I am just one of many people who has been captivated by the “52 to 48 Project” on zefrank.com, where people contribute picture messages addressed to the Americans who didn’t vote for “their guy” on Nov. 4. Many of the messages are lighthearted and fun, pithy ways to begin bridging the divides that both ruling parties have contributed to over the past eight years. One of my favorites, for instance, reads:
I’m generally too cynical for things like ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ especially from the ‘government’ or ‘people.’ The more of you that reach out, however, the more hope I have in individuals. I may mock your idealism, but you’re doing a good job melting my scorn, each of you.
Another, from a girl with a somewhat smirky smile and blue eye shadow, says:
There is no doubt in my mind that we are brethren, and my love is not held back by fear of cheesiness. We can do this TOGETHER. Truly.
Some others are a bit jarring in their bare emotion, as is the one from a young woman with a facial expression of earnest pleading. “Nana,” she writes, “I know you’re angry and scared, but Please, Please, just give him a chance. I love you.”
Normally, I might be too cynical to believe such a project could amount to much of anything more than a few moments of feel-good sappiness on the part of the contributors, and possibly some of the visitors to the site. But when I found myself actually tearing up as I read some of the entries, I had to acknowledge that this site could have the power to soften even the most hardened of hearts and thereby bring a measure of healing to a fiercely divided electorate.
Perhaps my belief is due in part to the fact that our nation’s divisiveness has come home to me in a very personal way, as my oldest sister is one of the 1% of voters who pulled the lever for “someone else.” (In my sister’s case, that someone else was Bob Barr, former Republican Representative for Georgia’s seventh district and author of the “Defense of Marriage” Act.) My sister is frustrated and angry that, while she and her husband have, over the years, resisted living beyond their means in favor of saving for the future, their retirement account has taken a huge hit in our current economic crisis, and so she feels that President Elect Obama’s tax increases will be an unfair and undeserved punishment for people who have acted responsibly over time.
To someone like me—single and working in a profession (teaching) that does not pay a particularly high salary—my sister’s frustration seems a bit short-sighted and shallow in perspective: her husband makes a six-figure salary, and—while she is right that they do not live extravagantly—they are financially well-off enough that she is currently taking a year off from her job as an elementary school teacher. While I do not wish for her to be facing a longer work life or lower take-home pay as a result of anyone’s tax policy, I find that my sympathy for her is tempered by the fact that I have not lived extravagantly either: I don’t own a home—I don’t even own a car—and I went without internet access and cable television for my first few years of teaching because these were luxuries I couldn’t afford. So while I do not begrudge my sister and brother-in-law their success, I also know that plenty of people who have “lived responsibly” are far worse off than my sister, simply because their income level is so far below that of my sister and her husband.
Still, I felt that my sister’s anger and fear for the future were directed at me a few days ago, when she reacted to Barack Obama’s victory by saying that people in America are “sheep” who believe whatever “the media” tells them. Since I voted for Obama (as did every other member of my immediate family, including my mother, two other sisters, one brother, and a brother-and-sister-in-law), I felt that my sister was implying that I, too, was a “sheep,” taken in by what she seemed to see as Obama’s empty message of “change.”
I assured her that my support for Obama was the result of a long and complicated journey, as I have been watching his career since he addressed the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, and explained to her that what I see in Barack Obama is an intellect unparalleled by anyone in political office in recent memory (or even not so recent memory), and an understanding of world affairs that includes a foreign policy that does not want America in every country in the world, something that seemed to be a pivotal goal of the Bush Administration, much to our country’s great detriment.
To her credit (and in a move that speaks to the strength of our relationship), my sister heard me out, and let me know that she knows me better than to think of me as a “sheep.” I sent her the link to the “52 to 48 Project,” and we had a good laugh talking about our favorites on the site; it was a good way for us to begin the process of being more open to each other’s political views.
Barack Obama himself seems committed to changing political discourse in this country from partisan shouting matches to actual non-partisan dialogue. In his acceptance speech, he asked of Americans, “Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” and added that, “while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.” And he was careful to point out that “Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
As bridge-building as all that may sound, it was this remark that stood out to me—and no doubt to many others—the most: “[T]o those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”
I had the great thrill of hearing these words as I watched Obama’s speech live on a jumbo screen with hundreds of other ecstatic revelers, in the ballroom of a downtown San Francisco hotel. It struck me then, as it has several more times in the last few days, that Obama’s power to inspire should not be taken lightly, should not be seen as frivolous or as amounting to nothing more than shine without substance. I cannot remember a time in my thirty-four years in which a winning president has made so many people so joyful, so hopeful for the future. While some of that joy and hope is wrapped up in the history-making milestone of Obama’s victory, one cannot discount, too, the fact that, after eight years of feeling fearful and powerless, people are so hungry for the power of optimism. I know of no other president in my lifetime who has had citizens openly call for a to-do list from him so that they might help him heal the wounds that he has promised to mend. We are aching for some way—any way—that we can help to improve our nation. In the meantime, as we await our to-do list from President Obama, the “52 to 48 Project” seems like a good place for us to get started.