In the late ’60s, I was an impressionable high school student, fascinated with politics. I learned about caucuses and electoral votes and campaigning during my high school’s presidential year mock convention. I helped elect a “governor” at Girls State, volunteered to make phone calls and sign up voters at the local campaign headquarters for Richard Nixon and embraced the democratic process.
I became a tireless volunteer on the campaign of Larry Fargher, a Republican who was challenging then-powerhouse Don Edwards for the local Congressional seat.
On election night in 1968, I learned what it was like to attend gatherings that marked both victory and defeat. Nixon was the one who won.
Undaunted, I couldn’t wait to vote and worked on the Let Us Vote campaign that resulted in the passage of the 26th Amendment, guaranteeing 18-year-olds the right to vote.
I was only 17, but celebrated accordingly. And in 1972, I cast my first official vote for George McGovern. I have always been one to vote the candidate, not the party.
Eventually, I got into the news business and covering elections became my job. I felt privileged to interview people who were trying to make a national difference on a local scale, working for their candidates much like I had for mine in high school. I admired people who ran for local offices, like school and water boards and City Council, because I saw what thankless jobs those offices could be.
When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, I remember a particularly festive celebration on election night, where a colorful local character danced a jig around a life-sized cardboard cutout of our new President. That night, I wrote two stories; the first about the Democratic victory, the second about the exuberance of some of its volunteers. It made me think of a young girl I knew 30 years before.
Election night in a newsroom is also pizza night; reporters are rewarded for their indentured servitude with a free meal, as long as their stories are filed on time. I was usually out in the field working the party circuit, turning down proffered wine and appetizers as I interviewed candidates and campaigners who were either over the moon happy or trying desperately to put on a game face.
I actually felt sorry for some of the losers, asking them the $2 million question: Would they put themselves through the wringer again when the next election came around? Many times, my self-editor would figure out a way to make the defeated look undeterred, despite hearing a catch in their breath and momentary hesitation as they mustered a smile and tentatively vowed to play another round.
One of the last elections I worked was the night that our nation elected its first African-American president. When the numbers came in confirming Obama’s win, there were screams of delight, stand-ups with both the victorious Obama supporters and those from his opponent’s camp. There was an infectious high knowing we had all seen history first-hand. My son called me from across the country to share his joy and we agreed that this might bring about some major changes. I saw the night as the best illustration that the democratic process works; that when people actually vote, they might get a candidate that shared their same values.
Was it time for that youthful exuberance again? Nah. I took my memory of that moment, threw it in the “Good Stuff” pile and moved on.
I actually had people ask me if I would ever consider running for office. I surprised myself when my answer – which several years earlier might have been an enthusiastic “yes!” – became “Oh hell no! Are you out of your mind?”
There was an element of celebrity and smug power among local elected officials that I detected during regional contests, causing my skepticism to grow along with my dismay. I saw candidate after candidate fall, victims of hate mail or slander campaigns financed by people who should know better or at least act better. Even worse were the candidates who sold out. What was really awful was that many of these people were friends and neighbors before they ran for office and things got ugly. It was shocking how easily some of them learned to lie or discount the opinions of others.
They said it was good for all of us.
I saw my job as a reporter change from holding people’s feet to the fire and demanding accountability to becoming a mouthpiece for the status quo. I went to the dark side; not only did I not trust anyone, I didn’t really like them for what they had become. It was then that I realized that they got what they wanted, as my collective spirit for true democracy was broken.
And I know I’m not alone.
I’m not foolish enough to think that politics changed just in my lifetime. I know there have been dozens of scandals and bad behavior by people pursuing or holding an office, starting long before I ever looked at a sample ballot. I’m just disgusted with the lack of respect, the condescending attitude, and the party-driven “we know better than you and damn the collateral damage” attitudes that continue to prevail and show no signs of weakening.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe we live in the greatest country and casting a ballot is the least we can do to honor those who fought and died defending that freedom. I will always vote and encourage people to do the same. I strongly believe in the “Don’t vote? Don’t bitch” rule.
If there’s anything that’s nurtured the demon in politics, I believe it is social media. I can’t think of any other vehicle that spews hate, dishonesty, misinformation and discord in overwhelming amounts directly into the homes and pockets of Americans 24/7. It provides the perfect opportunity for engaging in name-calling and hate speech without consequences. And sadly, it’s one of the vehicles influencing voters every day.
It’s time to reintroduce respect, accountability and honesty into politics. It’s not too late. I may not have the energy to walk precincts, but I am ready to encourage the next generation of hopeful 16-year-olds. It’s time to disband the government of white guys in ties for some diversity, hope and change.
And that’s what’s good for all of us.