Yesterday, as usual, I ate brunch with my husband and our 22-year-old son. We ate Vietnamese food and talked about — what else? — the presidential election.
“Are all your friends voting?” I asked our son. I’d already nagged him to make sure he was registered and ready to vote himself.
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Are they politically engaged? Do you talk about politics a lot?” Believe me, kids love being questioned about things like this by parents who are bordering on freneticism and despair because of upcoming elections.
“Yeah, sometimes.” Tone: This is boring. Get off my back. Case closed. “Besides,” he added, “we live in Texas, Mom. Our votes won’t count, anyway.”
All of which sent me off into a verbal tailspin about the importance of local elections and the symbolic importance of a presidential ballot (“Remember Florida in 2000!”) But what infuriated me most was he had a point: Why on earth do we still have the electoral college?
After Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 in 2000, why didn’t we change this grossly unfair system? We always knew this could happen — that the candidate who won the popular vote could lose — and then it did. But after that, nothing. No change, not even much talk of change.
Why are we still clinging to an idea that may have made sense more than two centuries ago — but now, disenfranchises voters in so many states? If you live in Pennsylvania or Virginia or Florida or Michigan or Ohio or one of those other swing states I’m now sick of hearing about, your vote counts more than mine. I’m a blue speck in a bright-red state, trying to make it purple one blue vote at a time. You’ll get the candidates’ visits, the TV ads, the drama, the hype; I’ll get to cast my all-too-symbolic vote in comparative silence.
Hours later, we finished the day having dinner with a visiting German psychologist. He had just read an article in Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, about Sarah Palin. About her lack of experience and qualifications for higher office — and about her sudden and immense popularity in some circles for being good-looking, colorful, plainspoken and unafraid. Oh, so unafraid and so confident that she never blinked when John McCain offered her the position. (I’ve known people like her over the years and have always been astonished by their supreme self-confidence that seemingly emanates from nowhere. George W. Bush has that same preening self-confidence, that same lack of hesitation, the same unshakable belief he knows what is right. That kind of confidence, devoid of questions and self-doubt and appreciation for the complexity of the world, scares the beejezus out of me. This is life, not a Frank Capra movie. We don’t get second chances, don’t get to see what might have happened had we acted differently.)
But how do you explain Palin’s appeal to someone from Europe, someone who seems to admire this country, but to be bewildered by it? Do you say, this is a country that likes simple answers and simple, plainspoken, inexperienced, eerily self-assured people to lead it? A country that doesn’t want to be talked to as adults, but only wants to hear that taxes are evil and will never rise and the economic meltdown is someone else’s fault and we should go shopping, instead of taking a harder look at ourselves and our values?
I could have talked about it forever, but never explained it — because I don’t get it myself. If I can’t explain the country I’ve lived in all my life, how can I expect a German visitor or a 22-year-old to understand?
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)