I have this shirt (thank you, Out of Print) that says “Let’s Get Political” on the front with the “lit” in political emphasized, and on the back, with one word on each line, it says “Read, Think, Vote.” I wore it recently to the pharmacy. I told the woman at the counter I was picking up, gave her my name, and the $5 copy for the medication. She nodded at my shirt and said she liked it, then she chuckled. She said, “Now it’s just a matter of deciding who to vote for right?” Shocked, I silently widened my eyes behind my sunglasses, saved by my mask the dignity of not having to smile or laugh at what seemed to me such an absurd comment. I silently took the bag and receipt from her. She didn’t know who she was going to vote for? I wondered, screaming internally.
In high school I took a one-semester civics class, one that was a requirement for me and my fellow honors-level history students. The class was an insular one. I don’t remember it as being very accessible for anyone else. It was just all the students in the concurrent class with the same teacher. I didn’t even know if other teachers had their own sections of civics. All of sudden we were thrown into the deep end of American government and its history. I can’t remember a single thing I learned specifically in that class, though I know that it sparked something within me, a need to keep up with current events after I chose to follow the goings-on with bird flu overseas.
As I picked up What You Need to Know About Voting and Why by Kim Wehle, which I generously received from the publisher earlier this year, I knew that this one book wouldn’t be enough. After just a few pages of Wehle’s introduction, I knew that this would be a good jumping off point to spend some time digging into American history. Remedying some of the gaps in my public school education was going to be imperative for finding inspiration to encourage friends and family to push through burnout and open their eyes to the unfortunate truth of where we’ve come from and where we still are, blocking Americans from using the rights they have (or should have) as citizens.
“Even if you live in a solidly blue or red state, it’s imperative that you engage in your constitutional ability to participate in self-governance and vote. If it becomes a habit, your votes in local, state, and national elections will matter over the course of a lifetime. And taking the time to vote shows respect for the great privilege of being able to participate in free elections – something that millions of people across the globe can only dream about.” — Kim Wehle
It is disappointing to think about how many students might be missing out on the opportunity to learn all of this, in a meaningful way that will last longer than the knowledge retained while cramming for a test. It’s more disappointing that for me and the twenty or so of my classmates we had no other instruction on the topic, nothing before and nothing after. Kim Wehle’s book is one that I wish we’d had in that class, and one that I think should be purchased by schools and given to every incoming freshman in America. It has discussion questions built-in and kitschy illustrations of ducks accompanying each chapter. Everyone should be so lucky rather than, for example, not having a clue about how to change voter registration in your late twenties. American politics shouldn’t exist behind this smokescreen that requires hours and days of research or listening closely to reruns of West Wing (which I love to do anyway but that’s beside the point). If public schools get any federal funding, it should be a requirement that everyone gets access to an education that emphasizes and fosters civic engagement in its young people, and not just for those who are assumed to be the smartest or wealthiest or most capable, but really, for everyone. (And not to check a box either.)
When I was around 20 years old or so, my grandfather laughed at my political views and my having voted for Barack Obama. He told me that as I got older I would come to the right, as in the “right way” of thinking, yes conservatively. Now, 10 years later, I have become more aware of the atrocities that take place in this country and how far we still are from claiming any kind of sweeping equality, and that has pushed me ideologically farther and farther to the left, as in what I see as the moral way of thinking. I’ve gotten into many arguments with my father, the son of the grandfather who laughed at me, and his defense to most of my “radical” suggestions is that what I’m proposing is not the law. And to that, I always say well why don’t we change the law?
We have gone so long with the status quo the way it is, and it has never worked. We need more people questioning why things are the way they are, more active citizens who don’t sit on their beliefs because it’s somehow not OK to talk about religion or politics in group settings. This idea has been instilled with the privilege that too many of us live with. If I can confront my father whose beliefs differ from mine, I think more of us can. It should not be the case that, for example, in workplaces we are discouraged from talking about how much our peers get paid or why the new health insurance being proposed is bad, or getting political at all, even when it’s impossible not to shout about how some candidates are egregious gasbags who shouldn’t see the light of a live televised broadcast—we need to band together if we want to see any of our goals come to fruition. In the same way that many of our current federal/state laws need to be changed, changing workplace policies that insist employees remain as milquetoast as the handbooks that specify not much of anything other than “we are going to dictate how you get to behave for the majority of your waking hours and that may change at any time as we see fit” should be another focus of the ire that bubbles up within us in response to outrageously blatant racism, sexism, and bigotry that exists in every crevice of America.
