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So Whose Fault Is It?

Posted By Chris Van Vechten On October 30, 2008 @ 2:08 am In Contributor Series,Like My Parents?,The Melon,The Vine | 7 Comments


Voting.  We’re taught to view it as our civic duty, one of only three remaining “sacrifices” this country actually asks of its citizens (the first of the other two being to pay your taxes, which – I’m ashamed to say – a sizable percentage of this country cheats, and the second being to register for the selective service upon reaching age 18 – a sacrifice from which an entire sex is exempt.) So given how little modern American actually asks of us, it’s not surprising that the majority of us view voting as something like a chore.  In many ways I’m no different.  From age five onward, I was reminded every November that voting is just one of those things responsible people do; like saving 10% of every paycheck or never having sex without a condom.


Some of you who just read this probably think I was joking about the paycheck and the condoms, but if you think about it – it’s not a bad analogy.  You shouldn’t save 10% of every paycheck: you should find ways to invest it and put it to work for you.  Similarly, it is possible to practice “safe-sex” without a condom (to learn how, view the following options. [1])  And finally, you really shouldn’t vote unless you have a valid reason.  Being informed (of at least the propaganda) is the real civic responsibility, not merely checking a name next to a box or identifying with any particular political party.

The first time I voted (2002) was in the gubernatorial race of Oregon.  It ended up being one of the closest elections in state history: Kulongoski (D) got 49% while Mannix (R) garnered 46.2%.  I voted for the Libertarian candidate – Tom Cox.  Why?  Simple, I was in the process of applying to colleges at the time so I merely whipped out my Princeton Review book, browsed through my voters guide to see which college each had attended and then made my mark next to the one whose school had the highest ranking – assuming that said candidate must therefore be the brightest of the bunch.


I assume I need not go further in illustrating why voting is not necessarily what responsible people do.


Several years later I’m a far more educated voter.  I’m a big fan of democracy – not republicanism – democracy.  That’s why I like initiatives, referendums, levies, bonds – anything that forces the electorate to do more than vote for the candidate who doesn’t look French, is friends with Joe the Plumber, or who has read books beyond the Bible.  I’m a big fan of forcing people to make decisions on the issues, not the idiots who run for office.  I only wish that the Left had its own Tim Eyman to make the case for why Washington needs an income tax, universal healthcare (socialized medicine) and market controls placed on the cost of college (banning hardcover books would be a good start, though a guaranteed four-year freeze on tuition costs for incoming freshman would be even better.)



Too many people – politicians especially – bemoan the loss of civic engagement.  Or at least, a fraction of civic engagement; few politicians are seen bemoaning the absences of a draft or campaigning on a platform to hold tax-evaders accountable.  Sure, Republicans can indict welfare mothers and illegal immigrants for cheating the system, while Democrats can meekly talk about removing tax-breaks on businesses that take jobs overseas – but seemingly neither party can pledge to hunt-down the millions of tax-evaders (the people cheating you and I out of their fair share of revenue for roads, schools, defense and entitlements.)

No, the only civic engagement whose decline they universally bemoan is the stunning fact that only a fraction of our electorate participates in even national elections.  While of course I always like to watch the elites blame the victim, there are reasons other than lethargy and cynicism that explain why so many eligible voters don’t cast their ballot.  The most prominent reason, of course, is the decline of a democratic system in favor of a republican model of government in this country.

When our forefathers began this “grand experiment” back in the late 18th Century, they set up a system where only White, male, owners of deeds to 20 acres or more of land, could vote.  At the local level, some states also prohibited Catholics, Quakers, Jews and other non-Protestants to participate in electing local officials.  In effect, voters in this time period represented an electorate of the elite, which made republicanism – the idea that you elect someone to make decisions on your behalf – unpopular.  Thus, real power was concentrated in local offices and state legislatures, allowing the electorate to vote for candidates who – given their similar background and social status – they probably personally knew and trusted to represent their interests.  For many decades, government in this country was run like an exclusive gentleman’s club: a restricted golf course in effect.

Then, two big things happened.  It began with the rise of the Democratic Party.

Simultaneously attributed to presidents Thomas Jefferson (1800-1808) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) the Democratic Party was born on the frontiers of America where the wisdom of wealthy, intellectually entrenched elites, was nonexistent.  Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans thought the workingman (the working White man that is) was entitled to more than just “a piece of the pie.”  They envisioned a nation run – not by a handful of Harvard graduates – but by a couple million small farmers working on their own land.  Land ultimately became an obsession of the Jefferson Administration, for in the earlier years of the Republic it was title to land that enabled one to vote.  And voting, at least in the early years of the republic, was real power.   This of course all led to the famous Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the size of the country and – Jefferson hoped – the potential number of eligible voters.

