When it’s all over — when the votes have been counted and the president named, if Barack Obama wins, the Mission District dances and the Deep South cries — I just might look like a fool.
You see, I’ve bought into it. All of it. I’ve championed the impossible expectations. I’ve staked my hopes on the tumultuous campaign. I’ve ridden alongside this train of transcendence, even fighting off my own fits of Messiah-worship along the way.
I’m one of the converts. In 2004, I was a moderate who cast my ballot for George W. Bush. I was a 19-year-old living in conservative Tennessee, and although I didn’t decide until the week before the election, I easily went along with the ideology I knew.
Today, I write this as a moderate voter who cast my ballot this morning for Obama. I’m a still-naive 23-year-old living in liberal California, and although I decided before moving here to support Obama, I’m still aligning myself with the culture into which I’ve been adopted.
I’ve studied Obama’s platform. I believe in it. I’ve recited his arguments. They’re strong. But I’ll leave it to the Paul Volckers and Colin Powells of the world to make that case now.
Truth is, I’m a sucker for the symbol. I like what Obama proposes, but I love what he represents. I’ve fallen for the notion of transcendence — with the idea that one man can at least begin to bridge the cultural chasm where I’ve spent my life.
I grew up in the south. I was educated in Evangelical Christian schools. I attended a Pentecostal church. As I wrote in my Berkeley application essay, it was a place “where prophecies were exchanged like pleasantries, where righteousness equated to speaking in tongues, where sinners turned or were condemned to burn, and no man had more authority than the fire-breathing autocrat in the pulpit.”
You could paint the residents of my native culture as immoral. You could call them theocrats. You could label them ignorant.
You would be wrong. Except, of course, when you were right.
They could paint Mission residents as amoral. They could call you Godless. They, likewise, could label you ignorant.
Their results would be just as mixed as your own.
At its best, Obama’s campaign reaches this divide — offers, yes, hope, that mutual understanding can be reached and that America can be healed. It’s a lofty expectation — impossible perhaps — but intoxicating. So on the eve and morning of election day, I talked to people from each of these worlds, and I let them tell me the role place plays in ideology; what they thought of the rift that splits this country.
First, I called a redneck. I found Rocky Culbertson on Facebook, where his profile picture shows a photoshopped, fake-turban-wearing, fake-beard-growing Obama staring into the camera in all of his ominous, fake-terrorist glory. You see, there’s this rumor…
Well, just listen to Rocky tell it.
“When someone is saying they grew up in church, it really reflects on them and who they are. I know McCain is very liberal in his beliefs, and he hasn’t been great on a lot of things, but when it comes down to it, Barack Obama was raised a Muslim. But I guess he turned back to Catholicism as an adult.”
When I informed Rocky, a student in Greenville, S.C., that Obama was never a Muslim and is currently a Protestant, he mumbled something unintelligible and moved on. Because Muslim or no Muslim, his most important issue is taxes. Rocky has dropped in and out of college. He’s been a Lowe’s Home Improvement employee, an Ebay entrepreneur and a real estate agent. He is now at Greenville Technical College, working toward a degree in Aviation Technology. Wherever he ends up, he wants his taxes low and his freedoms untouched.
“I plan on being a wealthy man someday,” he says without hesitation. “And when that day comes, I don’t want to be paying 60 percent of my salary to the government.”
“I do think Obama is socialistic. I don’t think that’s his main deal, though. I think he wants to change things, and that’s a nice deal, but I don’t know what he’s going to change.”
“I don’t want the country to go bankrupt trying to nationalize health care. I like America being a superpower. I like us having the upper hand on things. I don’t want to give that up.”
Finally, I asked how he thinks he can relate to Republicans in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“I don’t think someone in San Francisco would vote for McCain because of his morals or what he represents, but more because of where he comes from on taxes. There are a lot of homosexuals in San Francisco. I don’t agree with what they do — no offense — but one thing we can agree on is low taxes. I’m sure there are a lot of rich homosexuals who want to keep their money.”
I don’t know if Leonard Lacayo is rich, and I didn’t ask him if he’s homosexual, but the man damn sure wants to keep his money. And less than 30 seconds into our conversation, Lacayo, the Vice Chair of Communications for the San Francisco Republican Party makes that abundantly clear.
