It's a night I'll always remember. In fact, I was sitting right where I am now, in front of my computer, reading about the results from the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008. In fact, I was on DailyKos. I still wasn't sure who was going to get my vote when it came time for the New York primary about a month later, although I did like the fact that Barack Obama, of all the candidates, had been against the Iraq war even before it had been declared.
So there I was, seeing the results, and seeing that Obama had won a decisive victory in Iowa. Then on my TV I saw him take to the stage and deliver his victory speech. And that's when he got me.
I had heard Obama speak about unity, in particular about unity that transcends our ethnic differences, in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, in 2004. As a scholar of national identity in multiethnic societies, that immediately got my attention. I was curious to see whether and how he would return to the theme of national identity in his presidential campaign. I wasn't disappointed.
Only a few lines in, Obama declared: "We're choosing unity over division." OK, now he had my attention. Then he spoke about his progressive stances on various policies, and I agreed with him on those policies. However, I was also hoping he'd return to national identity, not only because I found his 2004 speech so inspiring, but because I had long believed that we needed as a country to do more to strengthen bonds among Americans of different backgrounds. I was hoping that Obama might be a person to do that.
And then Obama got me:
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.Just a few lines, right? But look what he did there. My research had taught me that a multiethnic society needs, among other things, a historical narrative that is broadly inclusive, that people of different ethnic backgrounds can identify as their own. I never thought I'd hear a politician speak in a way that showed he was thinking along the same lines. In those few lines, he placed right alongside one another three great events in American history: the Revolutionary War, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Hope -- hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.
Right there, Obama provided the core of a truly inclusive, common historical narrative, the kind that showed me he understood how to strengthen national identity and national bonds across ethnic lines. Then, the final lines of that section were about what makes America unique, namely that it is a place where the son of an African immigrant can win acceptance as an American to the degree that he could, perhaps, even become President. Membership in the American family, Obama was saying, was truly open to anyone willing to claim it.
I'm not saying that these ideas of Obama's were more important than his stances on the issues, or his record of showing good judgment on the Iraq war. But I'm someone who's spent his adult life reading, thinking, and writing about societies that have -- with differing degrees of success and failure -- sought to overcome division and hate and create unity. I never dreamed I'd hear a presidential candidate who appeared to be thinking along those lines, who prioritized something that I saw as tremendously important, even if not likely a true emergency at any given moment.
That was the night that Barack Obama won my vote. It was also the night that planted the seed for me to spend the next three years researching his past speeches, remarks, books, and interviews so that I could speak with authority about Obama's vision of our national identity. So it was also a night that changed my life.
(I posted this early this morning, but wanted to repost tonight for folks that may not have seen it. Thanks.)
PS-Please check out my new book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published last month by Potomac Books, where I discuss Barack Obama's ideas on racial, ethnic, and national identity in detail, and contrast his inclusive vision to language coming from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh and (some) others on the right. You can read a review by DailyKos's own Greg Dworkin here.