Here’s what I think lost us this election: Hamilton.
I like musical theater. My dad took me to see Hello, Dolly when I was five, and I was hooked. I am often listening obsessively to musicals. What’s weird is not that I’ve been listening to Hamilton nonstop all year. What’s weird is that so many of the rest of you have been. It’s unusual for me to be hitting the zeitgeist, whatever it is. But not as unusual as it is for whatever it is to be a Broadway musical. Until November, I thought this was great news. Now I think it’s ruined everything in the world forever.
Here’s what we learn from Hamilton:
- Individual people can rise up and defeat their corrupt government.
- They do this by reading widely, writing well, and being educated.
- Poor people can win power from wealthy people by being smart, talented, and hard working.
- Immigrants are worthwhile humans.
- People of color are worthwhile humans.
- Women are worthwhile humans. The stronger and more outspoken they are, the more worthwhile. And sexy.
- In the face of adversity, diverse people come together, stand together, and in so doing, triumph.
- It is possible to fight the entrenched power structures, the ancestral wealth, the unfair systems, the oppressors who inherited their privileges. And win.
- Intelligent, invested government leaders can have reasonable disagreements about complex things and work hard to come to smart compromises.
- History will remember your actions and your inactions. Saying despicable things, engaging in despicable behavior will disqualify you going forward because history does not forget.
- Craven candidates who insolently stoke and stroke the masses just to get elected won’t.
- Politicians become unelectable when citizens find out they engage in tawdry, inappropriate sexual behavior.
- What you say and what you write and what you stand for matters.
- Shooting people is stupid.
And never mind the morals of the story, from the very fact of Hamilton’s unprecedented popularity we learn:
- Storytelling makes the world a better place.
- Art makes the world a better place.
- Diversity is good.
- Art inspires people, lots of people, different people, people as varied as snooty theater critics and rap aficionados, people as varied as the celebrities who are finagling orchestra seats to this thing despite it’s being sold out until forever and my eight-year-old.
- Art education pays off in spades.
- Eight-hundred-plus page biographies of lesser known founding fathers are cool.
- Hip hop is important.
- High art and culture isn’t just for snobs.
- In fact, high art and culture isn’t what you think it is.
- There is power in community, in sitting together in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and having a shared experience and being changed.
We, the Hamilton-obsessed, learned all that. Most of us probably believed it anyway, but once you listen to the cast recording a few hundred times, it gets into your bones. You can no longer not believe it. It’s one of the best things about musicals actually. It’s hard to be cynical in the face of them. A chorus line, a tap number, actors in flight harnesses, lovers singing in each other’s faces — you just can’t be ironic or pessimistic or too-cool-for-school when you watch stuff like this. If you fail to believe, Tinkerbell dies.
But that hope, that optimism, that faith and belief, that certainty that good and right win, that fairness matters, that love trumps hate, all of that made us sure there was no way this election could go badly. All of that made us confident that Hillary would win. Of course she would. Of course the American electorate had love and justice in its heart, and love and justice could vote no other way.
Did we lose because we were so confident we couldn’t? I don’t know. But I do know that when we lost, we lost so much. We lost the White House. We lost our government. But we also lost our narrative. We lost our faith. We lost our optimism and our trust in the goodness of our fellow citizens. And we were stunned — I remain, in fact, gobsmacked and despairing — because, Hamilton-taught, there was no way this could happen. But it did.
I’m not sure I believe it, but I do hope our hope lies in Hamilton too.
There will be a revolution. We’re going to have to do it together. What form that will take, what it will mean, remains to be seen. But for starters…
We write our way out of hell.
Those of us who write have to write. We were writing in October too, and look how well that worked, so we have to write different, more, louder. We have to tell our stories. We have to tell other people’s stories as well.
We write like we’re running out of time.
And we have to do it quickly. Urgently. Frequently. And in large volume.
We pass the plate around, move total strangers to kindness with our stories.
We give money to individuals who need it, to organizations who help individuals who need it, to organizations who protect our rights, our liberties, our press, our environment, our culture, our world. This is one quantifiable way writing, storytelling, helps. We give. And we inspire other people to give.
Wait for it, wait for it.
History is long. And slow. This is a dark moment which we must use to lead to lighter days. Progress is hard to see while it’s happening. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
This is the eye of the hurricane.
He’s been declared the winner but not yet ascended to office. He’s appointed the cronies, but they’ve yet to take their seats. He’s blustered and insulted and abused, but does he dare? We don’t know yet, so we take this grace period, these last blessed days of the previous blessed administration to regroup, repair, rebuild our faith. And get ready for what’s coming. After all, history has its eye on us.