An elegy to the Spirit of ’08
I stumbled across a documentary about Barack Obama’s ’08 presidential campaign the other night while browsing through Netflix. “Perfect,” I thought, and settled back in anticipation of a pleasant trip down memory lane.
I was 28 years old when Obama won the Iowa primary. Like much of the country, and most of the people in my generation, I was swept away by the seemingly boundless potential of this brilliant, charismatic young senator. Watching eight-year-old video footage of the campaign, I was taken back to those heady days full of hope and promise, when it seemed like a page was turning in our nation that would lead us all to a brighter tomorrow.
Those days seemed full of possibility. We had endured eight long years of an administration bogged down by an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq and increasing partisan divides at home. We, as Americans, longed for something better. We longed for peace, abroad and at home. We were full of restless energy, positive energy, seeking only someone who could guide us in the right direction.
And into this electric atmosphere stepped one man who had the vision to imagine better things for us all and the ability to inspire in us the hope that they could actually come to pass – more than that, that we could have a part in making them come to pass, and thereby make history. He shone like a beacon of light, that Obama of ’08 – a good and decent man who saw goodness and decency in humanity and thus inspired it in us all.
Remembering all this wasn’t the pleasant diversion that I had hoped for. Instead, watching this documentary made my heart ache for the country we were in 2008. All those crowds of hopeful young people like myself, energized and excited to participate in the democratic process. What became of us? That shining coalition of people of all ages and races, united not just in their belief in the candidate, but in the message of hope he brought to us all. What happened to them?
“We will remember that there is something happening in America – That we are not as divided as our politics suggest – That we are one people – we are one nation.” When Obama spoke these words to us in 2008, we believed them. What happened to that belief? When did the rhetoric of hope and change transform into the rhetoric of hate and division, of walls and torture and isolationism and name-calling? How did we let ourselves get led astray this way? When did the better angels of our nature fall silent?
There are many who will read this and have a ready answer of whom to blame, whom to punish, whom to ban and to label and to ostracize. And that, precisely, is the reason for my heartache – because the hope and joy and promise of 2008 has somehow morphed itself into bitterness and blame just eight short years later.
It seems, at this tragic crossroads of American history, where anger and frustration seem to permeate the very atmosphere, that we are left with no other recourse than to follow the advice attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, who tried to lead his people into a better future: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Even a leader full of light cannot redeem his nation, and a leader filled with darkness will not. It is up to us, as individuals, to decide, in every moment of every day, whether we will choose peace and hope and harmony with our fellow man and, so choosing, act in a way that will build and strengthen rather than diminish and destroy. We must choose the everyday expressions of kindness and love and hope and peace that will, brick by brick, built a better future for ourselves, and by extension, for our country and our world. If the evolution of the national mood during the last eight years has taught us anything, it is that no one else can do it for us.
Erika Holst of Springfield is author of Wicked Springfield and Edwards Place: A Springfield Treasure.