Miranda’s Hamilton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Remaking of America
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
What Obama’s 2008 election awakened in America was profound. His influence in the White House has since reverberated through everything from rebooting civil rights with Black Lives Matter to the Oscars awarding Best Picture to a film directed by a black man and told from the point of view of slaves. Perhaps the biggest culture quake born out of the Obama renaissance is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a play that celebrates the Obama presidency in a subtle tribute by his casting the roles of all of the Founding Fathers with black and Hispanic actors. When you imagine it, so then it becomes real.
“There is a reason why this has become a cultural phenomenon,” President Obama said while introducing a special performance of “Hamilton at White House.”
“In Hamilton,” the President continued, “Rap is the language of revolution. Hip hop is the backbeat. In each brilliantly crafted song, you hear the debates that shaped our nation, and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation. We feel the fierce youthful energy that animated the men and women of Hamilton’s generation, and with a cast as diverse as America itself.”
Hamilton was first introduced to the President at a poetry slam in 2008. This was the kind of president who would have a poetry slam. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vision was all there. He just needed the next few years to write it all down. No doubt, this encouragement helped inspire Miranda to continue.
After the success of the play, Miranda brought the play back to the White House as a smash hit, a game changer and one of the most exciting pieces of writing to emerge in decades.
So successful and educational was the play, Michelle Obama held a workshop with students.
Miranda’s Hamilton is such a revelation because it cuts right through the notion that whiteness defines the Founding Fathers. It lays bare both the purity and goodness of the “American experiment” without overlooking that the hard-won freedom and independence was not complete until slavery was abolished and voting rights were extended to every citizen — of every race, men and women alike. Miranda’s Hamilton and Obama’s America are continue to teach these lessons, to acknowledge and recognize how this country was shaped by immigrants, how it was built by African slaves, birthed and nurtured by women — and how now, finally, 240 years later, we at last have a country where anyone can be anything they choose.
“This is about a coalition that has saved the United States and can keep saving it,” says Al Giordano, who’s challenging Bernie Sanders for his Senate seat in Vermont. Although Obama made it seems almost easy to take such a pummeling from a very white and very pissed off Republican Congress, now we’re seeing, with this election, that we are still very much at war with that faction — and white male power wants its power back.
The right-wing panic surrounding Hillary Clinton as a candidate is about the loss of control by that staid white male patriarchy that has become accustomed to running things for almost 300 years. First a black man, and now a woman? Wasn’t Obama supposed to have ended his 2 terms and white man put back into the Oval Office to reinstall the machine parts back to their rightful functions?
The progressive left says Obama failed because he did not do enough. The Republicans formed the Freedom Caucus, run by the Tea Party, comprised solely of white men, and would not even deign to look at Obama’s budget. They wouldn’t even give him the respect of reading something that they knew before reading they would never pass. Paul Ryan began acting like he, and not Obama, was President of the United States. So little respect they have for Obama that they refused to even consider his Supreme Court appointment, as if they could pretend the president did not have a full year left in office.
Did we hear any defense of our president from Bernie Sanders and his supporters? No. They were too busy attacking the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. In attacking her, they were also attacking him. In attacking her they were, and are, trying to make the case that Obama was not successful and that only Sanders knows the magic to get impossible promises done.
Miranda’s Hamilton is reminiscent of so many leaders, including President Obama, who had to do more, be more, in order to make a name for themselves. Alexander Hamilton, as written, conceived and performed by Miranda is someone who had nothing, who came from nowhere and “overwhelmed them with honesty.” Hamilton first dazzled people with his writing, as a teenager, about a hurricane. So exceptional was he that the community raised funds to send him to America where he could attend college. Hamilton wanted to fight as a soldier in a war because he knew at that time that was the only way he could rise in public esteem. It also explains why he was sympathetic to the abolitionists and confronts Thomas Jefferson about slavery.
‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
Don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ‘em
But Hamilton forgets
His plan would have the government assume state’s debts
Now, place your bets as to who that benefits:
The very seat of government where Hamilton sits
Ooh, if the shoe fits, wear it
If New York’s in debt —
Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade
In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground
We create. You just wanna move our money around
This financial plan is an outrageous demand
And it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand
Stand with me in the land of the free
And pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy
Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky
Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky
Thomas. That was a real nice declaration
Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation
Would you like to join us, or stay mellow
Doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?
If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit, a financial diuretic
How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive
The union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting
And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment
Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it
You think I’m frightened of you, man?
We almost died in a trench
While you were off getting high with the French
The debate between Hamilton and Jefferson is a debate about the past as it relates directly to the future. Our nation and every other country are now being shaped by a global community, and in America the demographics are shifting dramatically. A Democratic candidate cannot survive by abandoning that basic starting point. To undo what Obama has done and strip away how he’s effectively shaped the modern world would be to take a significant step backwards. These so-called populist movements like Brexit are driven by exactly that: let’s hold on to who were were, not who who we are and what we will be.
