Tuesday night was election night here int he United States–not for president, but for various state offices and congressional seats (governors, Senators, and Representatives were elected, as well as representatives to the state legislatures). I voted, quite proudly. Since it was a mid-term election, the turn-out was poor, which is a shame. Just because the president isn’t being elected doesn’t mean that the election is unimportant. Both houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican party, for instance, as a result of this mid-term election. There will be all kinds of consequences to that.
But, quite honestly, I’m not especially exercised by the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong: I voted, and it’s incredibly important for everyone to get involved, learn at least a little about the issues, and vote. It’s important for people not to get too jaded and think it doesn’t matter. Put into a broader perspective, though, while this election is interesting and noteworthy, it isn’t exactly world-shattering.
Politicians are quite fond of painting the current time as one of strife, discord, and great import. We as human beings tend have tunnel-vision and quite naturally think of our own times in superlative terms: this is the most divisive time in history, this election has been the nastiest on record, Americans are more deeply divided than ever. It’s a chicken-egg question whether politicians use this kind of rhetoric because it’s human nature to think that way or whether we think that way partly because the politicians are telling us that’s the way to think.
I am especially irritated by the claim that these are the most divisive times in American history. Have the people who say these things ever heard of the Civil War? This nation was so divided that it was literally divided in two. Six hundred fifty thousand men died as a result. Even before then, though, the nation was perpetually divided. It wasn’t just north-south. The early nation was divided between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and the kind of vitriol spewed at that time makes the polite, sedate rhetoric of today look like a child’s tea party. A few decades later, North and South were beginning the slide to war. Henry Foote pulled a gun on fellow Senator Thomas Hart Benton. A few years later, Senator Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. A few years after that, states began to leave the Union one by one.
So forgive me if I don’t find today’s spats to be believably extreme. That’s not to say there’s nothing at stake here, or that we shouldn’t care. It’s just that we should keep a perspective on things.
I try not to be cynical, though my thoughts sometimes come out that way. Whether this will go down as a memorable election or not, what’s important is America–the idea of America. What we’re seeing today is nothing new, and we’ve weathered worse as a nation.
Living as I do in Washington D.C., having been born as I was an American citizen, I often forget just what it means to be American and what wonderful things that entails. This American experiment is still a work in progress. When it stops being such, it will have stopped being. As my favorite historical personage ever (ever!) said presciently in 1838, as a nation of freemen (and women) we will live through all time or die by suicide. As long as we don’t take it for granted, we’ll avoid the suicide part.
When I start feeling a little jaundiced about things, I like to think of good old Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) coming to Washington DC. It’s healthy to reflect and to shake the scales from your eyes, so to speak. Like “Jeff”, I find one of the best places to remember these things is the Lincoln Memorial:
And so I leave you on that optimistic note.