My Thoughts On Election Day

November 4, 2008 | By | 6 Replies More

This morning we got up at four so we had time to drink coffee, wake up, and get to the polls early.  I thought the lines would be long and neither of us have patience for standing around waiting.

Our poll is within easy walking distance.  Often, in local elections, we take Coffey, and she can get all enthused and friendly greeting people coming and going.  Not this morning.  We arrived at St. John’s Catholic Church and entered the basement of the school.  Six others had beaten us there and they all sat on a pew outside the actual cafeteria space where the voting machines were still be set up and adjusted.

The first gentleman in line was elderly and had till this year been one of the poll workers.  “But they kicked me out this year,” he said.  He didn’t seem bitter about it and maybe there was good reason—he wasn’t getting around too well—and proceed to tell us some stories about back in the day.

More people arrived, including a young woman with two small children, one in a carrier.  Conversation was friendly and quiet.

No one talked about the election.

This was the first year Donna had not received her voter card in the mail.  I checked with the Secretary of State’s office on the web to confirm that she was still registered (I thought she was, even though I’ve heard all the rumors of purges and so forth—this was just a mailing snafu) and everything went fine.

By the time we left the line was at least a hundred and fifty people long, shortly after six.

I complain about the politics of this country a great deal.  I complain about the people I know who express occasionally absurd opinions.  I worry that we won’t get our collective act together until too late, whatever “too late” actually means.  I don’t like us being a laughing-stock in much of the rest of the world.  I am as incensed over the policies of the last eight years as I have ever been in my adult life about politics.  I have found myself able to say the good word or two about Reagan, Bush Sr., even Nixon, but I have found no redeeming qualities in the present resident of the office.

But I do love this country.

Anyone who has the temerity to question someone’s patriotism because they disagree with a course of action either has no grasp of what it is they’re defending or is commited to a vision of this country that runs counter to everything good about it.

Bold words?  Perhaps.  But think about it.  The characteristic trait that marks our national policies since 1789 is that we can change our direction.  We can rethink and then act to alter a course.  We can try something out and if it doesn’t work discard it and try something new.  We can remake ourselves as a nation.

That is what is happening today.

Things have gone wrong with our home.  Termites have gotten into the wood work, and it’s time to clear them out and rebuild the damaged parts.  And we will do it without bloodshed.  We will do it without throwing out the parts that still work.  We will do it out of the stuff that truly informs our identity.

Americans confuse people elsewhere.  We seem at times to have no standards, no principles, no sense of commitment.  We are fickle, reactionary, often foolishly adolescent in our choices of what to do next or where to go.  We adhere, it seems, to no single idea of right.  We make claims for being committed to freedom and then from time to time do things that demonstrably contradict that claim.

And yet.

And yet when we go wrong, we right ourselves.  We went wrong in 1787 by not dealing with slavery.  In 1863 we corrected that.  In 1832, we erred in the person Andrew Jackson by declining to pursue economic policies that would unify currency and stabilize the internal money system.  It resulted in years of instability, fast-moving currency decimations, and laid the ground (partially) for the Secessions of the 1860s.  We corrected this.  By the end of the 19th Century, we were a nation dominated by monopolies.  We dismantled them and began the long battle to end the virtual servitude of American labor.  Ther 20th Century is marked by a series of innovations aimed at establishing the kind of egalitarian society envisioned by Jefferson and others, culminating in the correction of race relations encapsulated in the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act of the Johnson Administration.

We could go on.  These back-and-forths came out conflict between interests that, while having certain broad characteristics in common with their predecessors, quite often sprung from disparate groups that seemed to have little in common.

Except the will to do better.

