I’ve been a political junkie for a long time. The beginnings might even trace back to a cold November day in 1940, when I was seven. We had had an early snow in East Cleveland that year, and I was feeling the chill as I trudged with a trail of other urban scholars toward my second grade class at St. Joseph’s. As we approached Five Points, I saw ahead two big guys who were forcing the little kids into a single file, asking them something, then letting them pass. What they were asking I learned when they stopped the boy two in front of me.
“Who are you for? Roosevelt or Willkie?” they asked.
“Roosevelt,” he said. He walked on.
The kid in front of me was asked the same question, and gave the same answer. He could pass.
“Roosevelt or Willkie?”
I was a timid kid and had kind of figured out the right answer. But for what reason I don’t know (maybe because I had heard my mother was born in the same Indiana town as Wendell Willkie, or maybe it was the first showing of a future rebellious streak), I said, weakly or defiantly I can’t remember, “Willkie.”
Next thing I knew I was on the ground getting my face “washed” with snow—that days-old grainy kind that rubs your skin red and raw. I was still crying when I entered my classroom.
Humiliating! But I had learned my lesson. That was the last time I chose a Republican for president.
The party shift was not sudden, however. My first voter-eligible election was in 1956 when an undergraduate student at UCLA. Adlai Stevenson was the Democrat and I liked what he stood for. But the incumbent was Dwight Eisenhower, and I had served under him during the Korean War; and I admired him greatly.
I dithered, went back and forth, couldn’t make up my mind, and wound up not voting. Shame on me! I vowed never to let that happen again. And I haven’t. In fact, every four years I celebrate every presidential campaign and election as a time of great pith and moment, high drama engendering high hopes and great fears. While each election brings its own interesting oddities, anomalies and ironies, those high hopes and great fears are rarely warranted, and once the voting is behind us things revert to not much different than before.
Not this year. Let me join my fellow political junkies and say this year is different; we are truly in uncharted waters—or at a critical crossroads, if you prefer keeping your metaphor grounded. So what’s so different?
As has been made obvious by the nation’s headline-writers, we have for the first time nominated a woman for president. (Some wags have wondered out loud why it took us so long, since Britain, Israel, Germany and Norway have already done that successfully; yep, point well made.) Hillary Clinton pulled off some major surprises election night in New Mexico (where her margin of victory for days was reported as a baffling 52-49), South Dakota (51-49), and a surprisingly easy win in California (12 points at latest count). Clinton in her primary election night speech touched on one of the oddities I mentioned. (Or is it an irony? Let’s call it an “irodity.”) She noted that her June victory came on her mother’s birth month in 1919, the same month the U.S. senate ratified the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women voting rights.
Of more substantive importance than reaching another progressive milestone is that both major American political parties are currently undergoing major insurgencies that threaten their viability...or very existence. Socialist/Independent Bernie Sanders has mobilized a far left movement of passionate young voters in his cause for economic justice; Hilary has felt their pull from the left but still holds to left of center on the political spectrum, with foreign affairs experience strength. At the moment reconciliation seems to be in the works, but egos and tempers being what they are, healing could always give way to a further split.
The divisions on the Republican side are even more severe. The Establishment’s “principles,” which have remained the same over the decades, no matter how life on earth changes, contrast sharply with their insurgent candidate, whose policies (if they can be called that) seem to change or blur daily. GOP officials and office holders denounce their candidate for president, Gauleiter Von Lumpen Trump, also daily, yet continue to voice their support for him even as they condemn him for his blatant racism. Hard to understand? Yes, it’s known as supporting party over country.
Indeed, some savants have seen the rift as so deep and divisive that the very existence of the Republican Party as we know it is at stake. Its demise is not an impossible outcome. Political parties come and go just as the folks who form them do. Remember that in the tumultuous 1850s the American Whig Party died, as did the so-called Know Nothings (they called themselves the American Party) who were anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Nativistic. (Sound familiar?) The Republican Party rose from their ashes with a radical agenda under Abraham Lincoln that has gradually lost its mojo and direction over time.
Which brings us back to this equally unsettled time, with its high stakes. And they are?
Future composition of the Supreme Court.
Control of the Senate.
Control of the House of Representatives.
Security in a troubled, insecure world plagued by terrorism.
Syria and Isis.
Our economic future in a competitive world marketplace.
War with Iran?
Nukes for Saudi Arabia?
The thousand natural shocks our flesh is heir to.
Is there any upside to be found in this singular election season? Well, we are told that Trump and Sanders have brought millions of new voters into the electorate. Wouldn’t that be nice for the world’s self-advertised greatest exporter of democracy to turn out in respectable numbers for a change? Practice what they preached? That would be one positive. I think.