The election of Hillary Clinton is one of the most important battles in the war between two Americas. One America was built and maintained exclusively by and for white men. That demographic has awakened extremists on the left and right. The other America redeems the promise of possibility for everyone, no matter their status or skin color or class. That America has produced the nation’s first black president who not only lasted one term, but two, and who now promises to make history by helping elect another Democrat to follow his two terms. Electing Hillary Clinton doesn’t just say, “We’re electing a woman for the first time in our country’s history.” It also dares to say the first black American president was so successful he did the impossible by electing his chosen successor.
A three-term run for Democratic presidents would be the first such span since FDR held four, died in office and then helped ensure Harry Truman would be his successor. A third term for a political party means a very successful run and something that the Democrats have not achieved for many decades. The only modern president to pull this off is Ronald Reagan, who installed his vice president George HW Bush to follow him. Thus, electing Hillary Clinton will be to declare Obama’s presidency a great success. What does that mean for the other America? The white America that has long been invested in the white male power dynamic?
No one could really have predicted just how violently the progressive left would respond to President Obama’s success. Many of them remain full of stubborn pride even though 4 out of 5 Bernie supporters have already put their full support behind Hillary Clinton. Hillary leads in the polls and has the most votes by far of any candidate in the race. She dwarfed Bernie Sanders in the popular vote by a wide margin of 4 million. There is no question of who is the winner, no matter what delusions have sprouted in the compost bins of Bernie or Bust. At the heart of their movement was a challenge to the Democrats that all we accomplished wasn’t good enough, that the progress Obama had made wasn’t good enough, that Obama himself wasn’t good enough. Obamacare, which took a miracle to pass — and Congress has tried to overturn more than 60 times — wasn’t good enough. What was it about President Obama that wasn’t good enough, that the Bernie Sanders supporters felt needed upgrading? Wasn’t he once the “chosen one”?
What we do know is that the states Bernie Sanders won were those with almost exclusively majority white electorate. States were 85%-97% of voters are white. He did not win the black, Hispanic or woman vote. He was being heralded as the Great White Hope by mostly white men. Yes, he had some minority voter support, young people of color, and women in their teens and 20s, that’s true. But Sanders’ message has done damage to Obama’s legacy in the minds of these young supporters, particularly in how he has tried to disparage the worthiness of the president’s chosen successor. Given the success of Obama’s presidency, the Democrats should have been more united than ever. But instead, Democrats on the far left, led by Bernie Sanders, saw this as an opportunity to dismiss what Obama had done because to them it wasn’t good enough. At the base of their movement was anger at the 1%. The income inequality that, they felt, left too many behind. That meant Obama and all he stood for had to go. He, they silently proclaimed, had been a failure to the left.
Left behind, seemingly, in this equation is the plight of the American white man. On the left and on the right there is fury and anger at the 1% because white men are not getting their fair share. They blame free trade for sending jobs overseas. Bernie Sanders refuses to single out any one group as having it worse off than the white voters who have been inspired by his message. While his supporters believe he’s standing up for Black Lives Matter, and while he briefly courted Hispanics to win California, Sanders himself has mostly pitched the idea that a homogenized America is not being treated fairly. What he means is white middle-class America, but he knows it’s not cool to say that. Lest we forget, America’s middle-class ain’t white anymore, not in California, not in Texas, not in Florida. Hillary won those states because she does address the needs of the middle class.
Among the Right, things couldn’t be more dire. This country is now faced, for the first time in our history, a presidential candidate who brazenly stands up for white supremacy, for white rights, for taking back a country that has supposedly been “stolen” by others. For two historic terms of our first black president to be followed by an unabashed racist would be a tragedy for America. It would, in one fell swoop, grab the power away from Obama’s coalition and hand it back to the forces that threatened to destroy it; America’s promise, as celebrated in Miranda’s Hamilton, will always be judged against the crimes against humanity and the subsequent criminalization of generations of black citizens.
America’s soul is at stake with this election. We have to ask ourselves who we are in 2016 and whether we are ready for the kind of change President Obama put in motion, or whether we will be consumed by the worst instincts that has cursed this great country for centuries.
We hope,” Obama said, “that the life of Alexander Hamilton will show our people the possibilities within themselves and how much they can achieve in the span of a lifetime. We hope they’ll walk away with an understanding of what our founders got started that it was just a start, just a beginning. That’s what makes America so great. You finish the story. We’re never finished. There’s a constant work in progress for America. We’re boisterous and we’re diverse, we’re full of energy. We’re perpetually young in spirit. We are the project that never ends. We make mistakes. We have our foibles but ultimately when every voice is heard we overcome them. We’re not the project of any one person. America is what we make of it and we only need to look at this cast performing in front of George and Martha to know that our founders could not have dreamt up the future that they set in motion and it’s only exercising their greatest gift to us, the gift of citizenship, that we keep our democracy alive, and continue the work of creating that more perfect union.”