What is better, though?  Is it the same thing today as it was a hundred years ago?  Hard to say.  It’s an ongoing discovery, with the added complication that “Better” for one person may not be for another.  We end up, then, in constant dialogue.  Things get bad when we tire of the debate.  We had a massive debate in the Thirties about what had gotten us into a Depression.  While it took a world war to get us out of it, the scaffolding we built during ten years of constant dialogue remained and proved what we’ve come to call the Safety Net—and it worked.  In the Sixties we had a bitter argument with ourselves over the limits of power and the morality of labels.  We exhausted ourselves by the Seventies, and a tired nation stopped paying attention while the forces of retrenchment and privilege undid much of what we thought we’d won.  We’ve been in the midst of another debate since the mid-Nineties, the shape of which was tragically bent by 9/11 and the hysteria that followed.  We seem to be getting back to it now and today may mark a turning point in our quest to determine what it is we mean by Better.

There is no single label for the core principles of Americans.  Nor, really, should there be.  BY definition, it will mean something slightly different for everyone.  We have managed in over two centuries to—not without difficulty, sometimes ugliness—learn to accommodate that diversity.

Tomorrow, regardless who wins the election, we will once more be neighbors.  Some will be very disappointed and they will no doubt express it, be angry, and some will try to work to change it.  After all, when you get right down to it, what is a president?  He’s an employee.  He works for us.  Later.  Meantime, we are friends.  There are other things that bind us more thoroughly than elections.  We will laugh and love and try harder to do better.

We’ll talk.

Mostly.

I look forward to it.  That’s why I like it here.  That’s why I can say, without a splinter of embarrassment, that I love my country.

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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, History, Politics, War

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (6)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Mark:

    Wonderful piece. The past 8 years have made me realize just how much there is in our American heritage to defend. So, thanks for that George W. Bush. I guess.

  2. Damn it, I just looked at the latest news and it seems Obama is leading. My prediction was that this was going to be a landslide victory for him, but now it's useless! I should have posted yesterday, then I could say now, "I told you so!"

    That was my thought on the elections today.

    Your post is optimistic, Mark, unlike my cynical comment on the American election circus, but it's probably not always the worst thing to be.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Well written, Mark. The cynical part of me says that it will be a peaceful exchange of power, unless McCain wins along with widespread allegations of vote fraud.

    I'm not anticipating that potentially horrible outcome, but that's the only asterisk I would put on your optimistic post.

    It is pretty amazing to think that such power is often handed over consensually. It certainly beats bloodbaths.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I always vote in the lull of the afternoon. For the primary this year, my polling place had two tables for circle fillers and two touch screen machines. Today, they were ready for a crowd with 10 tables (and 2 more standing by) and 8 machines. Although only a few people were in line when I was there, volunteers assured me that the morning rush had been a capacity crowd.

    <img src="http://dangerousintersection.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/p1070546.jpg&quot; alt="Polling Place">

    As we shuffled through the kaleidoscope of leaves on our way back from voting this warm afternoon, we stopped for an Election Special Iced Latte at the corner coffee house. I like city living.

  5. Nero says:

    Mark,

    Compliments on this piece. I'm from Switzerland, but nevertheless really interested in the American elections. Reading your speech (let's call it that way, it could really be presented by someone), that really gave me the heebie-jeebies…

    To the election: I've found this only in italian but, here you can see how the world would have voted in this election… http://www.corriere.it/Primo_Piano/Esteri/Special

    Compliments, wonderful piece and keep up the good work.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several months ago, I received a new voter registration card in the mail.I was identical to my previous card, but since it was in better condition, I put it in my wallet and destroyed the old one. On election day, I left early so I could stop by the polls and cast my vote. I arrived at 7:20 am to find the building locked an no one there.

    I walked around the building to see if the polls were on the other side and came across two other voters, both women in their 20's, who were also looking for the polling place. One of the other voters suggested that we go to the nearest public library to find out where our voting place was, and since I had lived in the area the longest was elected to lead the way to the nearest library.

    About a half-mile away in the direction of the library, we found the polling place. This makes me wonder if this was an honest mistake, or if it was intentional.

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