There have been claims this election cycle that yard signs are not exactly where it is at when it comes to winning elections (see here and here).  I do, however, in an oblique kind of way, consider them important–they serve to whet the election fever that brings out volunteers and generates interest in what is going to happen.  Kind of like building “school spirit” in order to create support for sports events way back when I was in high school.  Nevertheless, although I put out yard signs, this very high-school spirit aspect leaves me a little cold; I have always considered myself a little “above” the whole sign thing.  Well … pride goeth before a fall as they say.  I was really not prepared for how violated and insulted I felt today when I discovered my sign missing.

My Obama sign had been up since the primaries ended, and since I have been reading about sign vandalism and theft everywhere else, I was feeling a little smug about how civil my conservative neighbors were–and since I was getting lots of support from people in the neighborhood for my Obama sign, I was also wondering if perhaps this subdivison might not be shifting its allegiances a little.  Alas, perhaps now that McCain and Palin are falling in the polls, their more brutish supporters are getting their ire up–and taking it  out on innocent yard signs.

I actually think that I saw the thief and, perhaps, I had a long discussion with him subsequent to the theft.  But why, you say do I seem so tentative?

I saw a man in an orange sweatshirt and blue shorts running away from my lawn carrying a sign when I was returning from an early morning walk today. Sure enough, when I got to my yard, my sign was missing.  I called out to the still visible man and attempted to follow him, but he turned a corner and when I turned it a few minutes later, I saw a similarly attired man placing a McCain-Palin yard sign in front of his house.

When I approached this man and asked if he knew anything about my sign, he said that he would “kick the ass” of anyone who stole signs; he himself had fought overseas to protect the rights of free speech.  Sounded sincere and very convincing to me; surely he couldn’t be the thief?

However, when I casually indicated that I had lost an an Obama sign, the man launched into a litany of reasons that I should reconsider voting for this Muslim who was not even a citizen (and whose mother was not even married to his African father).  He had proof of all these allegations, he told me,  that would open my eyes if I just willing to take a look.  

Long story short, I got suckered into a conversation, even though it was clear that there was nothing to be gained by talking to this rather belligerent gentleman.  Our conversation ranged over the topics above and touched on socialism in Sweden, healthcare in Europe, the failings of the media, and the virtues of Sarah Palin–who, he asserted was a regular person, just like me and you.  Wouldn’t I want to be represented by such a person rather than corrupt, rich politicians he asked?

It was an interesting and unsettling experience–this man, my neighbor, actually, insulted me regularly during the conversation.  Of course, he declared, I supported Obama’s tax policies because I probably was too impoverished to be worried about paying taxes.  He, on the other hand had worked hard and now had the goods to show for it; he didn’t want to pay for the dead-beats like me.  And on and on and on.  I answered sincerely sometimes, and at other times just tried to avoid getting him more worked up.

And then something happened that converted what had been, up to this time, mildly horrified amusement on my part into something like sympathy. This man suddenly declared that I was probably a lot like him, a middle-class person who wanted the best for my country.  The sad thing, he said, was that we couldn’t come together and see things in the same way. Indeed, I thought.

The man then said he knew it was too late; Obama would win the election, and that he was so frightened about what was going to happen.  His expression was desolate and his sincerity was palpable.  

I remembered how, in 2004, I had felt such despair when Bush won again.  I realized that, no matter how wrong that my maybe-thief may be, the emotions he expresses are as real as those I experienced then. I believe that my malaise was based on an accurate assessment of reality, and, indeed, the desperate state of the country after eight years of Bush seem to show that I was right to feel that way.  But, no matter, I do know how bad political defeat can seem when you believe the stakes are high.  

The moral of this story, for me at any rate, is that if Obama wins the election (and I don’t want to jinx it by saying it’s going to happen), there will be people out there on November 5 who will feel just like I did in 2004.  If we are triumphalists and in-their-faces about it, they will respond like the spoilers they can be.  

Maybe they are lousy people who steal yard signs and probably they will provide support for every type of conservative obstructionism anyway, but we don’t need to make it worse.  I learned years ago, that if you corner people, they very likely to fight back as hard as they can. Actually, isn’t this what progressives did as they set to work to build up a viable opposition to Bush et al.?

The best thing, though, is that I believe that Obama knows this too, and that is why he talks so much about inclusiveness and bringing people together.  I think that after eight years of a President who, as several writers have noted, governed from the fringe, we may at last get a President who will really govern in a smart and inclusive way.  I just wish I could reassure my neighbor that it will all work out well (even though I really do still sort of think that he took my sign).

UPDATE:  Revised to correct a couple of really dumb errors, 10/26/08