Watching Obama Win. In Kenya.

Watching Obama Win. In Kenya.

Here I am in the our newly re-elected President's ancestral homeland, Nyanza Kenya, literally an hour's drive from his grandmother's home. I'm not all that surprised that I'm surrounded by Kenyans who are also rejoicing in this win. He's their guy, son of a local man risen to the highest heights imaginable. I expected this jubilation. 

What I didn't expect was this reaction from my Kenyan friend: “Wow, that Mitt Romney gave such a nice concession speech. He really praised Obama and even wished his family and two girls well...” She kept going on about what a nice speech that Mitt Romney gave.

Yeah, I thought cynically, graciousness in defeat is a requirement of politics. Anything other than that would make him look like a jackass. I may have even said something along those lines. 

My friend, ignoring my dismissiveness carried on, “And it was close! Half the country voted for him, and he still conceded so nicely.” She shook her head in disbelief.

And that is the thing that impressed her most. Sure, the Kogelo progeny made good and everyone proud, but she's just as amazed by his opponent's quick willingness to accept defeat. To me, it's so ordinary I've already blithely assigned cynical motives to his graciousness. We take it for granted that the opponent will accept his loss, take some Prozac and move on.  As will his supporters. Our country will not erupt in violence like Kenya tragically did in 2007 during their last presidential election. Half the people in the US are disappointed but will not take to the streets.  Why?

Real social scientists have better answers to that question, which I am sure have a lot to do with things like the faith people have in the justice and transparency of the voting system, the history of peaceful handovers of power, unemployment rates, and the overall percentage of young people (those perennial rabble rousers). 

But I think it's also that the outcome of an election simply matters more in other places. In Kenya, if your guy gets a seat in Parliament you just might share in some of the spoils.  Presidential homelands have better roads, hospitals and services. One of the most insightful books about Kenyan politics is called "Our Turn to Eat," a phrase basically meaning: It's enough of the other group's hand in the government kitty, it's our tribe's turn. It does matter, in some material sense, if your guy wins. 

But no matter who won this US election, not much will change for me or my family personally.  Despite all the talk about the "direction of the country" and who can "get the economy moving" the fastest, neither guy was going to wave a magic wand or even get their playbook implemented and suddenly change the array of opportunities available to me.  Yes, a president makes some key appointments, sets a tone and, if he's lucky, an agenda, and has a bully pulpit.  But much of what they can accomplish is hindered by things totally out of their control, like Congress, financial markets, natural disasters and Fox news.  

So, maybe the question isn't why the losers aren't taking to the streets, but why do we care about the result at all?  

And here at least part of the answer is surprisingly tribal. I want Obama not because I think I'm going to personally benefit but because I think he represents my values more than the other guy.  That the government's role is to protect our precious public goods like natural resources, public health and human rights, which are sometimes trampled by capitalism; to protect our growth and development by investing in quality education for everyone despite where in the country they may have been born; to ensure that the winners of capitalism don't use that power to undermine our democracy; to use our considerable wealth and power to make the world a more peaceful place.  He represents my ideological tribe. And I want my people to win.  

My husband, who shares my politics, was remarking that when he really thought about it Obama has disappointed him in certain ways and Romney, given his proven track record as a manager and history as a fairly progressive Governor, might not even do that bad of a job in the White House given a a more moderate Congress. Still, he said, he had an emotional attachment to the Obama win that felt something like his emotional attachment to a Patriot's (football team) win, which borders on the obsessive.  (Let's just say the Superbowl loss of 2008 resulted in a sick day.)  He was baffled by his own crushing disappointment after Obama's lackluster debate performance and euphoria when the poll numbers started turning back around in his favor. His took another look at his own emotions. They were tribal. He wanted his team to win.  

So, again here, we might not be all that different. Unlike a lot of new democracies, our political parties stand for something other than identity politics (though maybe the post-mortem political commentators need to be reminded of that!). But still, our identities are now wrapped up in our ideology instead of our ethnicity. "The other" in my America is not necessarily someone who looks different than me, but someone who thinks differently from me.  And, I'm thinking more and more that how we tolerate those differences is going to define the future of our country. 


 

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