While I work I like to play some background noise, some soft talking that my brain can perceive as passive when I need to concentrate. Sometimes it’s a podcast, sometimes an audiobook, but two weeks ago it was the senate judiciary hearing for Amy Coney Barrett. It was grating to hear how Republicans droned about Barrett’s achievements as a mother and a judge, downplaying the very real concerns of their Democratic colleagues which reflect those of millions of Americans who are dreading the near future that may dictate that their marriages, health coverage, and right to abortion may become null and void. I heard the two parties each repetitively discuss why they’re there, either saying that the hearing was taking place during “an election year” or “an election” (when nearly 10 million votes had already been cast; at the time of publication that number is well over 90 million, over two thirds the total number of votes cast in 2016). How the Republicans justified their action on Barrett with defenses that addressed what happened in the spring of 2016, when they ignored President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, was mind-boggling, but not new. They drew concern on how the founders had established a separation of church and state and the “liberal media’s” attacks on Barrett’s Catholicism, which the conservative committee members believed shouldn’t disqualify her from becoming a justice. They looked down their noses at their Democratic colleagues who displayed pictures of constituents who wouldn’t be alive without the Affordable Care Act, wondering aloud how any of that talk was even relevant to the proceedings, choosing to ignore that the Affordable Care Act will be in front of the Supreme Court on November 4. Senator Ted Cruz even brought up the precedence, counting every example before this year when a president made a nomination during an election year, and he emphasized how many senate majorities, of a party different from that of the president at the time, chose not to confirm the nominee and said that that’s why they had refused to even hold a hearing with Merrick Garland. At this point in the afternoon of the first day of the proceedings, I was dizzy with the exasperation that went along with the hearing being so rushed to begin with.
Bipartisanship is dead. Government shutdowns over the failure to pass a budget, protests over nominations of federal judges/justices, denial of systemic racism, and the outright contradiction of the reality of millions of Americans as both parties use inflammatory buzz words to swing vitriol at the opposing party’s extremists— all and more are too commonplace in the America I’ve known all of my adult life, not just that which is paraded through the news cycle during an election year. I used to benignly scoff at the theatrics Republicans holding a majority in Congress would wield over the entire country until they got their way, and over the last decade the disgruntled teenager I was morphed into an incensed beast of a woman, ready to pounce at anyone who dares to downplay climate change or encourage the defunding of Planned Parenthood. (Don’t even get me started on how some people liken their religious freedom as a pass to endanger marriage equality. And is it so hard to learn someone’s pronouns?)
There’s a dismissal that rumbles in the form of the “be kind” and “stay positive” messaging which threatens to tamp down open discussions of politics and religion which we so badly need. Rather than join in on conversations, social media chain posts often encourage others to stick their heads in the sand, equating political disagreement with negativity. Instead of fostering open discussions, we'd rather flood feeds with more posts with cute animals or babies. But why can't these discussions be had while we also enjoy puppy videos? Why do we try to be apolitical in this way? One of my friends was telling me about a new man she was dating and she said he was a registered Republican but “socially liberal". I asked if he was at least not going to be voting for Trump and she said she didn’t want to ask him because that could be controversial so early in their run.
“Dividing people from the inside out against each other is an effective way to make sure that nothing gets done in democracy, which requires compromise. The framers also knew that factions that are ideologically motivated can become inflamed by propaganda – information that triggers an emotional response but does not necessarily produce policy outcomes that are good for the country as a whole.”— Kim Wehle
I frankly don’t care who finds it too difficult to be honest about their stances. Who you vote for is only a personal choice insofar as you may be allowing the potential of your IRA to influence the lives of the disenfranchised, just because you can. When I hear people qualify their party affiliation by saying “but I’m socially liberal”, I assume that means they’d never vote with their liberal morals, or their heart. By contrast I’m all heart. My passion burns fast and bright and I’ll never say we need to spend less money in the federal budget because there’s a chance that changes in interest rates will give me a big return.
I never thought there’d be a chance I’d become unemployed and that happened and due to the barely functioning safety net we have in place in the form of unemployment insurance I was left in limbo for 3 months. When most hiring had frozen and I was dipping into my savings to pay the bills each month I didn’t know if I’d even have my case approved. I eventually did, and I was so thankful though no less stressed. When the “socially liberal” set go in on their financially conservative values I want to start rolling my eyes again, but instead I try to, kindly, put them in their place. If they’re more than an acquaintance I’ll choose to use myself as an example. My net take-home pay for years was a paltry entry-level salary which allowed me to cover my rent and costs associated with my commute, and occasional splurges on meals out or new books. It was hard to save but I didn’t complain about the taxes I paid while I heard too often from people I knew making double, quadruple or more in gross income than I was, constantly complaining about the myriad taxes, property, income, state, and yet they want for nothing, so why can’t they pay their fair, proportional, share? I made my contributions and I felt no shame in later taking the money from unemployment insurance because I’d essentially been paying into it since I got my first job in retail at 16-years-old. So I’ll support entitlements everyday, forever. I will vote for the average household making $78,500 or less, who may have to sacrifice the entirety of their savings in any kind of emergency. I will vote to keep protections against discrimination in place. I will vote for a woman’s right to choose what’s best for her own body, and I won’t be shy about a damn thing.
