Spontaneous Celebrations Mark Obama Victory

November 6, 2008

The experience of Barack Obama’s victory last night was emotionally overwhelming and I still haven’t quite sorted out what to write about it yet.

In the meantime, something caught my attention as I got out of a taxi to walk through Harvard Square on my way home at about 1am last night:

Mass Ave and JFK St., Cambridge, MA, Election Day, 2008 (cc-by, alexandralee)

Mass Ave and JFK St., Cambridge, MA, Election Day, 2008 (cc-by, alexandralee)

The honking and shouting could be heard for several miles. Now, I know perfectly well that Cambridge and Harvard are not proxies for anything (approximately 90% of the city voted for Obama), but it was still exceptional to see people literally dancing in the streets over the outcome of the presidential election.

The scene was repeated elsewhere in Boston as well as in other cities: in Washington, D.C. in front of the White House; in New York in Times Square; in Philadelphia, Tulsa, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit; and even in Sydney, Australia. Everywhere, jubilant crowds took to the streets to express their excitement.

Such repossessions of urban public space provide a fitting metaphor for Obama’s win. Citizenship has its etymological roots in the Ancient Roman notion of “a right to the city.”  For many of us who have longed for new leadership in this country, casting a vote for a victorious Obama was an affirmative form of political self-expression that had been inaccessible for over a decade. For a single day, many millions of people engaged in an immense public ritual of electoral democracy through which we momentarily gained access to a renewed sensation of ownership over the collective fate of the nation.

In this sense, the occupation of urban streets is as a literal manifestation of the President-elect’s symbolic appeal and his ability to embody the aspirations of his supporters. This appeal is not unique to Obama, but the extent to which he has elicited passionate commitment on the part of so many American citizens is something I have not seen in my lifetime. When consistent with your personal views, such collective passion is awe inspiring. In contrast, the fervent beliefs of your oponents cannot help but ring hollow.

It is inherently difficult to pinpoint the source or cause of the emotional connection some many people feel to Obama the public figure. I suspect that it has a little bit to do with his biography, a little bit to do with his public persona, and a lot to do with the radical form of hope he has come to represent in the wake of the Bush administration.

No matter where it comes from, I am grateful to have experienced a small piece of it last night.


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