The Day After: I Was There

The Day After: I Was There

Day After: Christine Stansell – I Was There

IN THE early evening opposite Grant Park, the mood was light and happy, no exuberant throngs yet, but gaggles of bumptious teenagers, women pushing strollers, families and couples strolling along Michigan Avenue. In the last few unseasonably benign days, Barack Obama’s incredible luck stretched to the weather.

Chicago is not a theatrical city; so there were none of the street perorations, or miming of strong feelings, or extravagantly ironic banter you’d get in a New York crowd on the edge of something momentous. Midwesterners tend to see politics as a private preference, not something to state vociferously. This was an Obama crowd, but they were reticent about expressing excitement over their impending win. It was enough to be in Grant Park; no need to show off.

People chatted amiably, and the vendors settled in to make a buck. “You kiddin’? a million people are going to be here,” an optimistic seller informed me when I asked if he thought he would get back his investment on several thousand T-shirts he’d printed up. “They’re going for ten dollars now, twenty when he wins.” His design was my favorite: a picture of Obama on front, and on the back, “I Was There When Change Happened @ Chicago Grant Park 11-4-08.”

This is what it’s like to win, I thought. No histrionics, nothing cracking or sizzling with anxiety. Forty years ago in Grant Park, the Democrats melted down and began decades of dysfunction. Now, the better angels of the Democratic Party were floating unseen through the crowd, and they must have been encouraging sobriety. Later, at the Hyde Park party where I hunkered down in front of the TV with the other edgy guests to watch the returns, amiable satisfaction reigned, too, once the announcement of the Ohio win put the die-hard worriers out of business.

Satisfaction is a rare state for liberals. From the professors, a few of them acquaintances of the Obamas, there was uncharacteristic respectful silence when McCain spoke. Conversely, there was uncharacteristic levity when Obama appeared. Among the women, talk turned to the clothes, both the wives’ and Sarah Palin’s, and what everyone agreed was Michelle Obama’s first fashion mistake, the black-and-red dress that looked like a Halloween costume. It was a world away from the mass nervous breakdown that seized the Democratic populace on election night in 2004.

In Chicago, a good time was had by all. What will it bring? The Democrats behaved like a functional party, holding together a coalition without the usual sniping and moral outrage at the candidate’s centrist course. Could this mean we stand a chance of actually exercising power? The Hispanic vote was a huge dividend, bearing out the John Judis-Ruy Teixeira theory from their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, that the addition of Hispanics to the Democratic column would mean that the Republicans could no longer swing elections with the “solid South.”

It looks like the “new” politics comes down to Hispanics, women, and blue-collar Democrats returned home from the Republican fold. The fabled youth vote didn’t materialize—the absolute numbers increased but not the percentage. The black vote increased by two percentage points, from 11% to 13%. But women from all groups once again gave a huge margin of their votes to the Democrats, voting for Obama by a 12-point spread, 56% to 44%, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. And let us not forget those working-class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, many of them women, too—although you would never know it from the media’s continuing references to Joe Six-pack.

In the end the hard-fought primaries proved decisive rather than divisive, bringing out Democrats in droves, presenting them with a real choice, and stirring up loyalties that ended up with the party, not with McCain or bitter abstention.

Credit goes to Barack Obama and his people, to Hillary Clinton who brought her people around, and to Democratic voters who, in the crunch, behaved like grownups. We have a president-elect blessed with incredible luck, including the breakdown of the Republican Party, and considerable good will, which in itself is a political endowment. Let us hope he can spread it around to our poor country.

Christine Stansell lives in Chicago and Princeton. She is Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago.