The Danger of Hope: How a Single Speech Got Me Into Politics

I was an eighteen-year-old vandal without purpose — until I heard Barack Obama speak

Photo by Loretta Rosa on Unsplash

In 2004, I was a freshman in high school. This was the year a little-known Illinois state senator named Barack Obama gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. For many Americans, it was the first glimpse of the man who would eventually become the “leader of the free world.” I wouldn’t learn of him for several years — I didn’t watch the speech and didn’t care about politics.

I spent high school living like most other angsty and self-absorbed teenage guys I knew: sleeping through class, trying to impress girls, experimenting with drugs, falling in love (just like the movies!), awkwardly having sex and believing all this made me some kind of grown-up. The political world struck me as the least interesting thing imaginable, some dull mosaic of old white guys bickering behind lecterns on C-SPAN, the most boring content ever put to a television screen.

Young, inexperienced, fiery. I was the center of my universe, both writer and protagonist of the most important story in existence. Who am I? The unspoken question vibrated throughout every choice and every moment, a black hole vacuuming data points from all directions— my grades, my popularity, my mirror.

Searching for something

Rudderless, I misbehaved. The local graffiti scene gave me a rebellious subculture to find a home in, complete with appropriate aesthetic fashion choices, a social hierarchy, and a less-than-legal means of creative expression. My protagonist’s identity was beginning to emerge. He was intellectual, brooding, bad in the most useful way by being interesting to girls. But no matter how much my ego swelled with childish happenings, something fundamental to the human condition was missing, and I couldn’t shake a vague awareness of it.

The thing, of course, was purpose. By the time I graduated, I’d realized these high school relationships were nothing like the movies. We were all hormonal and insecure and naive. Big gestures, big moments, big feelings, but no ever-after, no credits scene, no sense of completion. I left graffiti behind because crime takes on a whole different texture once you’re 18. I had a vague, auto-pilot idea that I’d go to college but had no passion for any career path or major. I’d spent years trying to figure out who the hell I was, and with the terror of adulthood looming, had only juvenile flailing to look back on.

Then one day while bullshitting on YouTube, I somehow came across Obama’s 2004 DNC speech, and to my enduring surprise, decided to watch it. It hit me like a truck. The soaring rhetoric that would eventually lead him to the Oval Office detonated in my chest. It was like music. When he declared “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!” I felt it in my damn bones, what with being a skinny kid with a funny name unsure of his role in this country myself. I saw myself in his words, my place. In those minutes my angst transformed to inspiration, and when I learned this man was running to be the President of the United States, I found purpose in his historic, symbolic movement.

I’ll never forget that first instance of having my ego seemingly obliterated by the mega-cliche “something bigger than me.” But that’s what it felt like. Greater purposes make for a beautiful and romantic contradiction, simultaneously erasing and completing the individual. For the first time, I could see the promise of an ever-after, a distinct goal to work toward. When we swear this guy in, I thought, the credits will roll.

Big dreams, tall trees

In the summer of 2008, after the heated primary battle between then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton and our supposed anti-establishment underdog, I packed my Corolla and drove 1,029.7 miles to Portland, OR, to knock on doors in an important battleground state. I was going, I explained to my friends and my very concerned mother, to proselytize and spread the good word of our champion and cause. Change You Can Believe In, the campaign called it. And boy, did I.

Just old enough to vote, I made my way north, my first time away from home on my own. Physically alone but spiritually a part of something huge, something amazing. The human story of progress. My job was blissful: to merely welcome others to the same righteous joy. What a privilege! I left the arid dust of the Inland Empire heat and drove in a single 14-hour shot to the misty woods of Oregon, where I’d be temporarily housed by another believer. I was trained in the principles of organizing in Portland, and there I met other travelers who’d made their way across the country to deliver this man to the White House. We were then strategically scattered across the state. A group of us settled into a volunteer’s guest home on a Christmas tree farm in Estacada. We took my Corolla each day to the Clackamas County Democrats office in Oregon City, the central hub for our continuing efforts, to do the good work that needed to be done.

My youth was its own talking point. Everyone around me would confirm and validate how special it was that I cared about politics at all. I’d shake my head at the other aimless youth. Oh, how childish they seemed, oh, how they reminded me of how I used to be. What luck I’d had in finding something they were all missing. I took this smug hubris wherever I went, knocking on doors, telling my tale, selling the narrative of hope and change to anyone willing to give us a moment.

