Children, Voting Booths, Bumper Stickers, and High School Newspapers: How I Deal with Late Night Election Stress
I can't sleep y'all.
I've been working in campaigns, elections, and advocacy for almost 15 years and following politics for longer than that. I've never seen our country so stressed about an election. To say the stakes are high would be a complete understatement and downright laughable. Our country is on the brink...of something. Hopefully it's the brink of historic achievements, steady leadership, and glass ceiling-shattering and not whatever we'd call the other option.
The Clinton campaign ad about children watching this election has put everything in stark perspective for me. And it got me thinking about how the politics I witnessed growing up impacted me.
My parents took me with them to vote every election. And when I say every election, I mean it. If we had a special election for dog catcher, we would have piled in the wagon, driven down to my elementary school, and voted in that one, too. There was no race too big or too small. If there was an election, we voted.
I enjoyed going in the voting booth with my mom, pulling the lever to close the curtain, and helping her push the buttons. It felt like a secret and critical mission, and the big voting machines were cool. (I've mentioned I'm a geek, right??)
Following the 1992 election I witnessed the proliferation of bumper stickers proclaiming “I voted for HIM, not HER.” My 11 year-old self was perplexed - of course these individuals had voted for Bill Clinton; Hillary wasn't on the ballot. Duh.
I quickly figured out that these folks weren't confused about their ballots, but instead were angry because Hillary dared to carve out a different role for herself as First Lady, dared to take action, dared to be a feminist. I know this wasn't the first time I had seen women treated differently, but it is one of my clearest memories of learning that I was going to have different hurdles to clear in my life just because of who I am. Those bumper stickers really...stuck...with me. (Ha.)
This morning, I pulled out copies of my high school newspaper, West Side Stories. I'm not sure why, but something had been niggling me about these papers, as if deep down I knew an answer lied within the old pages, but the memory was just out of reach. The first paper I opened was Volume 3, Issue 2 from November, 1998, my senior year of high school, and the answer hit me.
I was the editor of the In-Depth section, where we explored everything from the secret life of teachers to diversity issues. In November 1998, we explored the concept of integrity, and in particular integrity in politics as it related to the Clinton impeachment hearings, Russ Feingold's objections to independent expenditures (oh, the irony), and how politicians' actions impacted future generations.
The temerarious and imprecise generalizations of my 17 year-old self aside, this article blew my mind today.
Not only was I writing about political scandals (and apparently with some frequency as I also found news recaps about the Clinton impeachment hearings in other editions of the paper), but I conducted a bipartisan survey of elected officials and their theories on integrity. This survey included then Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, Congressmen Tom Barrett and Tom Petri, and Governor Tommy Thompson. I also polled my fellow students about their integrity and compared the results with a national poll I heard on the local news. I even conducted an experiment by leaving purses and wallets with money in strategic locations around the school to see if students would return them (they mostly didn't). I tried to draw conclusions about whether my school should add a class on ethics to our course offerings (we didn't, though based on my unscientific purse study, we should have).
I am thoroughly amused with myself, and also shocked at some of my cynical (and inarticulate) statements in the article. Check out this gem:
“Today, we have few people to look up to; no one to learn those important lessons of integrity from. Politicians will always leave a sour taste in the mouths of American people. Why? Because people tend not to look so much as what they do, but at how they do it - they look at integrity.”
In other parts of the article, I explored the hypocrisy of the people trying to impeach President Clinton for a common human behavior and whether we should we hold our elected officials to a higher standard than we held ourselves. At 17, I thought we were setting ourselves up for failure because we expected more from our elected leaders than we expected from ourselves and so we'd always be disappointed in our leadership, regardless of how effective they were at their jobs.
Age and experience have shown me that the world, people, and politics are more complicated than that. Nor do I intend to dig into philosophical debates about ethics and morality tonight. I think enough has been written on those topics in this election...
But I am proof positive that our children are listening to what our politicians and voters do. And the impact is deep. They are drawing conclusions about who we are as a country, what we value, and what we can expect in the “real world” that will forever shape who they are and how they interact with each other and our government.
Well, I guess I'm not above grand statements any more now than when I was 17. So let's take it up a notch.
Tomorrow we will decide what kind of country we ARE, and what kind of country we WANT to be. The strategic planner in me says that sounds like the kind of vision and values work I do with my clients all the time, which gives me hope tonight.
The amazing people I've met on this journey have shown me that there are people who will choose integrity, decency, and intellect over sexism, racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ablism and everything else that divides us and oppresses us.
I used to say that my involvement in politics was a college accident, and it was to a certain extent. It wasn't The Plan. But I get now why my gut told me to jump in. And as nervous as I am right now, I'm glad I did.
And finally, I want to give a shout out to all of my amazing friends and colleagues who are out there knocking on doors, making calls, and kicking ass. You rock and we are all better for the work you are doing! Can't wait to toast you all tomorrow!