“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”– Pericles
Well, it’s November 3, 2020… Election Day in America! I usually submit my weekly blog post on Wednesday of each week, but I thought I would move it up one day to coincide with Election Day since this post is all about the importance of voting. So, let’s get started!
The other day, I read an opinion piece written by Mandy Patinkin, whose acting credits include Dead Like Me, Homeland, and my favorite, The Princess Bride. In this article, he talked about his path to greater political consciousness, and it made me think of my journey to greater political understanding. No, this blog post will not discuss politics today; that’s not the point of my blog or this post. Instead, this is an opportunity to reflect on my lived past and feelings around current moments, as I often do. Join me as I remember my path to greater civic awareness. It’s Election Day in America; let’s remember what that means.
As I read the opinion piece by Patinkin, I started to reflect on my political upbringing, which, to be honest, was not in-depth. Sure, my father had his political feelings, of which I share those sentiments today, but as a kid, I don’t remember vividly hearing those political conversations. I guess I was too busy playing with toys, watching television, or just avoiding adult contact to focus on having fun. My wife, who I asked about what she remembered from her past about political conversations, had a different tale to tell.
She remembered, clearly, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more always discussing politics and their civic opinions. This interaction helped her become the informed, active, and dedicated professor and educator she is today. The theory of don’t mix politics with Thanksgiving dinner never applied to her. Still, while I know my father, and to a lesser extent my mother, talked politics at dinner, holidays, etc., I don’t remember it, other than it shaped my political ideology in some capacity. I must have been shaped, politically, somehow before high school. I had strong feelings about significant issues and felt inclined to follow a particular political party. Still, I can’t remember where it all began. I wish, like my wife, I had a memory of those dinner table debates. As I will discuss in a minute, my dad and I have had tons of political discussions, but when did it start? I feel that it may add specific and direct evidence of a political inception point.
An excellent example of this was when I went into my freshman year of high school, and I ran for school Treasurer. I had no idea what that position required, aside from it wasn’t vice-president or president, less important, or so I thought. But I still felt compelled to run. I created campaign posters and flyers and told people to vote for me, without really knowing what that meant or what responsibility would be entrusted to me if I won. On the day of the vote, we had a school assembly, and the entire freshman class was in the auditorium. Our class advisor told us we would give speeches, and I was pretty terrified. I knew going in this was a part of the deal to win the election, but it was scary for a kid. I practiced for weeks, and when it came time to get up in front of the room, I crushed it. I honestly remember loving it and have never been afraid of public speaking. Well, I ended up winning the election, which was exciting, and I loved doing the job. I won re-election the next year and then became Student Council President in my junior and senior years. If this experience taught me anything, it taught me the process of election politics.
“Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”– Harry Emerson Fosdick
The above example was my first and last election, and while yes, it was high school, it gave me my first taste of how it works. Yet, as I said earlier, was it a political inception point. Probably not. Important? Yes, but not one that shaped my political culture; instead, it molded my political participation. As the years went on, I still felt intense about politics, but the exact origin of that feeling escaped me. Even so, I remember a particular moment when I came face to face with the uncertainty of why I felt the way I felt. This moment had nothing to do with right or wrong, and honestly, not about the issues themselves, but instead, I believed something, I felt something, but where was the factual material to back that up.
I remember working one of my first jobs and a co-worker who I respected, but was my political opposite, debated several political issues. I was only about 18 at the time. Although I was comfortable with my political leanings and philosophies, I had difficulty articulating myself and quickly attempted to deflect or withdraw. I remember this co-worker telling me not to give up or quickly allow my ideas to be defeated, but rather to gain the knowledge to understand why I feel the way I think and to back those feelings up with educated analysis and evidence. I learned a valuable lesson that day, one that I carry with me today. The fact is, your assumptions, ideas, and political feelings need to be grounded in facts, evidence, and thoroughly vetted. As they say, just because you want something to be accurate does not mean it is. As I said above, I knew I felt a certain way but needed to go back and fill in the pieces of why I felt that way and articulate with a solid foundation. Hey, I became a historian, so this does make sense!
