America 2008, Or Berlin 1989?

A truly remarkable thing happened in Washington last night, as the world finished watching Barack Obama deliver his victory speech in Chicago and hundreds of election-watch parties being held by Democrats in raucous bars and shi-shi hotel ballrooms across the capital broke up after hours of non-stop whooping and cheering.

Someone, or more likely several someones, made a decision to march on the White House. And seemingly the rest of the city followed on behind.

They streamed down the hill from Adams Morgan, down 16th St and along Pennsylvania Avenue to converge on the edge of Lafayette Park. They sang songs, beat on drums, waved life-size cardboard replicas of Obama, hugged, kissed, high-fived and alternated chants of "Yes we can!" with "No more Bush!" For blocks around, cars lined up along the improbably jammed downtown streets echoed the rhythm of those chants with volley after volley of three short toots of their horns.

This wasn't an organized celebration like the gathering in Chicago's Grant Park. It didn't involve buses and organizers and legal protection volunteers, like the vast protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle nine years ago, or the mass demonstrations on the eve of the Iraq war. It was something altogether more unusual in American public life: a spontaneous political gathering of thousands of ecstatic, peaceful revellers who decided to make their feelings known before the most powerful political office on the planet. It was a celebration, for sure, but it was also some kind of deeper statement: that the people had been living under some sort of perversion of democracy for a long time but now felt emboldened to claim it back for themselves.

The disaster of the last eight years under Bush, as well as the overwhelming partisan preference of the District's residents (Obama got 92 per cent of the vote here), certainly did a lot to fuel that sentiment. But it also went a lot deeper than that. For too long, politics in this country -- both Republican and Democrat -- has been seen as something intangible and inaccessible to ordinary people and their everyday concerns. Now, with a black man pulling off the astonishing feat of rising to the presidency in a land riven by racism for more than two centuries, there was a sense of extraordinary release, and even more extraordinary empowerment. For one night at least, we could fantasize that the White House was the people's house, after all.

The moment couldn't help but remind me of the extraordinary outpourings of "people power" that toppled the Communist governments of eastern Europe in 1989, or of the hugely inventive, almost poetic mass demonstrations in Serbia in the mid-1990s against the despotic rule of Slobodan Milosevic. "We are the people," they chanted in Leipzig and Berlin in those heady days. A very similar sentiment abounded last night in the usually staid confines of downtown Washington.

Many, many Obama supporters kept saying how relieved they felt, as if a great burden had been lifted. The African Americans were the most exuberant (of course). Nobody, black or white, young or old, could quite believe what was happening. Even the Secret Service and the DC cops keeping an eye from a discreet distance said they had seen nothing like it.

This is what democracy at its best looks like. This is how people come to have hope in the future again. Now, of course, it's up to the new administration to deliver -- an altogether trickier proposition.