The people's election

On (almost) every level, the grassroots beat the establishment and the progressives beat the big money
San Franciscans celebrate America
Photo by Stefan Jora

By midnight Nov. 4, the drama was long over: John McCain had conceded, Barack Obama had delivered his moving victory speech — declaring that "change has come to America" — and the long national nightmare of the Bush years was officially headed for the history books.

But in San Francisco, the party was just getting started.

Outside of Kilowatt, on 16th Street near Guerrero, the crowd of celebrants was dancing to the sounds of a street drummer. In the Castro District, a huge crowd was cheering and chanting Obama's name. And on Valencia and 19th streets, a spontaneous outpouring of energy filled the intersection. Two police officers stood by watching, and when a reporter asked one if he was planning to try to shut down the celebration and clear the streets, he smiled. "Not now," he said. "Not now."

Then, out of nowhere, the crowd began to sing: O say can you see /By the dawn's early light ...

It was a stunning moment, as dramatic as anything we've seen in this city in years. In perhaps the most liberal, counterculture section of the nation's most liberal, counterculture city, young people by the hundreds were proudly singing The Star Spangled Banner. "For the first time in my life," one crooner announced, "I feel proud to be an American."

Take that, Fox News. Take that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and the rest of the right-wing bigots who have tried to claim this country for themselves. On Nov. 4, 2008, progressives showed the world that we're real Americans, too, proud of a country that has learned from its mistakes and corrected its course.

President Obama will let us down soon enough; he almost has to. The task at hand is so daunting, and our collective hopes are so high, that it's hard to see how anyone could succeed without a few mistakes. In fact, Obama already admitted he won't be "a perfect president." And when you get past the rhetoric and the rock star excitement, he's taken some pretty conservative positions on many of the big issues, from promoting "clean coal" and nuclear power to escautf8g the war in Afghanistan.

But make no mistake about it: electing Barack Obama was a progressive victory. Although he never followed the entire progressive line in his policy positions, he was, and is, the creature of a strong progressive movement that can rightly claim him as its standard-bearer. He was the candidate backed from the beginning by progressives like Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi (a Green). And only after his improbable nomination did moderates like Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein jump on the bandwagon.

From the start, the young, activist, left wing of the Democratic Party was the driving force behind the Obama revolution. And while he has always talked to the Washington bigwigs — and will populate his administration with many of them — he would never have won without the rest of us. And that's a fact of political life it will be hard for him to ignore, particularly if we don't let him forget it.

For a few generations of Americans — everyone who turned 18 after 1964 — this was the first presidential election we've been able to get truly excited about. It was also the first presidential election that was won, to a significant extent, on the Internet, where progressive sites like raised millions of dollars, generated a small army of ground troops, and drove turnout in both the primaries and the general election. The movement that was built behind Obama can become a profound and powerful force in American politics.

So this was, by any reasonable measure, the People's Election. And now it's the job of the people to keep that hope — and that movement — alive, even when its standard-bearer doesn't always live up to our dreams.

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