Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Choice

On Election Day 2008, I was in a perfect position to watch history unfold. The polls opened a little more than a month into my first year at the University of Chicago, where Barack Obama had been a law lecturer, and in whose neighborhood the Democratic nominee for President still lived, a mere six or seven blocks from my dormitory. A year earlier, I'd been thrilled to cast my first vote, in the Missouri Democratic primary, for the young Illinois senator around whom was gathering the sense of a movement, that disparate political wind that hadn't blown across the country since Robert Kennedy's 88-day campaign in 1968. Now, when the real thing happened, I'd be about as close to the man as a 19-year old could hope to get.

But alas, I had a nosebleed.

In the winter of my senior year of high school, my left nostril developed the unhappy habit of gushing blood at random intervals. The nostril had to be cauterized in the spring, which worked for a while, but the spout reopened shortly after college began, Chicago's brisk autumn air doing my nose no favors. The procedure had to be redone, and in our byzantine health care system, the simplest solution proved to be to fly to St. Louis in the morning, have the offending vein blasted shut once more, and return to Chicago in time for dinner. It happened that the most convenient day proved to be November 4th—Election Day. I'd already mailed my absentee ballot, so there was no inconvenience to my voting, but while many of my new friends would spend their day knowing that the man likely to become the first black President waited a few blocks away, I would spend the day in two states—in two airplanes, two airports, two taxis, one doctor's office, trying to remember to breath through my mouth.

I was back in time for the final tally, and while many of my friends ran to the president-elect's house, where they reported watching his SUV convoy depart for the Grant Park rally (where many of my friends also headed), I celebrated from the dorm, deciding in my fragile rhinal state to stay indoors for a while.

In hindsight, my half-participation in the local excitement surrounding Obama's election feels apt. Though swept up in the thrill of Obama's rise, I also had no expectations that one man could wave a wand and magically transform America into a harmonious wonderland. Obama's promises to transcend politics appealed to me; at the same time, I wondered how the hell he hoped to do so. As he told it in his grand speeches, we would all do it; with our enthusiasm and desire for change behind him, Obama would bring change to Washington. Of course, this didn't really happen, because there isn't much we in American politics anymore. We do the voting, but we don't all go Washington, where insularity reigns.

This is in part the result of the professionalization of politics. By, this I don't mean that Senators have become "creatures of Washington"—I doubt such accusations were leveled at Daniel Webster or Henry Clay. I mean the dawn of the revolving door, the self-reinforcing movements between Congressional posts and K Street lobbying firms, all of it bound together by money.

But part of it is borne of a deeply American temperament. As Adam Kirsch recently wrote in The New Yorker: 

" the modern age, liberty meant, primarily, freedom from coercion and interference. People want to be free from arbitrary imprisonment, free to speak their minds, free to choose their professions and associations. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, freedom meant something much more positive: freedom to participate in government decisions, to make laws and declare war and judge criminals."

Kirsch circles around a fundamental tension in American politics: we're drawn to figures who speak the Greek and Roman language of participation, figures like RFK and Obama; we also cherish phrases like Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, for the people," even if it's at odds with the facts on the ground—and with the intent of the Founders, many of whom were suspicious of democracy. But on the other hand, most of us don't really want to participate in government. We're happy to delegate that role to lawmakers so that we can get on with our lives.

The result is a government increasingly divorced from the people. In the same issue of The New Yorker, George Packer profiles Jeff Connaughton, a political lifer who swung between public service and lobbying. In a bracing passage, Packer describes Connaughton's experience campaigning for Tom Daschle in 2004 in South Dakota:

"Near the Pine Ridge reservation, a Native American woman told Connaughton, 'You only care about us once every for years.' It burned a hole right through him, because she was right—the plight of women like her moved him every Presidential election cycle, and then he forgot about them."

Politics becomes a game played for its own end—the attaining and retention of power—making a mockery of the term "public service." As the economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in The New York Review of Books recently, "The game of politics has almost completely overshadowed the hard work of governing. ... [O]ne of the main reasons that [government] is gridlocked is that running the government is now viewed as nothing more than an extension of electoral politics, which in turn amounts to little more than a clash of competing interest groups that finance the politicians and try to keep their teams in power." Emotions and misinformation, in other words, have come to trump ideas and hard truths. Even those of us who care deeply about politics tend to simply further the horse-race narrative of politics with our back-and-forth bickering.

How to escape such a quandary? There's all the mechanical changes that might help, like eliminating primaries and limiting campaign spending. We can hope for more public figures who seek a middle way, eschewing fear-mongering for governing. But ultimately—and this is where my thinking irreducibly leads me—the burden of change at some point really does fall upon the people, and this is a daunting (and often dispiriting) reality to face. Government can do many things, but it cannot make us gentler, kinder, more concerned towards our communities, more vocal in our desire for enlightened government. And this leaves us at the point where any political philosophy starts: with the problem of human nature, with human beings' frustratingly large capacities for both selflessness and selfishness.

I'll vote this November, and anyone who reads this with any regularity can guess who my choice is. There is, in my view, only one candidate who speaks of a we with any sense of aspiration, only one candidate who believes that our better nature will prevail, who believes that our society can be both prosperous and equable. He can't change our society alone, but his presence has a far better influence on the American atmosphere than his absence. And so I'll go to the polls dutifully, with resignation, but also—because I believe that deep down, most Americans really don't want the bitter division of recent years, and because I don't believe that at this stage in our history, we have any right to despair—with a fragile, resilient hope.


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