November 5, 2008.
On November 4, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America. His election was historic, not only because of the racial barriers it shattered, but also because this election marks the end of the longest, costliest, and most-watched presidential contest in American history. The tremendous interest in this campaign, both in America and abroad, are a testament to the global desire to embark upon a new course in world affairs. It is unsurprising, then, that Barack Obama was able to campaign and win on a platform of change. Indeed, it was this message—this promise of change and hope—that drew such massive and emotional crowds to Mr. Obama’s campaign.
Following the election on Tuesday, the largest crowd to date gathered in Chicago to celebrate Mr. Obama’s victory. This was a momentous event, but the conclusion to this election must not mark an end to the interest, involvement, and spirit that went into the campaign. The president-elect himself acknowledged as much while delivering his victory speech:
This victory alone is not the change we seek—it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.
No other portion of Mr. Obama’s speech can rival the importance of these few sentences. We must not rest contented simply out of the knowledge that the election is over and that a new president has been chosen. Regardless of political affiliation, anyone who really seeks change must do more than simply vote once in every four years. It is not enough to merely expend this quadrennial effort and then wait lazily in the interim for the officials we’ve elected to fix our problems. Instead, we must take an active role in the direction our country takes.
Part of our mandate is to remain informed and call out the politicians who fail to serve the voters that elected them. As English historian John Dalberg-Acton noted in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Our representative government is meant to prevent this by transferring power to the people, but unless the people pay attention and assert their collective will, it is easy for elected officials to abuse the power that voters confer upon them. Barack Obama, for all his eloquence and optimism, is a politician—and politicians are known for breaking their promises. Even if the new president does defy history and prove faithful to his platform, there remain in America one hundred senators, three hundred and forty-six representatives, fifty governors, and countless other state and local officials who might stray from the voters’ will. Between elections, it is essential that we keep tabs on the people we’ve elected.
We must also ensure that our elected officials never forget what we want. It is impossible for the government to cater to everyone’s desires—compromises must be made, and someone is always bound to be disappointed. It is a mistake, however, to accept this disappointment resignedly. It was only by a long and determined effort in the face of many failures that slavery was abolished, that women acquired the right to vote, and that African Americans achieved the rights we all deserve. Many struggles for equality persist today. Unless all Americans take such impassioned stands for their ideals, there is little hope that such ideals will take root. Though it pains me to say this here, our stand must rise beyond a simple blog post, facebook group, or forum discussion. No movement hidden in virtual reality will, on its own, have a great impact on the real world. We must stand up publicly in view of everyone, and exemplify our ideals, if we truly expect to change the course of our future.
Most importantly, if we truly want to make the world a better place, we must strive to do so every day through our own actions. Much time is wasted by waiting for politicians to fight our battles for us. Some changes simply cannot be wrought without a change in the law, but in the meantime, there is no reason to postpone living by our ideals. We can do our small part to help the environment without waiting for green legislation. We can buy local without waiting for limits on outsourcing. We can respect the rights of others even when the government does not. We can show our kindness to everyone we know, bestow help on those who need it, and work together ceaselessly to build a brighter future. Complacency will take us nowhere. Though the election is over, we must remain dedicated to achieving the change we seek. It will take a strong resolve, and even courage, but each of us can make an impact on the future. Democracy—government by the people—demands that we do.