We Are Legion: How America Learned to Speak Up For Itself

I am not political. As a general rule, I don’t know when Congress is in session, I can’t name the junior senator from Ohio, and I don’t know how many Electoral College votes my home state of Washington (go Seahawks weed!) warrants.

I understand that politics — that government — is a nuanced thing, that the United States of America is enormous and unprecedented, that a team of humans of this quantity and heterogeneity has never, in the history of humanity, been collected and labeled as one. That this changes everything; that we must change along with it. That this thing will require patience and compassion. I believe the hype; I always have. I believe deeply in this idea. I love my country.

Two weeks ago, a knot began forming in my stomach, and it stuck there until Tuesday evening, when it released finally and I cried until I realized I was crying in relief. I knew I’d been nervous; I didn’t know I’d been terrified.

I am 30 years old. I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since I was old enough to vote. When Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in the drawn-out battle of 2000, I cared in the sense that it was exciting and there was always something compelling to watch on television. I was 18; it may as well have been the OJ Simpson trial. It may as well have been a particularly tense episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians.

America was just fine and it always would be.

I was 19 years old on September 11, 2001. I had a math test that afternoon. I woke up and I studied for it, the hardback textbook and I sprawled out on my bed. I licked my fingers to turn the glossy pages. I did not have a cell phone. I did not have Twitter. I did not have Facebook. I had not turned on the television. I had not been online.

At 10:30 am I called to confirm an interview for an on-campus job – it had been scheduled for noon. The woman on the other end of the phone said she wasn’t sure if it would happen. She talked about “everything that’s going on.” She said it three or four times.

I asked her what was going on.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Turn on your television.”

Everything I thought I understood about my country disappeared that day. We were no more impervious to destruction than an airplane, than a skyscraper. We’d been constructed carefully, but a small group of dedicated evildoers could still bring the whole thing crashing down. We were, it turned out, all just humans. I was devastated. I’d been terribly wrong about all of this.

On the Wednesday following Election Day in 2004 — the first Presidential election since the events of September 11 and a sweeping dismissal of the potential of gays, women and minorities — I wrote an essay. Eight years later, I still find I said it best then.

I support Kerry. I support him in bars and over dinner and in cars with new boys and old boys and old friends and new enemies. I don’t recognize this war anymore. This is not what I was fighting for anymore. We, the rookie yuppies, racing to redefine the term, to hit it out of the ballpark, in the metropoli of this country, stare at each other over finished tables and folded napkins, and we try to recognize each other, as we have given up on reconciling with each other. We have lost sight of the ball entirely. We cannot disappear into Budapest, or into Prague, or into a dot-com bubble like those who came just before.

We feel exposed. We’ll never say it, but we feel cheated. We have to stay here, now. We all feel we have to stay and defend something. We’re just so damn split on what it is.

We’re a volatile generation, drunkenly optimistic and cynical in turns, sobered unequivocally by a precious empire we watched transform, hung-over on a Tuesday morning, into ash and smoke that rose into imperial smoke-buildings briefly, then faded gently in a way the news cameras never quite captured. We never got to see where we went. It haunts us still, the trauma of a generation’s youth, as we move in packs from the bars in Hollywood to the bars on the Lower East Side, in and over the subways, to the bars in the Bay, to South Street, and back to Santa Monica, in airplanes and in convertibles and in Prada, ordering another shot and trying to get drunk again, gasping, pawing and praying for the Dionysian cares of our fallen decades.

Kerry loses, and every state with a ban on gay marriage on the ballot passes it. They came to vote against gays, I think, and they stayed to vote against Kerry. I lose sight of my America then, too early on a Wednesday, as the anchors grow slap-happy and call it all, and some of them seem sad, even. I am late to work the next day, it’s been another awful Tuesday; I have to turn my car around, I drive in boxes and boxes forever and ever, I can’t stop crying; my lips swell and wet and I feel broken. That is not what I meant. That is not what I meant, at all.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that the 2004 elections were the beginning, not the end. The Deep South states that banned gay marriage that night galvanized an angry nation, a nation that no longer saw itself reflected in a cadre of collared white men.

Legislation to legalize gay marriage appeared across the country; on Tuesday, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first U.S. states to legalize gay marriage by popular vote. Minnesota voters rejected a ban on same-sex marriage. We elected twenty female senators, a new record.

We elected an openly gay senator. Even Missouri, deep in the Deep South, soundly dismissed rape apologist Todd Akin.

We re-elected Barack Obama, a President who has openly supported the rights of gays, of immigrants and of women. It was expected to be a tight election; it was not. Obama took the Electoral College handily, and he won the popular vote. As a friend wrote on Twitter, no black man has ever lost a Presidential election in this country.

When Mitt Romney appeared on stage to concede the election, he looked as though he’d been crying. He seemed human again, for the first time since this election began. I remembered that I’d liked him as the governor of Massachusetts, that he’d seemed a competent leader and a compassionate one. I’d had hopes that his Presidential campaign would bridge a divide, that he’d campaign as a new face of the Republican party, an adept manager of people and of business, and a leader tolerant and welcoming of the human spectrum. He did not campaign that way; I suspect his party advised against it. I suspect, in the next Presidential election, the Republican party will advise differently. Because the country is not just changing: it has changed.

John Weaver, a key Republican strategist, told the New York Times: “We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party. And to do the latter we have to fix our Hispanic problem as quickly as possible, we’ve got to accept science and start calling out these false equivalencies when they occur within our party about things that are just not true, and not tolerate the intolerant.”

White voters made up 72% of the voting electorate last night. 59% of them – a clear majority – voted for Romney. Eight years ago, 58% of them voted for Bush – but back then, they made up 77% of the voters.

Men voted in favor of Romney, too, but narrowly, at 52%. They made up 47% of the electorate. Women, the majority at 53% of voters, chose Obama by a larger margin of 55%.

93% of black voters chose Obama. They made up 13% of voters. Eight years ago, they were only 11%. Hispanics voted for Obama in droves; 71% of them chose him. They made up 10% of the electorate, up from 8% eight years ago. Asians chose Obama at 73%. They’re 3% of voters, up from 2% in Kerry’s election.

That’s a lot of numbers, but they tell a very clear story about change. We are a shifting nation. We are shifting toward further diversity. We are shifting toward deeper empowerment. We are telling people that their voice matters, and people are listening.

We are a country transformed not just by shifting percentages, but by information. We are less welcome to be ignorant; we have access to the facts, to the explanations, to lots of well-considered opinions. We are informed of our rights by Twitter; we are told we can stay in the voting line after polls close; we are told when we do not need ID to vote; we are heard, we are amplified by the people, when we report that a voting machine is either broken or rigged.

We can ask questions about our rights as citizens and get trusted information back in real-time. This is a radically important shift. This is how you implement justice in practice.

On Tuesday night, when Mitt Romney conceded with tears in his eyes, I remembered that this man is not a sociopath, not an evil robot. He is a person, as we all are people. As a species, we’ve evolved successfully in no small part because we protect one another. A country governed by its people, by the voice of its humans, can and will make decisions that protect the people, decisions that strive to protect all of them.

In a country with a morphing face, a country where information is free to defeat ignorance, a country where justice is prized and where the long tail of human potential is celebrating a resounding victory today, the words of Anonymous come to mind.

We are the United States of America.

We are legion.

Expect us.