It pains me to hear that so many people will vote based on one issue, and often an issue that will never directly affect them (think, cis men so focused on supporting any/all politicians who work to ban abortion). It’s not just needlessly selfish but also insults and threatens the rights of populations who still don’t have the unshakeable right to cast a ballot that a white man always has. In Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized I learned that in 1953 Alabama only 1.3% of eligible Black voters were registered due to open repression and the threat of violence that persisted at the hands of regular racists and elected officials (Dixiecrats) calling out their white constituents to take care of any Black person who might attempt to vote. Carol Anderson, author of White Rage and One Person, No Vote, notes that in 1944 only 5% of eligible Black voters in the former confederate states were registered, turning on its head the swift progress post-Civil war where it was estimated that between 85-94% of eligible Black voters were registered. Just over a decade later, the Democrats rejected their alliance with the Dixiecrat subset in the south, and with the power they held in both houses of Congress, and the presidency under Lyndon B. Johnson, they sought justice through the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Of course, nothing is forever. In 2013 was the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder which removed part of the statute of the VRA that had required certain states (“covered jurisdictions” where racial discrimination was too prevalent) to receive a pre-clearance from the federal government before changing any of their state or local voting practices. Without that check on their choice to instill new restrictions or conditions for voting, states like Georgia were able to put up barriers in recent years that are too reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.
Infamously in 2018, the then Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp was running for governor against his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams. As the secretary of state, he had untoward power to cull voter registration lists in the state (removing 107,000 names) and he ended up putting on hold any applications (54,000 of them) that didn’t adhere to his “exact match” registration verification process. He ended up winning by 54,723 votes, or 1.4 of the total vote. In the last decade, 25 states have upped their game in adding restrictions and cutbacks on early and absentee voting as well as the ability to register and stay registered. Then there is Florida where, in 2018, there was overwhelming public support at the polls to reinstate voting rights to convicted felons. Less than a year later, the governor of Florida in a Republican-led statehouse signed the bill that would further complicate what was originally seen as “the largest expansion of voting rights in the country in a half-century.” Governor DeSantis made sure that outstanding fines would stand in the way of rights being fully restored. And this year when Michael Bloomberg raised money to try to pay off those fines to clear the path, Florida’s attorney general ordered an investigation into whether or not the $16 million Bloomberg had ready to pay off the fines had broken any laws. With less than a week before election day, Florida Republicans won as estimates say that only 60,000 of the 1.4 million formerly incarcerated were added to voter rolls.
Laila Lalami, in her poignant and personal Conditional Citizens, says this on restoring those rights:
“The termination of voting rights for felons is portrayed, even in some liberal circles, as an ordinary matter of security, but if the prospect of allowing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people to vote threatens the functioning of a government, one must ask why this government incarcerates so many people as to threaten its existence. The states of Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, which have some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, prevent 1 in 5 African-Americans from taking part in the electoral process. By contrast, Vermont and Maine, the two whitest states in the union, already allow inmates to vote and have suffered no detectable setback to the operation of their democracies. The universal right to suffrage is the most basic element of equal citizenship.”
To anyone who believes that we need fewer people having a say in the direction of our democracy, in our nation and our world, and for the people who will fight me on the semantics of that statement, I say enough. Haven’t we done this enough times to realize that when we’re rolling back freedoms no one wins? If we want to continue to backslide into a greatness that never really was, America will be the sure, long-time loser. If true progress scares the politicians in charge because they, the current but declining white majority, fear a loss of power will mean being on the receiving end of heinous treatment like that of any minority in the last century, then they are truly blind to who progressive voters are and what they want. Some are so out of touch with reality that it is well past time for them to allow younger generations to step up and represent our shifting demographics. Congress continues to become its most diverse version of itself and still it feels like we’re running in place, debating so many of the same issues over and over again. I hold out hope that we won’t fully descend into an all-out civil war, that the strides we’ve made toward protecting marginalized people are real and battles with the opposition party will remain solely intellectual, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared.
“It’s sometimes hard for Americans to fathom that not everyone on the planet enjoys the privilege of self-government. If we want to keep that privilege, we need to exercise it…. If voting didn’t matter much, foreign governments wouldn’t try to influence it. And if voting didn’t matter much, we wouldn’t see efforts in America to make it harder for certain people to vote. Your vote does matter.” – Kim Wehle
It’s worth noting that despite the animosity and wide protests against police brutality this summer and all there is to fear of a stolen election, we could be worse off. There is unrest around the globe. Not only are citizens growing fed up with how COVID-19 has forced us all to adapt to a new reality, but the strength of populist leaders in recent years has also pushed many nations to their breaking points. Just recently Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Hong Kong have all seen major public clashes between the people and their governments. Meanwhile, on the other extreme, the deputy prime minister of New Zealand was asked for proof of the existence of the virus Covid-19 and his answer was to declare that the person who posed the question must have gotten an American education.
