Once in a while, usually in the fall, the iron doors of American Politics creak open and I am asked to participate in a small way. This august institution — along with any number of do-gooder organizations scattered across the land — tells me that this is a critical time. I must act. If I do not, then awful things will happen. My input is urgently needed. I must vote.
Since I was raised to follow the rules and to always put back down the seat, I dutifully march off to the cramped voting pens to cast my ballot. Upon arrival, I am greeted by a volunteer, who is either very much older than me or still in high school, who tells me I must wait in line while they figure out which forms to fill out and which buttons to push on their machines. We wait in long queues, let into the school gymnasium in small batches and then (after being asked to promise I am who I am) led to even smaller makeshift cells to make our choices. I feel as if those iron doors opened only grudgingly.
A high-propensity voter, I have been following the issues and the candidates. They communicate with me, because they think I may give them what they want. The platforms of the parties as espoused by their leaders and scribes leave me dismally cold.
Like most people I know, I am ambivalent — torn — about many of the directions the country is taking. I am glad the economy is perking along, but I worry about people I know who face a great deal of job anxiety. I can’t imagine just pulling out of Iraq, but it sure doesn’t seem to be going well. I fly often, and yet feel no safer than I did on September 12, 2001. I am cheered that the Dow has roared back and it seems real, but I look around at a lot of “for rent” signs in my neighborhood and wonder how long the good times will last. The faces that make up our nation are changing rapidly and I welcome this, but I worry that we are stretching our ability to get along with one another too, too far.
The answers, I am told by the mandarins of American politics, hinge on a handful of simple questions. Should we erect a chain link fence in the desert? Should we give my tax dollars to political candidates so they don’t have to demean themselves by asking for it in order to campaign anymore? Should we demand that the Middle East start getting along or else we’ll be very angry? Should we make it easier for rich folks to invest their money?
These questions seem too simple. It’s all yes or no, up or down, left or right, red or blue. Like a child has devised this test for me.
I want to be heard. I want to send a message to those who have built this system, to tell them I understand a lot more than they think and that I see through their idiotic commercials and only slightly-less-idiotic “positions.” I want to tell them they’re right, and also that they’re wrong all at the same time, that the answers aren’t so simple. That there are hard questions facing America and that I don’t appreciate them being boiled down to empty gestures.
Instead, they ask me to push a button next to a name. American Politics will then eagerly re-shut its iron doors. It will be free to interpret this message from me and my ilk in whatever way it pleases.
Maybe I am holding my nose and voting for the lesser of two evils. If enough people do that, my vote will be seen as a “mandate.” Maybe I will vote for some Democrats as well as some Republicans. If enough people join me, then political science professors will say that I am in favor of “divided government.” Maybe I will walk out of the voting booth having not pushed any buttons at all. Good government groups will say that I am “apathetic.”
The easy answers have been used up and we are faced with tough questions. I’m torn about what to do on so many things. Sadly, there seems to be no box I can check, no button to push, next to that sentiment. If there were an Ambivalent party, it would win in a landslide.
Sure, there are bright spots. Some political leaders seem honest about the trade offs that their policies would require, and upfront about the limitations under which they are operating. They seem, sometimes, interested in hearing my voice, not just cataloging my positions. They give me some hope. But it doesn’t seem to last long.
Well, I’d better get going. The gates are about to open. I’m about to be invited into the public square for a brief moment. I want to be ready when it comes time to speak through this imperfect and maddening tool: my vote.