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Andrew Nesi | Thursday, January 22, 2009

Liberals aren’t supposed to be religious. They’re not supposed to buy into a young savior who explodes onto the scene. They’re not supposed to wake up to join together and sing and chant and, yes, worship.

The first and only time I saw Barack Obama speak live was at American University last spring, when Sen. Kennedy, Rep. Kennedy, and maybe-senator-to-be Kennedy endorsed the now-President.

It was the sort of thing that probably won’t go down in history – endorsements, as a rule, do not – but at the time, it mattered. It legitimized Obama/Kennedy comparisons, and it legitimized Obama’s experience in Washington vis-à-vis Hillary.

But for the people at the rally – like the people at most Obama rallies – it was something more. The room had an energy and excitement I usually only experience on six or seven fall Saturdays each year.

Liberals aren’t supposed to be religious, but this was a religious experience. We yelled about being fired up and ready to go. We chanted that yes, we could. We wanted to be part of something.

And, sure enough, it felt like a movement was taking hold. This was a tent revival for young liberals.

Obama whipped the crowd into a political frenzy. To take the religious implication to a new level, everybody drank the Obama Kool-Aid that day. When he asked for an amen, we gave him an amen. Everybody at the rally would have gone to war for Barack by the end.

As George W. Bush took office in 2001, David Brooks called the typical college student today “The Organization Kid.” He wrote, “The new elite does not protest. Young achievers vaguely know that they are supposed to feel guilty about not marching in the street for some cause … Today’s elite college students don’t live in that age of rebellion and alienation.”

The reason we didn’t rebel or protest, people said, is because our generation was apathetic. Passive. We didn’t care enough.

But Barack – sorry, President Obama – was supposed to make us loud. He was supposed to energize us to be politically and socially active the way others have been in the past. He was supposed to make us more like our parents: rallying, protesting, and actively working for change. Revival-style rallies were supposed to show that we were more political than ever before.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Inauguration. People had it all wrong. For all his rallying during the campaign, Obama turned out to be pragmatic at heart. He isn’t an ideologue. He is a liberal who acknowledges bravery at Khe San in his Inaugural Address. He wasn’t born of protest or rebellion.

In other words, he is one of us. He proves what we know: that relative quiet is not apathy. We’re not passive bystanders. Just because we don’t march doesn’t mean we don’t care.

We don’t “vaguely know that [we] are supposed to feel guilty about not marching in the street for some cause.” We’re not supposed to feel guilty about not marching in the street for some cause. We have other ways of demonstrating that – we spend a lot of time volunteering in our communities and abroad, we Teach for America, we vote in record numbers when somebody speaks our language.

The excitement of his campaign was not because it charged us to act like our parents generation expects. It was because he spoke to us in language we understood, because he approached political activism the way we did. Tent-revival endorsement events were thrilling because Obama taps into something our generation knows, not because he was changing us.

Obama won’t make us more like our parents. Instead, he’ll make our parents more like us.

Of course, not everybody has realized this yet – least of all, our news media. But it is time we develop a new way to talk about politics. Trying to understand the impact of Obama on young people through the political lens of Vietnam and 60s-style activism makes no sense. It just doesn’t work.

This is what President Obama means when he says that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” The techniques of political activism of the past, rooted in the “stale” ideological clashes of the past, no longer apply, either.

It seems like President Obama gets that intuitively. We get it intuitively, too. It’s time that everyone else finally catches up.

Andrew Nesi is a senior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. While sitting in awesome seats during a Yankees game two years ago, he suggested to Derek Jeter that he take the first pitch of his first at-bat. Jeter took a strike, glared at him, and struck out on three pitches. True story. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.