Or: Politico and its fellow-travelers are insane. That was a brilliant fucking speech, and absolutely necessary. Yes, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama and the rest of our superstar lineup did us proud. And it takes nothing away from what they accomplished to say that what the President added was as powerful, and as important: indeed, the keystone in the arch they built throughout the convention. There's a reason everyone left the hall pumped, and not deflated.
He gave us the story. And he told all America where we are in it. Below the fleur-de-Kos, what that means and why it matters.
Here's the thing: We're all familiar with the basic truth that human beings don't think in abstract or unconnected facts; rather, we think in stories. Indeed, you can argue that there's no such thing as a fact -- or at least, a meaningful fact -- without some story attached to it.1
It's easy -- and mistaken -- to see the story of the Presidential election of 2008 as being all, to coin a phrase, hopey-changey. What happened in 2008 -- the election of a black man with a funny-sounding name to the Presidency -- was and is an extraordinary symbol of our nation's ability to grow up, however slowly and painfully: to become the people we want to be. To be, well, America, the America of our hearts and dreams, and not that strange ugly place Dick Cheney represents. It was intensely moving that we could do that (I'm not that old, and I will freely admit I never thought I'd see it in my own lifetime).
Indeed, it was so moving that for too many people that became the story. And if you tell it that way, every book, movie, and folk tale we've consumed all of our lives tells us that after Inauguration Day in 2009, it was supposed to be Happily Ever After. That was the triumphal conclusion, the happy ending, the wedding march.
Only if you see it that way (and only that way), you're primed to find everything that's happened since then to be a miserable failure. Because after all it hasn't been Happily Ever After. It's been a struggle practically every minute since then, and some of the struggles have been ugly, and some of them we've lost. That's the narrative the Republicans want us to see, and it's all too easy for our mainstream pundits to see it that way too. And it goes out that way to every voter who cares enough to pay mild attention to mainstream news sources, but who doesn't quite care enough to go out into the weeds to do their own information-gathering and analysis. So letting this stand as the conventional narrative -- the one most people think they're living in, no matter how incorrectly -- is dangerous. It's dangerous on an electoral level, and it's dangerous to how the majority analyzes the choices before us.
What's important about this now is, that's the wrong story. As important and as moving as electing a man of color named Barack Hussein Obama to our highest office was, that's a subplot. This isn't, as it were, a political version of a romance novel. We were never living a story where a new president -- any new president -- was going to fix everything the minute he was in office, or within the first four years of being in office. We're closer to an epic here -- The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien's version, not Jackson's), perhaps -- the kind of long struggle against indifference and hopelessness, as well as against evil, where putting the right leadership into place is critical for us to have any hope of victory, but is not by itself the happy ending.
In this story, the last four years are nothing like a defeat. They have been hard, but as every speaker at the convention reminded us, they have been studded with victories, major and minor. We are, perhaps, as far along as we could have hoped to be, given the strength of the forces arrayed against us.
This is the middle of the book, of the film, of the story. We know what it's like in Act Two -- we all do, the stories of our culture tell us what to expect here. There are problems to be faced and resolved. We're making progress, but the bad guys are still chasing us up trees and throwing rocks at us. That doesn't mean we're not getting where we need and want to go. It doesn't mean that this Presidency isn't working. This is what happens in the middle. In fact, it's what happens toward the end of the middle, when the turn is about to come.
That's what our President told us. We're not living a fairy tale where his election could fix everything overnight. We never were living there. But the real story, the one that tells the truth of our times, is going about as well as a story about the real world, with all its hopes and sorrows and complexities, reasonably could. The happy ending is something we all build together, and we're on the right road to it if we stick to it through the muck and confusion. And best of all, it's a story about all of us, a story we participate in and help make, not one we sit back and watch other people tell.
He's the President now. We elected the young leader who came out of nowhere four years ago, the new inspiring guy who stood up and said, "You can do this." We're going to re-elect a leader with more grey in his hair, who's been through fire, who sees the road ahead and knows how we can get there; the one who knows in his bones how big some of the problems are, but who also knows that we can overcome them.
And who knows that working together to make it all happen will be the adventure of a lifetime, for every one of us who wants to be part of this story.
That's the most important thing of all, and that's what the pundits have missed. The President gave us context, and told us what story we're living through and where we are in it -- and it's a wonderful story, one where everyone who wants to be can be a hero, one where we are on the side of right, and one where victory and joy are within our grasp, if only after the kind of struggle you need to earn them. Maybe it's childish of us as a nation, but we like feeling that just by being Americans, we're heroes and participants in a great and worthy adventure. (Can I have a chant of, "USA! USA!") And we're only human; we like to win, and many of us can't help a sneaking liking for being able to identify ourselves with a winning team. Or nation. Voters whose candidates can tell a story where all that is true are happy, enthusiastic voters, and also, we're voters who have a lot of motivation to make sure our candidate wins so we can go on living in that story.
It was a bravura piece of work. The more so, probably, because most of the people who heard it have no idea why it worked -- they just know it didn't have the fireworks of some of the other speeches, but it somehow made them feel good about where we are, and what we have left to do.
And the people at Politico who really, really didn't like it? Well. I don't want to be unkind, but I'm guessing that when it comes down to it, they just don't want to go where we're going. The vampires, they never do respond all that positively to daylight, you know?
1As a random example, consider a report that goes, "Today in Hypotheticalstan, clean energy from wind accounts for 5% of all power supplies." We have no idea what that means -- not unless we know that the report goes on to say, "That's up from zero two weeks ago, when the new Wind Genie plans went up on the Internet, and people realized they could make high-efficiency wind turbines in their own villages from used wire and mylar. Officials estimate that the country will be meeting 90% of its energy needs from wind by the end of this year, virtually eliminating power costs for all citizens and businesses." Or that it says, "That's down from 32%; scientists say that the decline is caused by global climate change, which has altered the country's previously-reliable winds and led to entire months of dead calm." Same fact; two entirely different meanings.