowa.
Initially I had been a huge Hillary supporter. I thought it was imperative to follow up the first black president with the first woman president. “How perfectly historic and fitting it would be.” I thought to myself. But then, when I got to see Hillary in person for the first time, it was one of the most disillusioning moments of my life.
Hillary, in stark contrast to Obama, was intensely focused on elderly issues. So much so that she didn’t even take any questions from the younger people in her audience. She felt so rehearsed and polished, but it didn’t come off that way. Instead, it came off as fake. I was heartbroken and pissed off. Here was somebody that I viewed as a role model for women and it felt like she was just an uncharismatic shill. Maybe she cared at one point, maybe she even still did, but I felt no heart behind those exaggerated expressions.
When Bernie Sanders showed up a month or so after Hillary, I made sure to go out of my way to see his speech as well. And when he walked out on to the stage and stood behind the podium, I could see him calculating the numbers in his mind. Was there enough people here to win this county?
“If everyone that came here tonight shows up to caucus,” he said waving his finger, “then I think we have a chance.”
I was so ready to be cynical again, and was already slipping back there, but he knocked all those walls down after I heard him speak his truth. He spoke to everyone, of all ages, and if you yelled out, he wouldn’t ignore you. He wasn’t afraid of the public, and in contrast to Hillary Clinton, he embraced the interaction with a real dialog.
I got to shake his hand afterward and have a short conversation as he walked back to his bus. “I’m voting for you Bernie.” I said with my matter-of-fact stern voice.
“Thank you!” he replied with that thin-lipped smile of his.
I knew I had to caucus for him. Everyone that was in that building knew that they had to caucus for him. Every vote mattered and we couldn’t let him down.
In the end, obviously, Bernie didn’t get the nomination and Hillary did. I was devastated. I knew she wasn’t going to inspire people the way Bernie had or the way Barack did when I was just a kid in college. I became part of the #neverhillary and raged against the DNC and the shady ways in which they propped her up. In my mind, it had been rigged from the very start. Hillary spent the previous four years just waiting for her turn in line. How selfish and arrogant to think that you just deserve it like that, I thought. That was the type of politics as usual and I hated it. From the soil of my own idealism grew that same old cold grey flower of cynicism I once knew so well.
“Maybe I’ll vote for Trump,” I said jokingly to my partner Cody.
“You better fucking not.” He replied serious as he could muster and continued.
“That’s break up talk right there.”
I didn’t know what I was going to do. My rage towards the Hillary camp and what they had done to Bernie was blinding my judgement. I didn’t want to pick the lesser of two evils. I wanted to pick the next Barack Obama! I wanted to continue on his legacy!
It was election day and Donald Trump was spewing noxious gas like a death demon volcano from the seventh circle of hell. Everything the man said was either ignorant of the facts, hateful and bigoted, and oftentimes both simultaneously. I knew I couldn’t hold steady with #neverhillary. I had to vote for her. So I did. The sadness flowed through me like a steady river, but I held my head high. My idealism had been cracked, but this could still be a win for women’s rights. And intellectually I know that Hillary Clinton was basically running on the exact same platform that Obama did and I mostly liked his presidency and platforms. It wouldn’t be so bad.
Then the election results came in and my feelings changed from a sadness to a deep, wretched hopelessness that has remained ever since.
I’ve been scared since that following morning. I don’t know what the future holds anymore, don’t even have a the ability to make out its faint shadow in the distance. I still don’t understand how anyone could hear the hate and arrogant vitriol that Trump’s entire being was composed of and still vote for him with a clear conscience. I spoke with my father, who voted for Trump himself, and asked him how he could do that after all the terrible things Trump had been saying about women, immigrants, and anybody else that wasn’t rich and white (or orange). The cheerful answer I received on the other end of the phone only dismissed all those terrible quotes as meaningless fluff, just things Donald Trump said in order to win the battleground states. It made me feel like the father I respected did not respect me. Worse still, he had no idea what it was like for women and minorities in this country.
I saw Hillary give her concession speech and I cried. Finally, after having lost, her words seemed the most genuine I’d ever heard her say.
“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
She wore her purple pantsuit like armor. That color looked like the royal purple of a queen that was knocked over and defeated on the political chess board. I could tell in her eyes that she felt just as broken as all the other women that I knew. She thought she was going to win, that she had it all wrapped up nicely with a bow, and she had been wrong. We all were.
But just when you think hope has been forever blown out, Barack and Michelle Obama step up to the plate. They begin to try and heal the country. Giving speeches and continuing the long process of transferring the executive power from one hand to the next. Despite hearing this positive rhetoric, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the news or even listen to the radio. I didn’t want to know all the ways Trump was going to ruin things. I was doing exactly what the GOP hoped I would do and reveled in my own complacency.
During his final speech last night in Chicago, Barack Obama said something to me that brought me all the way back 2008.
“Show up, dive in, stay at it.”
He spoke with an assured ease. Encouraging citizens to not be stuck in feeling that change will never happen, empowering them to know that we are the ones that hold the power. That without our consent, the constitution of the United States is nothing but a piece of paper. With those words, my fear melted away. Idealism washed in through the cracks.
We’ll get through this.
I’d like to say thank you Mr. Obama, for being on the right side of history and leading this country with grace (something I am surely about to miss greatly). I thank you as a private citizen of this country, both as the stubborn cynic and the wide-eyed idealist. You inspired hope in me that I will carry for the rest of my life and it wasn’t there at all prior to the night you won the 2008 election. I’ll miss you in the white house, but I hope I see you on the streets; still fighting for all of us.
That’s what I’ll be doing anyway. And you helped me realize that it all starts there. With us. With me.