I came to life against that gorgeous Oregonian backdrop. The dewy trees lining the commute on foggy mornings, the gritty bustle of downtown PDX’s one-way streets, the view atop the Oregon City Municipal Elevator overlooking the Willamette River. I still remember the rhyming trick a local taught me on the pronunciation (“It’s Willamette, damn it!”). I worked my ass off and loved it. I spoke to the elderly and charmed them with my youthful idealism. I canvassed — against the security’s rules — at the local community college, retaining a bit of my graffiti-era disdain for authority and deploying it in this new purpose. I spoke to the students through the lens of a peer, and in every conversation with them my rhetoric soared with one essential suggestion: I knew the answer to the questions of identity and purpose so many of them were still dealing with. The answer was Barack Obama and our movement for change.

My entire liberal political ideology was vacuous, ahistorical, uninformed, dangerous. With enthusiasm, I enlisted others to it.

We did voter registration at a gay and lesbian pride parade; I’d never seen so many smiling faces and assless chaps in my life. The whole experience was a vibe, the adventure I’d been longing for. I met lots of amazing people and made memories that will last me forever. Obama won Clackamas County by about 20,000 votes. He won the presidency, too.

Back home in California, surrounded by proud friends and family, I watched the results trickle in on November 4th. I remember Wolf Blitzer making the call. I remember the shots of people weeping with joy in Chicago’s Grant Park, the heart-stopping “3, 2, 1…” before the CNN Breaking News projection, and the roars of jubilation when “BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT” appeared on the screen. Roll credits.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

The privileged relaxation of liberalism

It was over. So I did what a lot of liberals do, and I tuned out of politics and organizing efforts for a while, maybe until the next election, I thought. We’d done what we came to do, after all. I’d catch things on the news — narratives about GOP obstruction, mostly — and felt sad for who I believed was a genuinely good guy trying his best. For years, I really did think the tan suit was his biggest controversy, and I shook my head at a political arena rife with faux controversies and racist, bigoted myths. Birth certificates, anti-Muslim fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, endless partisan nonsense.

What I didn’t do was look very closely at the Dakota Access Pipeline, at the 2008 bank bailouts, at deportations and our border policy, at whistleblower crackdowns, at the United States’ dodgy connections to Neo-fascist groups in Ukraine, at the increased drone strikes and the brutality of American imperialism. Gerrymandering was just a clump of syllables. I didn’t perform any rigorous critiques of capitalism, couldn’t steel-man the arguments of socialists, and indeed went years without reading a lick of Critical Theory or even knowing what the phrase meant. I had the wrong heroes and read the wrong books.

The whitewashing of MLK kept me from knowing he’d ever critiqued capitalism. I didn’t discover Angela Davis’s work on race, feminism, class, and police abolition until years later. I knew nothing of Thomas Sankara and his achievements in Burkina Faso, nor did I comprehend the value of the works of certain 19th-century German economists. My entire liberal political ideology was vacuous, ahistorical, uninformed, dangerous. With enthusiasm, I enlisted others to it.

I meant well. I thought politics was as simple as Democrats versus Republicans. Mainstream corporate news media outlets reinforced this good cop, bad cop framework at every turn. I existed at a brutal intersection, a place where my egotistical narrative met a sensationalist, profit-driven infotainment apparatus that eagerly manufactured my consent. It set for me the firm boundaries of acceptable opinion, the range of views normalized by outspoken media pundits. Class consciousness and systemic critique were as foreign to me as alien languages.

Capitalism didn’t feature into my worldview or my understanding of events around me. I barely understood the word despite the far-reaching tendrils of the profit motive in the American experiment — in government, in culture, in social mobility, in war. Its existence was invisible to me the way water might be to fish. When it came to racism, I thought the symbolic victory of electing a Black man to the highest office would be a critical milestone. I figured if we could do that, the gates of opportunity would just burst open. My conceptualization of the political arena was simplistic, infantile, and harmful.

A half-length portrait of renowned communist and political activist Angela Davis. Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Doing the work

Years later, having performed these systemic analyses, having studied history and having read thousands of pages of Critical Theory, having engaged with people all across the so-called political spectrum in intellectually honest discourse with a desire to learn, my worldview is no longer defined for me by millionaires in suits sitting behind desks on TV nor by folks on Twitter with blue checkmarks designating official credibility™ next to their names. This matters.