“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.”– John Lewis
Therefore, as Election Day is here in America, I set out to reflect on the memory of a transformative voting experience. Again, I do not want this blog post to be too long, but I want to illustrate the powerful voting message and how my voting history is linked to a specific voting memory. I think most people have an election memory, either from childhood, reflecting on what they witnessed or their own. Maybe it was your first-time voting, or perhaps it was driving by a polling station and seeing a line, or possibly watching as a loved one exercised their right to vote in front of you.
I think my civic awareness began in 1992 when Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot faced off in the Presidential Election. Besides hearing the few moments that my dad talked about politics in the house or at a party, which was limited because I wasn’t paying attention, the only political basis I had was doing a poll of who would win in our elementary school class. One of my fondest political memories was when I went to the polling station, at the Town Hall, with my dad in our hometown. It was a chilly night on November 3, 1992. I remember walking into the Town Hall, a beautiful historic building, and ascending the curving staircase to the upstairs open area where a police officer stood by, and several large booths were arranged in several rows. I remember standing in line and watching as people, one by one, went into a voting booth, pulled a lever, and the curtain closed behind them. I was so excited and intrigued. What required such secrecy, I remember thinking.
When it was my dad’s turn, he took my hand and walked me into the booth with him, and I watched as he pulled the lever. The curtain closed behind us, and I watched as the entire polling machine, with all its metal and knobs, was ready to be pushed and fixed on the candidates of my dad’s choice. I was not there to tell him who to vote for but rather to watch as democracy, freedom, and civic obligations played out before my young eyes. It was an incredible sight, watching him push the small knobs onto his chosen candidate for each political position, including for President of the United States. I won’t say who he voted, even almost 30 years later; that’s for him to tell if he wants, not mine. That’s Democracy. But, when he finished, I watched as he pulled the lever on the side of the voting machine, and the machine reset, and the curtain opened. I thought that was cool, as it has stayed with me all these years later. My wife has a similar voting memory from when she was young, but it always ends with her family taking her and her siblings to Pizza Hut as a post-vote tradition.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”– Margaret Mead
Other than my wife and brother-in-law Kyle, my dad is probably my closest political twin. He is the one person I chat with during debates, major breaking news stories, and anything politics-related. Our views are incredibly similar. When I was in high school, he and my mom took me to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA, we began diving into political conversations. In college, when I started my studies in American history, we would regularly chat about what I was learning and current events. During presidential elections, from 2000-2016, and now 2020, and midterm election nights in between, like 2018, we talk as the polls close, results come in, and reflect on our political society. We evaluate, dive into hypotheticals, and sprinkle in unhealthy ounces of pessimism, topped with too few pounds of optimism. I cherish these political conversations and observing in the person sitting across from me, or on the other end of the phone, or the ZOOM screen, the image of my political inspiration. While we may not agree 100%, my dad lit the match that began my political awareness, or, as I said before, my political consciousness. For that, I am grateful, amazed, and continuously politically active.
“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”– Franklin D. Roosevelt
Thinking back to that memory, and political relationship with my dad, and what a politically inspired moment it was in my life, I decided to talk to my loved ones, especially my dad, and discuss their most memorable voting experience. I have talked politics with him for decades yet never asked about his most potent voting memory. I thought this was a perfect way to celebrate the coming of a new presidential election, which we do every four years, no matter what, even with the pandemic raging. I have voted in many elections since I turned eighteen, which seems like a century ago. Some have been exciting, triumphant, and, dare I say, emotional, but others depressing, deflating, and terrifying. Even so, every four years, a presidential election is held, and we, as Americans, exercise our right by voting in the mail or standing in lines at polling stations. No matter what the outcome, democracy continues, and in four years, we vote again. Ups and downs, highs and lows, good moments and bad, we do what many struggled or were denied the right to do for far too long in America on Election Day… vote.
One past election story:
“Being a Presidential election year, my thought would go back to my first Presidential Election in 1968. Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey. Although the popular vote was close, Nixon won in a landslide with the Electoral College. It was an end to an unfortunate election year. When President Johnson withdrew from the race, I was so excited about the rise of Robert Kennedy. The assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy and the riots and opposition to the Vietnam War put our country in turmoil throughout the summer and fall. The excitement I visioned in my first vote was replaced by more of a right and duty.”– Robert
Cover Image by Donovan Reeves on Unsplash