Folks on Fox News were flabbergasted. Karl Rove tenaciously held on to his view of reality. Bill O’Reilly could only sputter something about the election meaning that America had changed and that most voters were evidently people who “want stuff.”
Bill O’Reilly admitted the country had changed, but really couldn’t understand how.
I admit that I was a bit surprised myself. I figured they’d find a way to disenfranchise enough voters and rig enough precinct counts to make the final totals excruciatingly close. Plus I didn’t think the Obama campaign could turn on the same enthusiastic energy as they did in 2008.
So how in the world did Barack Obama wind up scoring a bigger election victory margin than Nixon, Carter and G.W. Bush?
One telling answer comes wrapped in my memory of riding a Portland, Oregon commuter train sometime around the peak afternoon rush. About two years ago, I was in Portland for a Campus Ministry regional gathering. One afternoon was set aside for free time, so after lunch a few of us decided to take the train, which ran near our retreat center, to go explore downtown Portland. The 30 minute ride from the suburbs to downtown was fairly uneventful and I had no problem finding a seat among two or three other folks in the train car . The ride back was a different story. It was about 4 o’clock and the streets were crowding with people and traffic. I climbed aboard the train and immediately discovered it was standing room only. The next several stops had people getting on and off in roughly equal numbers, so it took a while to find a seat. The revelation in that ride was the in the ever- changing population of that rail-car shuttling these Portlanders from downtown to home or other places. The first thing I noticed was that I remained one of the older people in that car. There were a couple of very elderly people who got on and off, but by and large it was a crowd of people that I’d guess was between 20-40. It was an ethnically mixed crowd, with many people who were obviously ethnically mixed themselves. Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, Caucasian–and most riders were a blended mix of at least two or three of these.
The prevailing American Anglo-Saxon worldview would tend to lump all these folks together in a group named “rabble.” But that wasn’t the case at all. I saw people who seemed to belong to diverse socio-economic groups, and together they created this exuberant kind of energy that rollicked and hummed along in that train car for the duration of my journey. The best part of my experience was watching all these different people relate to one another as fellow people. Some were loud. A couple were obnoxious. But just about everyone treated everyone else with mutual respect. My most memorable passenger was a dapper-looking black guy sitting atop his Rascal scooter in the middle of the car; obviously disabled, dressed sharply in a tailored business suit with matching fedora hat, a gleaming leather briefcase at his feet. He was gloriously lost in the music pouring through his headphones, yet he consciously kept a taut leash on the little spider monkey sitting in the basket of his scooter. I hadn’t ever seen anything as jaw-droppingly unique as this guy and his monkey on their afternoon commute, and I doubt I’ll see such a thing again. He was as archetypal a figure as you could ever find to show that the old rules and the old ways of seeing life in America no longer apply.
Hadn’t seen a commuter like this little guy before.
I got off the train with the awareness that I’d been in the company of all the different people who bring their energy and life into the day-to-day workings of this prominent American city. And that is when it hit me. The paradigm that says it’s a group of mostly well-to-do white men who have the de-facto power to run this country, whether it be in government or in business, that paradigm is nearing an end. The paradigm that says presidential politics is played and won by well-to-do white guys from an established cadre of well-to-do white guys, that paradigm is on its last legs.
So I look back on the 2012 election through the prism of that train ride in Portland and I find myself wondering what was so surprising about that election after all. Perhaps folks like Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove might ride the subway once in a while. It can do a fellow good.