For almost three decades—my entire adult life and then some—I have been utterly baffled and frequently saddened by American politics. I just cannot fathom what it is about the Republican Party's melange of fear-mongering, intolerance, and plutocracy that ‘average Americans’ find so comforting. Nor have I understood why the Democratic Party has been more or less in retreat ever since Reagan's landslide election in 1980 (yes, I am aware of Bill Clinton's presidency). Feeling so completely alienated from this climate, I've watched my own politics devolve into a mixture of cynicism and naiveté: expecting little from politicians and still finding ways to be profoundly disappointed by them.
So it's maybe not surprising that I did my best last week to ignore the Democratic National Convention. There's no question of how I am going to vote, so all I stood to gain by listening to speeches, I figured, was increasing my already vast reserves of disillusionment.
And I almost made it. But on the night of Barack Obama's acceptance speech, I got hit by an atypically strong case of insomnia that carried me well into the wee hours of Friday morning. Somewhere around 4:00 am, I landed on the video of the speech posted at Talking Points Memo (official campaign copy of the speech here). For the next 42 and a half minutes, I was captivated as I don't think I have ever been by a piece of political oratory.
Here was a politician, a candidate for president no less, suggesting such political anathemas as the idea that we should help the unfortunate, protect the vulnerable, and be tolerant of others. Doing so unapologetically and indeed forcefully. There has been, of course, a torrent of analysis, praise and abuse unleashed on the speech; it is sometime conservative Andrew Sullivan that comes closest to matching my feelings:
It was a liberal speech, more unabashedly, unashamedly liberal than any Democratic acceptance speech since the great era of American liberalism. But it made the case for that liberalism - in the context of the decline of the American dream, and the rise of cynicism and the collapse of cultural unity. His ability to portray that liberalism as a patriotic, unifying, ennobling tradition makes him the most lethal and remarkable Democratic figure since John F Kennedy.
For those 42 and a half minutes, and for maybe half a day afterward, my cynicism buckled, and I allowed myself to bask in the glow of the basic decency and good sense of that speech, to harbor a little hope that America actually is
better than the last eight years.
Of course, the next day, McCain announced his vice-presidential pick and the tawdry circus that has erupted over Sarah Palin, her past, and her family has dragged American political discourse back into the cesspool that seems to be its natural habitat. My cynicism is back in place, and I am hiding from political speeches again.