My intention with this book was to preserve the writings and attitudes of an era when democracy itself was not being burned down, American sovereignty was not in question, and we asked how we could improve our electoral process instead of how to save it from Russian hackers and a complicit GOP. The Obama years certainly seem quite hagiographic for American democracy now.
Upon reviewing these essays about the Obama years, however, I came to remember an important truth: democracy kind of sucked, then, too. While we will always have eight years of a beautiful, scandal-free First Family to look back on, the reality was, our country was as fractious as ever. Republicans competed for the most openly disrespectful behavior toward the first African-American president. That Donald Trump’s insulting demand that President Obama produce his birth certificate was even reported on by the U.S. media portended how much racist indulgence journalists would gleefully confront the president with. An entire movement popped up at once, calling themselves the Tea Party, predicated on a conservative course of government and reducing the deficit, which had not been a priority until there was a black president (nor has it been a priority since). This well-funded and coordinated right-wing backlash to Obama won Congress in 2010 and has held on since, sabotaging every effort at governance, from Speaker of the House John Boehner’s forced government shutdowns to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denying Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice. In this time, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act and demolished campaign finance law.
So while President’s Obama entire tenure may be recalled with less drama than a single week under Trump, it belies how much battling was really going on. In fact, the Obama majority was cut down even before it voted, when the Supreme Court supported Indiana’s strict photo ID requirements in a 2008 decision, Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board, that would not go into effect until after the 2008 election. That law became the model for other states’ laws aimed at making access to the ballot box more difficult, laws which cropped up like crabgrass.
Now more than ever, we need to keep the dream of democracy alive. The Obama years may not have been a perfect democracy, but it was a high water mark for inclusiveness in American history. In normal times, calling out corruption is not enough—we need to proselytize democracy as a value, as a way of life. It’s not enough to observe democracy at that time of year when elections come around, like another holiday season we yawn through. We need to instill in ourselves and others that democracy is sacrosanct. We need to preach in support of inclusiveness while condemning the corrupt. We need to raise the expectations of what it means to be a good citizen, we have to glorify the good politicians, no matter how banal they are.
As idealized as the Obama years may seem, it wasn’t that our democracy was healthy because the popular vote winner was in power. In fact, the backlash was swift and vengeful, but the glow of victory on Obama’s election night kept us convinced that America was ours from now on. But it is on certain days that democracy gets a win—automatic voter registration going into effect in California, Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered maps being struck down in court, a first-time transgender candidate replacing the Assembly member that wrote North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill.
Democracy is something you have to fight for every day.