But Jefferson’s Democrats were not content to leave the people – the White people that is – with merely a plot of land and a right to vote.  Jefferson understood that an educated electorate was the only chance the nation would have to defend itself against the snares of aristocracy (a notion he spent his life consciously addressing both publicly and in his private life within the contradictions at Monticello.)  He was the first president to lobby for public education, including for White women, an unpopular notion that failed to materialize in his lifetime.  (Though the modern public University of Virginia was actually designed, funded and established by President Jefferson while he was serving in the White House.)

And so the nation migrated west, strengthening Jefferson’s Democrats with newly enfranchised voters who cleared the land along the ever-expanding national frontier.  And then came Andrew Jackson, arguably the first candidate to run, what would today be considered, a modern political campaign with something vaguely resembling a modern political party: the Antebellum Democratic Party.  Like Jefferson, Jackson called for a second American revolution, this time to liberate the taxed but under-represented workingman (White workingman, that is.)  Unlike Jefferson, he was far less calculating and far more aggressive in achieving this aim.

Understanding the need to acquire new lands as primarily an economic, rather than democratic aim, he eliminated barriers that had previously required ownership of property as a prerequisite to voting.  It was during the Jackson years that Quakers, Catholics and Jewish White men were also enfranchised into the system. Curiously enough, despite all of Jackson’s electoral reforms, he seems not to have consider lowering the voting age from 21 for white males (keep in mind, given the average life span and social status of someone living in Jackson’s day, 21-years-old was roughly the equivalent of 42 today!)  Instead, Jackson turned his attention instead to the dismemberment of the national bank and the credit systems he believed were undermining the people’s liberty.

The Democrats of the Antebellum Era were class warriors.  They believed all men were created equal (never mind women or “niggers”) and thus felt that any man who worked hard and made an honest living for himself, should – if he proved successful – one day be entitled to invest and grow and enter high society no matter who his parents were.  The advancement of social status through individual, rather than familial achievement, included through the purchase of slaves.  Thus enter the Antebellum Republican Party, which in actuality was much more class-conscious than specifically concerned about the welfare of slaves.

The Civil War can thus be understood as a contest between competing elitists: southern Whites who wanted power in the hands of the many and established first and foremost in local bodies where democratic government could flourish; Northern Republicans (also exclusively White at this stage in the game) who understood national progress in terms of distribution of wealth – rather than political power.  The Republicans wanted a strong centralized federal government that could finance the construction of bridges, canals and transcontinental railroads for the purpose of promoting national commerce.  They argued that everyone would benefit – even though there was still no income tax, organized labor unions and limited public education – because all the wealth these privately owned, government subsidized, projects would generate would somehow naturally trickle down to the public.  In a republican political system, wealth ultimately becomes the only real measure of political power, making individual voters – while not entirely irrelevant – dramatically less capable of effecting real change.

Since the founding of these two parties, the scope of the electorate has increased dramatically.  Women, Blacks, felons, young people (or at least younger people) and even residents of the District of Columbia, have all been enfranchised into the electorate.  Yet by moving away from a democratic system, I think we somehow have broadened the disconnect between everyday voters and their government.  It’s thus not hard to imagine why, for example, an African American voter feels unheard in Washington when 99 out of 100 U.S. Senators are White.  It also explains our collective cynicism towards politicians who graduated from Ivy League Universities, earn seven-figure salaries, serve as governor of a state before making a pitch for the White House, and then – as Bill Clinton said – truly “feel [our] pain.”  Perhaps that’s why people like me become more interested in state politics.  And perhaps that why the modern electorate is more comfortable voting for the candidate who’s fun “to have a beer with” than the guy who’s in the running for a Nobel Prize.


My Mom comes from a family of New York Jews who, of course, support The Democrats.  But upon moving to Oregon she switched to the Republican Party to support our still favorite governor (and favorite US Senator) Mark Odom Hatfield [2].  Hatfield made national headlines in 1964 when he became THE ONLY GOVERNOR in the entire United States to not sign President Johnson’s resolution, outlining unconditional support for the U.S. war in Vietnam.  Later, he forcibly removed the US military from Oregon’s borders, making us the only state in history to successfully and permanently expel a federal institution.  Billy Graham asked Richard Nixon to make him his vice president, though Hatfield declined – believing Nixon was bad for the GOP.

Being in real estate, my mom does have some conservative bents, but it’s mostly because everyone she works with is Right-wing.   I also believe that since the Internet invented the concept of chain-emails she’s become more extreme – and less educated – in her political views.

