“Don’t boo. Vote,” said Barack Obama last night, July 28, to a crowd of democratic delegates booing at the mention of Donald Trump.
He had said it before. In these three words—a version of Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” from her speech on Monday—the US president perfectly encapsulates democracy: Don’t just hate; do something about it. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. America isn’t about yes he will, is about yes we can,” he added.
It’s an idea at the core of the American ethos, the wide-eyed conviction that if you work hard enough, you can change the world. If you don’t like the way this election is going, you can change it.
It’s also a beautiful reminder of why so many have chosen this country as their home.
“Those are lands one should never get to know,” my grandfather used to say about the United States. He had lived in the US for five years in the 1960s, and he meant that knowing the US and the endless opportunities it promised, meant forever seeing Italy as small, and limited. After living in the US, going home felt like giving up.
My grandfather died in the US before his family could join him on this side of the Atlantic, and make a life here. But I believe I felt what he felt, many years later, when I moved here in 2013: the sense of open opportunity that underlies American mythology. I had just won a green card in the US diversity lottery, and with it the right to follow in his footsteps.
That’s right: The US runs a program to keep itself diverse, a (free) lottery that can be entered by anyone whose country is underrepresented in the previous five years of immigration (pdf, p.1). Diversity is the United States’ greatest strength, and one that neither its commander-in-chief, nor its immigration authorities, have forgotten. “I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together,” Obama said last night. “Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, young, old, gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love.”
This is why I am here, Obama reminded me last night. It’s the same reason that brought many generations of immigrants here before me, and the same reason that will bring more in the future. Less than half a century after segregation ended, the son of an immigrant has already made it into the most powerful office in the world, armed with no privilege but his own talent.
“People outside of the United States do not understand what’s going on in this election, they really don’t,” he also noted, and he’s right on that count, too. Other countries watching this election don’t get what’s happening with Trump for the same reason they knew in 2008 that Obama should be president. For them, Obama embodies the vastness of the American dream—the one the world has heard through stories of their own emigrants, like my grandfather—while Trump and his walls make it look small.