I’m in Memphis for the weekend at the Amnesty International Southern Regional Conference, an annual gathering of the mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly college age Amnesty membership. Bookending last night’s uplifting opening ceremonies – an a capella performance, spoken word poetry, a talk by an historian of African-American history and U.S. human rights, and dancing to a hippie jam band in the beautiful and cavernous First Congregational Church – were two conversations I had with my hotel shuttle drivers about the upcoming election.
From the airport to my airport hotel, I asked my young African-American driver if he was excited about the upcoming election. (Apparently, it’s a Virgo thing. Some folks call it making conversation, I call it collecting data.) My driver told me he already voted, to avoid the long lines on Tuesday, and that in early voting he waited four hours. (The morning news just reported that over 250k people voted early in Memphis; they expect about the same turnout on Election Day.)
Likely because I’m obsessed with excited about the election, and because polling data indicates that this man represented two indicators of likely Obama support – youth and race – I thought I’d get to bask in some local ebullience. Instead, he told me rather resignedly that because the economy was so bad, he didn’t have much hope that either of the candidates would meet expectations, or be able to do much. Then he told me that the Klan had succeeded in renting a local hotel room, which really worried him. We fretted jointly but quickly and turned the conversation to other things. He couldn’t have been much beyond his mid-thirties, but he was a Desert Storm vet and a more recent survivor of a severe motorcycle accident that should have permanently paralyzed. He’s been walking for about a year now.
After the AI event, I got a lift from the conference hotel to mine by an elderly African-American man, could have been in his 70s. This time in a sincere attempt to make conversation, I asked him if he was looking forward to the election. (Then I decided I was going to ask every driver this weekend that question, for reliability!) He told me he’d seen a lot of elections, and that they always come out wrong. He talked about the machines that switch people’s votes, and I responded I’d been hearing about those too. He said his daddy told him that he had to always take care of himself, because politicans (“they”) never will. After Tuesday, we won’t hear from them for another four years. Bush did the same thing, and he didn’t do anything. And if they had just fixed the housing problems, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.
Coming from my political blogosphere-academia-professional classes bubble life (The “creative class?”), where people are generally either excited for The End of Bush** and/or for Obama, what struck me about these two conversations tonight was the lack of excitement or optimism – even for Bush’s exit stage left – and the presence of fear, worry, resignation and pessimism. Yes, people are voting early. But they’re also fearing for their and their community’s safety and for their future, or reasonably anticipating “more of the same.”
I don’t know how I will fill my time once this election ends (what’s that dissertation now?). I signed up on Friday to volunteer at the polls in Boston, though it’s not definite it will happen. I realized I couldn’t write on the application – “I’d like to volunteer in a district likely to go for Obama.” A bit suspect, don’t you think? But I was hoping to be a part of some of the apparent enthusiasm for his candidacy I’m seeing and hearing about all over the web and from Obama supporters. I suspect I’ll find plenty of it here at this Conference. But, obviously (but sometimes I’m dense), the prospect of The End of Bush or the ushering in of Hope! Change! does little to assuage people’s concerns that Bush & Co. (at a minimum) have really screwed us all. Weboy wrote beautifully during the primary about the class divide running through the Democratic Party. It’s funny cuz it’s true! Sob.
**The DSCC just ran an ad against Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). Apparently the meme “voted with Bush 90% of the time” is a popular one.