Explaining the Inexplicable

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)

7 comments… add one
  • You go, Ruth! This whole
    thing is mystifying to
    the people I know.


  • I’m finding that twenty-somthings seem to be more involved in the upcoming election than ever before. My daughter is one of those.

    But I know what you mean about a blue speck in a red ocean. And I don’t understand the Palin appeal. I would like to see my vote count, but…

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Mystifying to everybody — but we just leave the electoral college there, unchanged.

    I agree, many twenty-somethings are very involved in this election, including my own daughter.  I know she and my son will vote — and just hope their peers will show up at the polls, too.

  • I know my kids will be voting, along with their mates, and their peers.  The  difference is, they will be voting for the All AMERICAN team of McCain & Palin.  We’ll be part of the ocean of red, and proud of it.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I’m puzzled by your comment, Fred.  Are you implying that a ticket with a black candidate can’t be all-American?  This country belongs to all of us, regardless of color or ethnic background or party loyalty.

    Several decades ago, during World Wars 1 and 2, a person with a German surname like yours wouldn’t have been deemed sufficiently American when we were at war with Germany.  That kind of bigotry wasn’t right then and isn’t right now.

  • Hey, Fred. My daughter
    votes as do her hippie friends.
    Common sense moves them.


  • No, thats not what I meant, your reading what you want  into the comment.  What I was talking about is the fact that the ALL -AMERICAN team will do whats right for all americans, not the ones that want to take away our 2nd ammendment rights,  hide the fact that the financial mess were in is tied more directly to a do nothing Demo held congress, rather than a President that has tried many times to get congress to act on a problem he saw coming last year. I have no problem with a black man, an asian, hispanic, OR GERMAN being the leader of our country if I thought he or she was the best person for the job.    PS  My surname is not german its Holland Dutch.

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