Long Division

None of us can say with any certainty how growing up in Hawai‘i affected Barack Obama. Certainly, he has shown an affinity for many things we consider enduringly local. He eats plate lunches, gave one of his daughters a Hawaiian name, and was not afraid to be photographed walking through his old neighborhood in rubber slippers. Deep down, no one can know but the President-elect, himself, how much of Hawai‘i he carries in his day-to-day awareness.

Yet at the end of a nearly-two-year campaign, American voters responded to one aspect of his personal approach that all of us feel came from his spending his formative years in the most culturally-diverse state in the nation: he knows how to bring people together. The contrast between the Republican campaign and the Democratic campaign was stark. One side talked about fear, and distrust, and domestic terrorists. The other spoke of uniting our country, respecting diversity, and caring for those who need our help. The latter view won out. And I think that view is the Hawai‘i view.

Local people learn early on that living on an island in a sea of cultural cross-currents takes certain skills, foremost of which is knowing how to get along. There are small gestures and demonstrations of sensitivity, respectful rituals by which we show each other that we care about everyone’s comfort.

When Barack Obama talks about inclusiveness, when he tells those who voted for his opponent that he will be their President too, he is displaying that same skill of getting along. And when the country responded by building a new coalition of winning states, with a broader and deeper reach than we have seen for decades, they validated our local spirit of cooperation.

Our nation has been divided a long time. Somewhere along the line, those on the national stage developed an affinity for the politics of polarization. Winning by the barest of margins while maintaining the deepest of divisions, they cast the national debate in terms so stark and acrimonious that the public developed a distaste for government. Somewhere in the victory of politics over principle, civility was lost.

Now, just a few days after the Presidential election, I can’t help but feel that we are in a moment of—you’ve heard the word before—change. I can’t shake the impression that the country could be different, that we may find a way to include more people, more concerns, and more avenues of success.

We can’t say for sure that Barack Obama gained his approach or his perspective growing up among the diversity of Hawai‘i. But we can be sure that the spirit that drives him is very familiar to anyone who has truly made Hawai‘i home. And we can feel the core of that spirit, a spirit that could well become the theme and hope of a better America, beating in the heart of our own community.


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