We might be the largest so-called democracy self-flagellating itself with a corrupt capitalist agenda while conspiracy theories take hold of the public interest, where the majority can’t or won’t band together to protest the obvious wrongs like in the aforementioned countries. Here we can’t agree that forced pregnancy is wrong, or that insurance premiums are too high (and that insurance isn’t health care), or that unfettered capitalism will continue to destroy the planet. Here we cheer on political parties with as much allegiance as our favorite sports teams and it doesn’t matter who joins the roster as long as they willing drink the Gatorade (ahem, Kool-Aid) and toe that party line. Since Trumpism barreled forth to center stage, we continue to dig our heels into us-versus-them rhetoric that does nothing more than perpetuate the divides we’ve been demarcating for generations. If we really want to continue to be seen as a world leader we have to see the world. It’d be understandably difficult to look outside of our borders to join hands with other nations over more trade agreements and self-regulation to save the environment and any semblance of a future when we are also so fiercely the Distinctly Red and Blue States of America.
Despite the cynicism that inevitably comes with being an American today, I found great comfort in current events books I consumed, greedily, desperate to know how in the hell we got to where we are now. Some, like Playing with Fire I’d read years ago and still think of it often as it so clearly depicted the lead-up to the 1968 election. Nothing Wrong and Here is Why used satire to make me laugh in the face of the brutal menace that is our current administration. Some hope could be found in What Unites Us from Dan Rather, who’s seen it all, while The Red and the Blue made it clear just how long American political parties have been divided (forever and then some). And then it was actually lovely to read about the burgeoning excitement that came with voting in The Warmth of Other Suns, the epic story of the Great Migration of Black Americans in the mid-20th century. Isabel Wilkerson described the 1940 election:
“She did not see herself as taking any kind of political stand, but in that simple gesture she was defying the very heart of the Southern cast system and doing something she could not have dreamed of doing, in fact, had not allowed herself even to contemplate all those years in Mississippi. But she’d seen for herself the difference it could make the first time she had stepped inside a voting booth. Ida Mae’s first vote, and George’s first vote, and those of tens of thousands of other colored migrants new to the north, were among the 2,149,934 votes cast for President Roosevelt in Illinois that day in 1940. Ida Mae’s New home was a deeply divided swing state that year and this was among the tightest of races. It turned out for Roosevelt that it was a good thing the migrants had come.”
I don’t live in a swing state and while I feel somewhat confident before each election that in my small corner of the country, we’ll be okay for the most part, I’ve also never doubted the necessity of voting. For anyone who does, I’ll add perhaps the best, most eloquent advice that came out of my reading sprint, from Laila Lelami:
“Only by staying engaged can we hope to make informed decisions. Citizenship is made meaningful by the active practice of educating ourselves about how the political, educational, and social choices we make, affect others of different races, genders, classes, or backgrounds. But elections are not enough, change takes different forms: social activism, legal action, cultural organizing, coalition-building, volunteer work–each has a role to play. I find my greatest inspiration in the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level…. If we want change, we must be agents of change.”
And if this sounds to you, another exhausted American, counting down the days to the end of this election year, like another repetitive message on staying informed–it is. And yet there’s a reason that even Facebook has bombarded you with questions about whether you’re registered and if you’d like to share that you’ve registered or already voted. That reason is that historically Americans don’t vote. While I was mourning the 2016 election, a map was released showing who’d have won each state if the eligible voters who did not vote were factored into the tally of votes cast. Nationwide over 100 million people sat out the election. Only 9 states would have had a candidate win the electoral votes over American ambivalence. It was the first time that week that I felt anything other than incredible sadness, replaced momentarily by wild rage. This remains, to me, to be the most important part of every election, federal or local: that people actually use their privilege and stop taking it for granted. I don’t want to just throw my agenda at anyone who will listen. I have a none-too-grand ideal of what America could be if we weren’t always settling, but really voting for the person who will do the most good, holding them and their worthy opponents accountable through primary season and beyond. To do that we really have to support them at whatever level they’re at, and talk them up to other people who can lend their voices, and votes. Campaign for and with them and never accept that politics are something we shouldn’t talk about in public or with loved ones. Never stop talking about what you believe in.
“We must stand together with other individuals and demand that our voices be the ones collectively calling the shots – not the voices of the politicians already in power.” — Kim Wehle