REASON 13: I LIKE WINNING.
I will reveal here that I am going to vote for Obama, and I hope he wins, and here is the reason: I LIKE WINNING.
This was not always the case. For someone who came of age as a long-haired public radio nerd in Brookline, MA in Reagan’s eighties and Bush’s early nineties, winning was a foreign country. A country that surrounded our northeastern patch of rent control and repertory movie houses and 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but wanted nothing to do with us.
And while it may surprise you to learn that I was not a sporting person, I did feel some kinship with the Boston Red Sox of this period (a basesball team), because they were perpetual underdogs, which is to say: LOSERS. And I learned from sports the fatalist, self-righteous, weepy thesis of the loser: that winning is stupid. A bully’s art in a rigged game. I learned to wear my irrelevance and exile as a kind of pride: that it is better and more wholesome to absorb a principled loss into your abused heart and keep that faded Dukakis sticker upon your Volvo than to to make the comprises required to enjoy some meaningless, passing triumph.
Like many, I first heard of Barack Obama when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Though I lived at that time on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was listening to him on the radio at our summer house in the five college area of Western Massachusetts. I say this to set the scene, and also to re-assert my credentials as an elite, affluent, northeastern liberal, and thus, at that time, a non-American. In case you had forgotten.
Listening to Obama, I realized I agreed with him on most issues, but mostly I was electrified by the premise of the speech, which was essentially that we are all part of the same country, but which I took to mean “people in blue states are actual humans as well.” There weren’t many people saying this in 2004. Not even many Democrats. And while I was instantly thralled by this on a purely selfish level, I also liked that the sentiment flowed in reverse as well. I have disagreements with, but no need to demonize, conservative America, as indeed many of them are my family, even right here in supposedly liberal Massachusetts. We are all one, he said in 2004, and I was so excited. This guy is going to lose so BEAUTIFULLY, I thought.
But it didn’t happen that way. I can place the moment I knew I was wrong. In July of 2008, I was driving past the empty hole where the new World Trade Center had STILL not been built, and I heard on the radio (I LOVE PUBLIC RADIO, REMEMBER) that Obama had reversed his position on the update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and would agree with a compromise that would grant telecom companies immunity from prosecution for cooperating with warrantless wiretaps. I had to look all that up, because I honestly forgot what the specific issue was at the time. All I remember was that knife twist in my gut of deep disappointment. I learned then that Obama was going to disappoint; that his ideals were tempered by a kind of rough pragmatism; and that he would be willing to personally alienate ME. ME OF ALL PEOPLE. The one person who knew best about how to run a presidential campaign and ranked Obama’s performance as a candidate solely upon his adherence to a few very specific positions that I cared most about. HOW COULD HE WIN THIS ELECTION WITHOUT ME? And then I realized: Oh. How can he win the election WITH an asshole like me?
Now that I’ve looked it up, I still disagree with his decision on the FISA update. But what I remember is this: not only would I have to get used to that knife twist of disappointment, I would have to learn to enjoy it. Because that’s the moment that I realized that Obama actually intended to win.
After that I learned to appreciate Obama in a different way. I appreciated that he inhabited a world in which idealism—and ideology—could never by sheer force of will overcome objective reality, and the hard compromises, uneasy truces, and constant errors that must be made to live in that world. I especially felt better about this position when I learned that John McCain carried an indian feather around FOR LUCK. This was not how I wanted my country run. By myth and superstition and magic tokens.
And, in that real world, I began to appreciate, winning matters. And not just that election. Those who hate how far the legislative Frankenstein’s monster called the Affordable Care Act lurched away from the promethean ideal of what it could have been are not wrong. Those who, for this reason, cheered for its failure were dumb. Whether the fight should have been joined just then is a discussion that countless armchair quarterbacks and alternate history novelists can debate, sterilely, forever. Once it WAS joined, that win was galvanizing and essential and re-moralizing, as was its confirmation by the Supreme Court. A court that includes, by the way, two Obama nominees who would not have been there had he not won.
And science suggests that winning begets winning: that mammals fighting for food or survival tend to win those fights, regardless of comparative size or hunger, if they have recently won fights before. Of course, politics is not mammal-fighting, and that is why winning in politics is even more important.
Those on the right who began wishing in 1980 to dismantle the Great Society, de-regulate and de-unionize business, and starve the beast of the federal government are, you may have noticed, very close to succeeding. I am not saying this to scare you; maybe you agree with them. But the point is that it happened because they endured the compromises, hypocrisies, and retreats needed to get the wins, and profoundly change policy in ways we barely noticed—the repeal of Glass-Steagal; the massive tax cuts; the empowerment of corporations as political donors. These things did not happen because conservatives who believed in them kicked Reagan out of office in 1984 for failing to outlaw abortion immediately. It happened because they won elections.
(And were also willing to settle for the steady erosion of abortion and contraceptive rights, state by state across the country, which, if unchecked, may end up amounting to the same thing).
And when it came to locating and killing Osama Bin Laden, winning, if you can put it that way, meant the dispassionate, unpleasant, but overdue righting of a profound wrong. That was not a victory I could take a lot of joy in, but after so much life so profligately spent on a war that seemed increasingly designed to NOT find or punish Bin Laden, I was surprised at what a deep sense of relief I felt when I heard the news.
And of course, the cost of losing is very high. As a supporter of health care reform, same sex marriage, women’s rights, tax fairness, a domestic policy responsive to the realities of the present day as opposed to toxic nostalgia, and an international policy that punishes our enemies more than it rewards our private contractors, I may not always agree with the speed or execution of Obama’s policies. But I know that a loss this year would not be seen as a noble failure. It would be seen as a repudiation of these values for a long time to come. Losses transform ideals into irrelevant fantasy, and idealists into weepy self-pitiers, like old-school Red Sox fans and Tea Partiers and people who really believe some day that Firefly might come back.
Of course, no one remembers now that the Red Sox were losers for so long. Because they won. Because wins remake reality. They transform ideals into policies, and endorse them with a sense of fate and rightness, and then they LAST.
It may seem strange, then, that this nerd could become so jockish thanks to sports and a president who throws up the Vulcan salute so often you might think he’s at Dragon*Con. But I want President Obama to win, because I want the things I believe in to win.
And also, nerds, I have to tell you: WINNING FEELS FUCKING FANTASTIC.
New York, New York