In China, I remember explaining the concept of campaigning to my adult English students. They laughed as I walked from one to the next, energetically shaking their hands and smiling. “See class? That’s what we get to do in America that you all miss out on here.” Well, that and political ads and debates and yard signs. I don’t think they cared that they couldn’t enjoy any of these things. Then again, maybe that’s because they don’t know what they’re missing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the electoral freedoms that we have–in theory. But in practice in today’s America, it’s just not as clean as the theory indicates. The two-party system has bottle-necked democracy; the government controls more and more, spending more and more and raising the stakes of what’s at stake each election; thus election spending is crazy and so are the emotions. Candidates are fighting–see my own U.S. House race: Ellison vs. Fields–and in the public and the media the Right and Left are ever at odds. (I have to believe that there was once a time when a conservative and a liberal could be friends.) Today, it’s sometimes asking a lot to have them simply be friendly. I get why. The more government matters, the more it controls, the more vital the next election outcome is perceived. Suddenly that liberal friend of yours isn’t just a tree-hugging, bleeding heart; he’s a threat.
Also because of this ever-growing involvement, American politics has completely redefined itself. In the beginning, government attracted the volunteer-minded for office much like a soldier taking his turn keeping watch at night. Back then, it was an honorable thing to excuse yourself from normal life, to take a turn for your country (or state), and protect it from those who’s want to use government power to leverage things their way. In the years since, apparently some of these guys keeping watch let a few enemies slip by–then a few more, and a few more. The lure of money and power was too much to resist. Fast-forward to today, and nary a true statesman has any interest in volunteering for this role anymore. First, a campaign would be an odd endeavor for this volunteer-minded person because if the people don’t want him, fine. He’ll go back to his normal life. He was simply volunteering. But even if he did win, the job that would be required of him–deciding what to do with other people’s money and implementing social policy impressing a certain view and behavior on others –would be a clear breach of his morality.
Meanwhile, the kinds of people attracted to this role of doling out the money, the favors, the contracts–or of restricting behavior like drinking alcohol (or raw milk)–will inevitably be the kinds of folks with a hole in their character that needs power to feel whole. And boy do they want that power trip! They’ll do anything for this fix: say what they have to say, do what they have to do. I remember Lady Clinton drinking boiler-makers or something with some steelbelt voters. Ladies and gentleman, say goodbye to the statesman and hello to the politician. And just look at the kinds of people we’re electing.
Interestingly, while the soap opera of politics has taken on greater impact and drama, the whole saga of campaigns reminds me more and more of following a sports team. Sure, politics matters a little, but in the end (and just like in sports), we still gotta get out of bed the next day and go to work whether our candidate won the Superbowl or our favorite team won the election. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as you’d think given the time some people are glued to the political coverage nowadays. They contend they’re staying informed. I say they’re also living vicariously through reality TV, tied to the ups and downs of their favorite character. Plus, we have that whole two-party bottleneck squeezing our choices down to two whether we like it or not and giving citizens no practical choice other than to perpetuate this system by getting behind one of the two and then inevitable scratching their heads later saying, “Wait, I voted for the man who did that?” (Books will be written about the civilian bombings, political arrests, and torture–and that’s just the current president.) Once in a while, there’s a challenger to the system (Jesse Ventura) that gives us a third option. But there’s none to be had this year.
But for all the negativity I speak, I honestly do appreciate the fact that someone needs to do the job. And if it’s within the two-party apparatus, so be it. It’s what we have. There’s something to be said for the pragmatist, the person who gets things done, who doesn’t sit around and wish for options that aren’t there. They do the best with what they have. Obama and Romney worked hard and made it to the political top. I respect their effort and talent and “going through the meat-grinder” that is this arduous campaign. As far as policy, I believe they advocate what they feel is the best thing to do at the time given their priorities and motivation.
So as I write this, I’m still not sure what I’m going to do on November 6th. Nor am I concerned. This election has been a good reminder for me to detach. Government is a necessity, as James Madison believed but said that it was “because men aren’t angels”. Ironically, it’s also because men aren’t angels that government was inevitably going to attract the kinds of people we see on the ballot each election. So perhaps the best solution isn’t choosing the best of these choices, but in making government as unnecessary as possible by being the best people we can be; by standing up and solving problems regardless of the government apparatus. In all, I relearned that what matters primarily is what I do with my life each day.
I encourage to find your true place in this whole production of American politics. And I especially encourage you to not lose yourself to the distractions of Big Bird and binders and other such nonsense that don’t matter one iota. Bottom line: no matter who wins next month, you’re going to wake up the next day and have to go to work, pick up the kids…. Your life is still primarily what you make of it.
to new plateaus,