“All of this spending is like giving infant children credit cards in a candy store,” he said.
And the expletive-laden rant was just beginning.
“Most of the people in this city are transients. They arrive here bitter and beaten back, and they come here preaching tolerance. Well, they seem to tolerate everything except conservatives and Republicans.
“People in San Francisco don’t work hard for their money. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that this isn’t the way the world works.”
Yet he’s proud of his San Francisco roots.
“I’m a native fourth-generation Californian,” says Lacayo, whose family immigrated from Mexico. “We pre-date the fucking union. When we came here, the term Latino didn’t even exist.”
And then, well, there’s this.
“We’re the original people of color. And we came here on our own, not on some boat from Africa.”
As for his thoughts on the presidential race, he doesn’t think the result is going to be pretty.
“All these people have been duped by the propaganda machine. I’m sorry, guys, but Barack Obama is not going to come down to the lower Mission and hang out with you.
“I’ve never seen a more hateful campaign on both sides. It’s going to take the Messiah to get these groups of people to sit down next to each other. I see the makings of another civil war.”
So with that, I called someone in the heart of Dixie. Ann Pickens is a former national cornbread-eating champion, an Alabama native who spent time in Tennessee and Texas before arriving in Oxford, Miss., where she is earning a Ph.D. in History at the University of Mississippi.
She’s also a Democrat. And not a stereotypical southern, union-bred, working class Democrat, but a latte-sipping, green-living, fancy degree-earning, intellectual liberal.
She originally supported John Edwards. When he dropped out, she voted on Super Tuesday for Hillary Clinton. And now the stereotypes start to emerge. A southerner who exhausted the white candidates before settling for the black guy.
But then, she keeps talking. You keep listening. Stereotypes fade.
“A lot of my draw to Edwards had to do with his dedication to poverty. He placed such a high priority on class issues. When he dropped out, I thought Clinton did the best job of upholding his ideals. But I think Obama is a great candidate and fully qualified to be the president.”
Yes, he’s qualified she said, and yes, he’s the best choice for the presidency. But transcendent? Not in Mississippi.
“I don’t think Obama is about to unite anyone. We live in a deeply divided country, and I don’t see that changing.”
“I think it’s gotten to the point where liberals view conservatives as immoral because they impose their views on others and don’t take care of problems at home. Conservatives see liberals as behaving immorally at home and then not being willing to spread democracy abroad.”
The divide is not inherently geographical, she says. In her college town of Oxford, the culture is split between the academics and everyone else.
“If you drive around town and see an Obama sign in someone’s yard, you can be sure that it’s either a professor, a graduate student, or someone from a racial minority group. For anyone else, you can bet that they’re supporting McCain.”
With that on my mind, I set out this morning to find the Mission’s sign-wielding, pamphlet-holding, slogan-chanting election day demonstrators. They weren’t hard to find. They were, however, boringly tame.
“I don’t want to stereotype an entire region of the country,” said ‘No on 8’ sign-holder James Turner. “I think that’s part of what the Republicans have been doing wrong for all this time. Obviously, people think of southerners as being more socially and religiously conservative, but I’m sure that’s not always the case.”
His partner (in protest), Kevin Soriano, added, “If there’s something different, it’s that out here we’re exposed to diverse points of view. I don’t think you see that as much in the south, at least not where I’ve been.” He drew this impression from visits to Kentucky and South Carolina, he said.
I talked to others. They were even tamer. Maybe it was the smell of progressive victory that calmed them down, or maybe they just happen to be reasonable people. But there were no cries of racism. No one offered inflammatory epithets.
And then there was this, from Eric Quezada volunteer Emily Claasen.
“This is just such a historic election,” she said. “I think Obama is giving hope to people who never would have supported a Democrat before. I think the very nature of his campaign has been to break through all of that. And I think that has spread throughout the entire country.”
Finally, someone has said it — giving credence to my impossible expectations. And if a former Dubya voter from small-town Tennessee sees it, and if a progressive activist in the most liberal neighborhood of the country’s most liberal city sees it, then maybe—maybe, there’s something there.