Sunday, October 21, 2012

i'd miss my youthful idealism if i'd had more of it to begin with

Upon news of George McGovern's death earlier today, this was one of many comments made at the local online info-watering-hole:

"First campaign I ever worked on. My idealism hasn't abated. As I learned of his death, my ballot arrived in the mail. Now I can do what I was too young to do then -- speak with a vote."

What a lovely thought. The man who wrote this is an acquaintance, someone only a few years older than me. And once upon a time I would have envied him his idealism.

When it came my turn to be interested in politics and I was old enough to almost taste the right to vote, it was November 1980 and I was seventeen. My father and I had followed the campaign all summer, hanging onto the speeches and arguing the issues with each other (he was voting for Reagan because he was a strong fiscal conservative, and still over a year away from coming out of the closet as a gay man). We studied the electoral maps when they were published in the newspaper to see where the biggest battles for "hearts and minds" might take place.
On election night I stayed up late with Dad to watch the returns, wishing that I was old enough to vote and make my own little difference. But my eighteenth birthday would not come for another three months, so I sat and stewed and waited and watched until my father finally insisted I turn in at midnight (after all, it was still a school night).

The next morning, the front page of the Oregonian bleated out the news in 60-point type: Ronald Reagan had won by a landslide. When I realized that, I instantly understood that if I had been old enough to cast a vote, it would not have mattered in the presidential election of 1980. And I also realized that, because we entrust the real presidential vote to a glorified committee known as the Electoral College, my father's vote hadn't mattered, either.
In that instant, my youthful idealism -- about electoral politics, at least -- packed up and lit out for parts unknown. I haven't seen it since.

Blame it on the year of my birth. Blame it on my having come of age during the excessive, corrupt eighties. Blame it on my learning perhaps a little too young that no matter what a player's best intentions might be, the house almost always wins -- especially in presidential politics. This was a lesson I would watch being played out again and again -- when Clinton courted the queer vote and then handed us "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", and later on when George W. Bush basically stole bought the election from Al Gore.

My acquaintance earned his sentiments the same way I earned mine, through personal experience and, in no small part, the filter of whatever effect those electoral outcomes have or haven't had on our respective families. I just don't share his idealism, that's all. And that's why, when I stare at the ballot which has arrived in the mail and now sits on my dining room table, I feel next to nothing. I'll cast my vote for president, but I know better than to stake very much on its meaning.

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