Sunday, November 9, 2008

A damn good generation

Not many people were shocked that Barack Obama won the Presidential election, but most were at least surprised by the decisiveness of the victory.

There is no one reason why he won. The cynic and the racist will argue that the black vote put him over the top, but African-Americans are only 12 percent of the U.S. population—not enough to account for a landslide.

Obama’s appeal spread across many demographic groups, but one in particular was vital to his victory.

Throughout the campaign, I tried to judge who was ahead based on what I heard on the street and in the media, and the number of campaign signs I saw. Popularity seemed to go along the usual, stereotypical lines—more Obama signs in poor neighborhoods, more McCain signs in rich neighborhoods.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw last month when I went back to Otterbein College for homecoming.

I graduated from Otterbein in 1987, and I remember it being as apolitical as a liberal arts college could get. Perhaps it was just the general ‘80s zeitgeist, but most of the students there in my day couldn’t have cared less about politics. Given the choice between Reagan and Mondale, most of us would rather have had another beer (provided it was off-campus—read on).

First, there was the Obama sign in the second-story window at my fraternity’s house. Then there were the multiple chalk scrawls of “OBAMA” I saw all over the campus sidewalks.

Then came the homecoming parade. A group of cheering young people walked through the staging area passing out stickers reading, “I voted early for Barack Obama.” Most of my frat’s contingent wore them, as did many other people in the parade. (I did not take one, not because I didn’t support Obama, but because, as a Pennsylvania resident, I could not vote early.) It was almost an Obama parade, full of upper-middle class white kids, hardly radicals.

Bear in mind that this happened at a dry college in a town that was dry until about 10 years ago. Also bear in mind that the surrounding area has elected Republicans for as long as I can remember. Nobody would confuse Otterbein with Cal Berkeley.

Obama’s victory belongs to young people—people the age of my stepdaughters (24 and 22) and the students at Otterbein. What they see in him varies. Some are drawn by his undeniable charisma. Some are concerned about various issues—the economy, the environment, civil liberties. They are the people who voted early in states that allowed it. They are the people who lined up around the block to vote. They are the people who cared.

I came away from homecoming convinced that Obama would win. I also came away with a great hope for the future that goes beyond electing one President.

The generation in its teens and 20s is showing a great interest in the future of the nation and the planet. They have the potential to be everything the children of the ‘60s could have been had hard drugs not entered the equation.

This is not the greatest generation. That mantel goes to my dad’s generation for winning World War II. But if this generation stays involved and continues to care about things outside themselves, they will go down in history as a damn good one.

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