Beliefs inform behaviors, including those at the ballot. Whether they are moral is determined, in part, by the extent to which they are informed; I have to assume somebody in Ancient Maya handling the human sacrifice stuff meant well. Liberated, my ideology is rooted in a tremendous amount of historical study, skepticism, and honest reasoning. My central aim is to arrive at truth rather than comfort, a marked improvement over the compass held by my wide-eyed, soul-searching, eighteen-year-old self. The symbolic politics of the Democratic Party, the myth of an unrestrained market as the primary vehicle toward individual freedom — these are insufficient. A moral worldview centers the most vulnerable and oppressed people, aiming to reduce their suffering as the top priority, not as an afterthought, not as a negotiable matter of practicality to be sacrificed in some cowardly definition of pragmatism.

You can’t know what the moral choices are without doing a thorough analysis of the broader systems. Capitalism, electoral politics, systemic racism, imperialism. Without grasping the effects of private capital on what is at least superficially intended to be a representative democracy, you’re winging it. Don’t be the Ancient Mayan that meant well.

The wisdom I had long missed is this: human history and the development of our social institutions are interpretable through a lens of dialectical materialism, and the most moral choices available to us will inevitably be informed by this framework. Sometimes I like to think of it as taking a scientific eye toward social progress. History then becomes a massive data set, something from which we can create, debate, and sharpen theories of change that have predictive qualities. A lot of work in this realm has already been done. The average American need only seek out the information, though this is a difficult task given modern tidal waves of misinformation constantly aimed our way.

Still, such Critical Theory is as accessible as ever, and you’re not alone. You don’t need to read every dense text written by Marxist scholars centuries ago—there are efforts made in anti-capitalist communities to make theory approachable through discussion, video presentations — hell, even memes have been discussed as a sort of modern pamphlet. Of course, any seeker of truth must move through these spaces with a skeptic’s trained eye and guard against bias and fallacy. Be vigilant and keep going. The earnest desire to find truth — when paired with a strong tendency to challenge the reliability of claims — is a trusty compass.

This is the path toward greater nuance and deeper understanding of the systems we’re part of, the systems so many are oppressed by. This is what opens the door that reveals the real movement for progress. Intersectional feminism, queer and BBIPOC liberation, working-class solidarity. The gates to these ideas didn’t fully open until I realized politics wasn’t about my personal narrative. I needed to slow down, listen, and learn.

The end result is that my skepticism extended to the promises made by the Democratic Party, and that those promises did not survive honest critique. I became healthily suspicious of any politician telling me universal healthcare is unfeasible. A cursory search into their funding might reveal some unsavory ties to the health insurance industry, for instance. I became suspicious of anyone whose political agenda centered the priorities of the upper classes, and began to raise an eyebrow at anyone not pushing strongly for trans liberation, not demanding an end to houselessness, not treating medical or student debt like disgraceful features of a nation claiming to be free.

I still spend my time and effort going around trying to change proverbial hearts and minds. It’s more challenging than ever; I offend MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporters when I point out examples of institutional racism, I offend Vote Blue No Matter Who liberals when I critique their heroes. All around, in the effort to reach people and introduce new ideas, I am challenging their narratives with rhetoric that exists well outside of what is normal in U.S. political discourse. Here, a reformist social democrat like Bernie Sanders is painted as a far-left radical. (Actual far-left radicals will scoff at that.) But I still believe in trying to do this because my passion for progress is as real as ever, and the joy I feel in solidarity with a cause larger than my life has never waned. I merely found the right cause.

So when I talk to conservatives, I might lean on my years in the military or my religious upbringing to show I understand where they’re coming from. When I talk to liberals, I want them to know I came from the same brand of politics. I know what it’s like to believe in and fight for the success of the Democratic Party. I know what it’s like to be sold symbolism while the root causes of so much strife go unaddressed.

The story of my beginnings as a young liberal Democrat may come off to some as romantic and hopeful, even inspiring. Some of it is. The human experience, our search for purpose and those remarkable moments in life where we believe we’ve found it. There is so much value in that. But therein lies the danger, an emergence of one’s political worldview as a mere egotistical narrative. This leads to symbolic change taking precedent over real change. If you don’t put the work in, you’ll end up caught in the tide, adrift, fighting for whatever the Democrat Party’s establishment aims you at. In the most dystopian form of this, you and other well-meaning people will be utterly satisfied by your contributions, sold a lie and stripped of the dignity of fighting for real progress.

Great orators like Fmr. President Obama will offer you hope. They’ll offer incremental reform and make it feel like a revolution. They’ll maintain the status quo while calling it change you can believe in. But the only thing worth believing in is truth, and it’s not the kind of thing that will be delivered to you in a single speech. It’s the kind of thing you have to carve out yourself.

i write love letters from the void. editor of The Anticapital, bylines @ LEVEL | P.S. I Love You | The Writing Cooperative

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