Chelsea’s had a baby; the bookshop has closed; Joyce has gone back to school; a medical school has opened. A great deal has changed in the Virginia town of Roanoke — a swing area in a swing state — since I spent three weeks there during the last presidential election. Back then I asked a black woman if she thought Virginia would elect a black man to the presidency. She paused for five seconds.
“If they really know how things are now they would … they should,” she said, desperately trying to convince herself.
They did. However, back then supporters of US President Barack Obama dared not believe it even as they worked night and day to achieve it. The Obama campaign office fizzed with excitement, reviving the energy of those who had previously been disaffected with politics and drawing in new blood from people who had never been interested. People traveled hundreds of kilometers from all over the country to volunteer in the town.
There were a range of reasons for this, not least that he would be the first black president and that his election signaled a departure from the war and the oligarchic impulses of the previous eight years.
The celebrations went way beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains in which Roanoke nestles. Throughout the Caribbean radios blared Mighty Sparrow’s calypso hit Barack the Magnificent; firecrackers went off in El Salvador; Liberians danced in the street. In Ghana the late John Atta Mills ran for the presidency with posters of himself standing next to a life-size cutout of Obama and won. In Brazil, at least eight black candidates took advantage of a quirk in electoral laws so they could stand as “Barack Obama” in elections in October.
This global outpouring was more than just a response against Bush (it is difficult to believe there would have been such an outpouring if John Kerry had won in 2004). At a time when electoral turnout was declining across most of the Western world and disaffection with political classes was at its height, the energy invested in Obama in Roanoke and projected onto him from afar marked resurrection of the fundamental notion that elections could change things and, in so doing, reconnect popular will to political power through electoral politics.
“People have been excited by Obama’s candidacy, but also by working together,” said Brian Corr, who had been volunteering between 10 and 15 hours a day from his home in Boston for more than 18 months. “Organized people are more powerful than organized money — we need to make sure that all that hope that we have talked about and seen is channeled in a progressive way.”
Given the glaring flaws in US democracy, notably the influence of money and lobbyists, one can debate whether that sense of empowerment was well placed. Obama was not the head of a movement, but a well-coordinated campaign. Those involved had no ownership of it. When the election was over the offices in Roanoke closed and the staffers left. However, there was no doubt that people did feel empowered.
The most marked political change in the last four years is the degree to which those who were once politically engaged no longer have that sense of possibility. Every Obama supporter I met in 2008 was less involved now than they were then. Most were not involved at all. Many had their reasons, primarily work and children. All of them thought he was certain to win, which may have been a factor. It would be difficult to replicate the excitement of that election. In the words of Sade: “It’s never as good as the first time.”