Generally speaking Mom’s not a fan of any kind of taxes, nor “socialized medicine”, and since 9/11 she’s become increasingly uncomfortable about what she reads online about Muslims.  She voted for Ronald Reagan in 1988 (because she figured that he’d scare the hell out of the Russian given how successfully he scared the hell out of her) but has supported every Democratic candidate for president since.  She opposed the war in Iraq from the start, is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.  Having lived in Paris for several years, and being the daughter of an immigrant, she’s very cosmopolitan, a workaholic, and what I would describe as a classical feminist.  She was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid.  By contrast, it was John McCain’s decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket that convinced her to support Obama – something she was at first reticent to do.

My Dad’s family, by contrast, hasn’t voted for a successful candidate for president since FDR.  It started when Henry Wallace [3] broke from the mainstream Democratic Party at the same time Strom Thurman [4] left to challenge Harry Truman [5] for the way his administration was moving the country after the second world war.  Thurman – the Right-wing Dixiecrat [6] candidate – was concerned that Truman’s move toward civil rights was leading the nation towards a path to socialism, whilst Wallace – FDR’s Buddhist, Left-wing, former vice president – wanted to end the Cold War whilst still in its infancy.  An admirer of what Joseph Stalin had achieved in the Soviet Union, Wallace believed the Georgian dictator could be reasoned with.  He called for a peaceful reconciliation with the USSR before the brewing arms race ended in nuclear obliteration.

The Democratic Party of 1948 – Roosevelt’s legacy – was split between the three, and my Dad’s family, then living on the Maryland side of DC, was both very politically and strategically placed to influence the outcome.  My grandma was not only an officer in the Daughters of the American Revolution [7] she was also president of the Maryland chapter of the League of Women’s Voters [8] (my Dad also claims she once decked Pat Nixon while fighting over a dress in a department store during the Eisenhower Administration – but generally speaking my dad is full of shit so I wouldn’t quote me on it.)  Caught up in the hysteria of the atom bomb, and having a natural tendency to lean to the Left, his family chose to support Wallace’s “give Stalin a chance” platform.  In retrospect it was very naïve of them, but it goes a long way in explaining how we all got to this place today.

Dad graduated from Berkeley in 1965, somehow without smoking anything, and volunteered to join the navy and serve his country in Vietnam (or at least, in the waters surrounding Vietnam).  It didn’t take him long to realize what a mistake it all was and to this day the emotions of the war clearly weigh on him, even though – to my knowledge – his life was never personally placed in danger.  He doesn’t talk much about it, but despite spending the next 17 years in naval intelligence, he became a raging Leftist and with the end of the Cold War entered the halls of academia where ideas like recycling cat-hair to spin into yarn for socks are interpreted as “genius.”  Dad supported Bill Richardson for president.


Many factors contributed to the formation of my identity as a voter.  Among these were: the experience of attending a radical Christian high school, earning a BA in history from a secular private university,  running for president of my university student-body as a write-in-candidate, organizing fundraisers for victims of sexual assault in Pierce County, serving two sessions as an aide in the Washington State Legislature, working as a membership director for a lobbyist, being elected an officer in a local chapter of the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate for Senator Obama to a Congressional convention (and as an alternate to a State Convention), working as a field organizer for a local candidate for State Senate, being appointed and serving on a county commission, and working as an independent journalist on the side – trying my best to cut through some of the smoke screens I helped create without violating the tenants of my profession.

At 24 years old, I already fit the description of a political “insider.”  Not because I have any particular influence on what happens, but because I generally know what’s going to happen 3 or so months prior to the shit hitting the fan (and I’m not allowed to report it!)  I know all the scandals, public and private, and the issues that sometimes are addressed.

This is what I’ve learned:

1)  Our government is filled with wonderful people trapped in a terrible system.

2)  Those who believe that the least of one party are superior to the creme of the opponent’s are delusional.

3)  Politics and public transparency are inherently contradictory.

4)  There is no substitute for a politician who will tell you the truth, ask you to make sacrifices, and except responsibilities for his/her mistakes.  Such individuals are not myths.  They do exist, though they rarely make it into leadership.

5)  Separation between church and state is probably less important than separation between state and Fox News.

Article printed from The Melon: http://themelononline.com

URL to article: http://themelononline.com/2008/10/so-whose-fault-is-it/

URLs in this post:

[1] following options.: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/youth/health/contraceptives/index.htm

[2] Mark Odom Hatfield: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hatfield

[3] Henry Wallace: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_A._Wallace

[4] Strom Thurman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strom_Thurman

[5] Harry Truman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Truman

[6] Dixiecrat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixiecrat

[7] Daughters of the American Revolution: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daughters_of_the_American_Revolution

[8] League of Women’s Voters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_of_Women_Voters

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