Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The sound of democracy is silent

Years and years ago when I worked for a weekly paper on the Southwest side of Chicago, I wrote a short editorial on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 that spoke of my trip to Washington, DC and how I was impressed by how little had changed in the past year.

I wrote of sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night with friends and how comforting that was in light of increased security at the airports and around the country in general. While it seems strange, I was most proud of the country when I was able to just hang out without an armed guard in sight.

With today's mid-term elections, the country is in the midst of a new round of growing pains as an energized electorate (in some sections of the country and the economic class structure) heads to the polls to shake up the Congressional makeup. It's foolish to deny that this is at least partly a reflection of how citizens feel about the Obama administration, whether you agree with the candidates and their platforms or not.

One important thing for me to keep in mind today is that despite the anger and opposing view points about what is wrong and how to fix it, on the whole this election should play out quietly and without violence in the context of our nation's history and when compared to contemporary attempts at democracy around the world.

When you go to your polling place today, chances are you will not be greeted by the National Guard, but at most a local police officer there to quell sandbox fights between supporters and to make sure no one is placing signs too close to the entryways. Compared to the fall of 1886, "when masked intruders burst into the room to seize the ballot box" from a black district in Texas (Donald Nieman, Equality Deferred), this year will be downright civil.

It's worth remembering that while the rhetoric gets ramped up at election time - my home state of Illinois featured an ad from the incumbent governor calling his opponent a puppy killer this year - that it has been worse in the past. Not that it makes things any more palatable or acceptable, but I can take a small degree of solace in knowing that we're continuing to improve the process. I got a small degree of satisfaction in voting this year with the benefit of a better perspective on our country's long history of exclusion at the ballot box and knowing that while over half the country will not vote, most of them could if they wanted to.

Look at any of the secondary stories today for the county's major newspapers and they will have at least one editorial or side bar on what voters have to go through in other countries to vote. Lines around the block. Threats and actual, physical violence. Widespread fraud.

Meanwhile in the United States, we will squawk about the process and the lack of civility. We will bemoan the role of the 24 hour news cycle and attack ads that annoy us as we wait out the commercial breaks of Dancing With the Stars. We will wring our hands over the gridlock in Washington and complain to too much or too little money is being spent to further our ideas of what we should offer our citizens at all levels of government. But aside from minor scuffles, I can't imagine there will be any sort of substantial violence as a result of the election.

Looking at the box score at the end of the night, we will still be miles ahead of most of the world and of our own history. Personally, my candidates will lose in my home district in the suburbs of Chicago. I've known this since I moved last October and considering I'm in the liberal minority of my community's residents, I can't really find fault in my representative's decisions to vote the way they will in Congress.

However, I also know that I will not suffer for my decisions made at the polls. No one has come to my house to threaten my family (the only contact has been the incumbent's campaign literature being left quietly on the handle of my garage door) for voting the way I do. I was not detained as a registered Democrat while I went to work this morning and there will be no rioting tonight as Republicans retake control. There will be nothing approaching the violence seen in Texas in 1886 and there will be no lynchings tonight in the town square. When the votes are counted, I will not be singled out or questioned by those in power. Most importantly for the United States in the big picture of our personal history, no one will be turned away from the polling places based strictly on race. While the 15th Amendment guarantees that, it's worth noting that it took nearly a century for that to become a reality.

We will all participate in (or be subjected to) the post-mortem analysis about what this all means for the country and how the mood of the electorate has changed since 2008. We will hope that things get better for ourselves and our neighbors, that the economy will get back on track, that our property will rise in value and that jobs will come back to a level that people will be able to provide for themselves and their families. While these are very serious problems for those impacted by unemployment or health care costs, these are what's known in the business as "rich people problems."

There are very real problems facing our nation and actual issues of inequality based on race, sexual orientation and class, but they are not at a point where any level of government is going to go knocking on doors tonight to round up people on either side of the issue.

We all want something better and assume that our views are the best way to achieve that end. We can all agree that there is room for improvement and that we have a long way to go before we reach our personal utopian dreams of what our government can achieve and how much or how little can be done for its citizens. In the meantime we'll just have to make due with a stable society that is covering the basics so well that we can focus on those secondary issues of policy and politeness.

(Image from SacBee.com)

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