Sunday, June 28, 2009

Election Day 2008

On Tuesday, Joan and I arrived at Herricks High School to vote just as two other Shelter Rockers, Irene Greenwald and Sheba Gruber, were also just getting there. The lines were very short, but we still had a few minutes to talk…and Irene told me something I’d like to share with all of you because it so captures my sense of what it meant to participate in the election in this presidential election year. It wasn’t a story, really, just a detail: that when the time finally came for she and Paul, may he rest in peace, to participate in their first presidential election—this would have been the contest between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952—they arrived at the polling place wearing their shabbos clothes, not their everyday work clothing. She wore a dress. He wore a jacket and tie. This was not a chore, their outfits declared, much less a burdensome obligation. Instead, it was an honor and a privilege…and, as such, something they were responding naturally to by dressing appropriately. That’s the whole story—I told you it wasn’t much of one—but the image in my mind’s eye of the two of them, Paul and Irene, dressing up in their best clothing for their first formal foray into participatory democracy has been with me ever since Tuesday. That the Greenwalds came to this country as Shoah survivors makes the whole picture even more emotionally charged for me to consider. But it is the underlying concept itself—that participation in the democratic process is an exception privilege and should be treated as such by all citizens—is the point I want to make in this week’s letter.

We Americans do not have a great record of participating in the democratic process. Previously, the last time more than 60% of eligible voters actually showed up to cast ballots was in 1968 when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey. In 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for re-election against Bob Dole, the percentage of participating voters actually dropped beneath 50% for the first time since 1924 when Calvin Coolidge was running for re-election. It wasn’t always like this, however. In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was battling John C. Breckinridge for the presidency, more than 80% of eligible voters cast ballots, a percentage exceeded only once in the history of our nation. (In 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes was running against Samuel Tilden in the most hotly contested of presidential elections until 2000, 81.8% of those able to vote cast their ballots.) Nor is our predilection to sit out our own elections a national characteristic we share with all other countries: from 1960 to 1996, a total of twenty-one countries routinely had more than eighty percent of their eligible voters show up on election day. (Of those countries, incidentally, Israel was last with exactly 80%. Australia, where voting is compulsory, was first with 95%. Just for the record, there are 32 countries in the world where it is illegal not to vote in national elections. Is that democratic or anti-democratic? I’m not entirely sure.)

And so we come to this election of 2008. According to the AP estimate, it’s possible that the final tally will yield the amazing detail that a full 64.1% of eligible voters cast ballots on Tuesday, thus making this the most widely participated in presidential election since William H. Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908. I find that a very encouraging statistic—the “demo” in “democracy” comes from the Greek word demos, which means “people,” and, indeed, the legitimacy of any democracy rests precisely in the willingness of its citizens to participate in the electoral process. And although the number is only truly satisfying when compared with the dismal numbers of previous years (and not, as noted, with the percentage of voters in other countries, including ones without compulsory participation, who vote in national elections), there is still something here for us all to find encouraging: that in times of national uncertainty, in times of war abroad and economic crisis at home, in times when it behooves us all to care—and to care deeply—about the moral worth of our leaders and about their ability to lead us forward intelligently and well, the American electorate can (and did) rise to the occasion by overwhelming its apparently endemic apathy to vote in record numbers.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I quoted three passages from Walt Whitman to you. Today, I would also like to give Whitman the last word by citing the words he wrote in contemplation of the election of 1884, in which Grover Cleveland beat James Blaine to become the first Democratic president of the United States since before the Civil War. It was a wild election. Cleveland, the governor of New York, won our state by only 1000 votes (out of more than 1,167, 000 cast) and, in that he won the election with a majority in the Electoral College made up of fewer electors than his victory in New York provided, an argument could be made that the entire election was ultimately decided by one thousand anonymous New Yorkers. Also, it was a contest that featured, even by 21st century standards, an amazing amount of mud-slinging and scandal (including the mid-campaign revelation that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child in his bachelor days). Still, Whitman was more inspired by the level of public engagement than he was put off by the vitriol. And that is how I’ve come away from this presidential election of 2008 feeling: that the level of public involvement in the debate far outweighs in importance the abusive tone of much of the campaign rhetoric to which we were subjected. The election of Barack Obama marks an extraordinary sea-change for our society in any number of ways. Whether, in the end, he will conform more to the hopes of his supporters or to the fears of his detractors obviously remains to be seen. But in the meantime, and while we all wait to see what happens next, we can all find satisfaction in reading Whitman’s deathless comment that, when Americans go to the polls to choose a president, “the heart of it” lies “not in the chosen,” but in “the act itself…the quadriennial choosing.” (November 7, 2008)

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