Do you remember the first time you voted? For me, it was 1972, the year Richard Nixon faced George McGovern. I won’t tell you who got my vote or whether I eventually felt justified or embarrassed. And, no, it isn’t obvious, even if you harbor suspicions about a person who later made a career in the media.
Like many adults, I’ve gotten blasé about voting since that first time, although when I see the excitement of voters newly enfranchised by age or freedom, I feel a tug of remembrance. When Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel went from dissidents to presidents only months after the fall of communism, when South Africans chose the indomitable Nelson Mandela in 1994, when Iraqis joyously held up inked index fingers in 2005 – democracy once again seemed like the secular sacrament it did that first time.
What causes politics to go from idealistic to cynical? Most of us would probably agree that the answer is found not in the voting but in the campaigning – all the belittling, shunning, accusing, or feigning of outrage over a poor choice of words, an obscure vote, or a youthful indiscretion dug up by opposition researchers. Though you wouldn’t know by watching TV ads, a political opponent who views the world differently from you and me is not, by definition, a Manchurian candidate planning to replace the Constitution with Marxism, corporatism, or animism.
Politics can ruin dinner with the family and spoil lifelong friendships. That’s a pity, because there’s very much right with healthy disagreement over difficult issues. Opposing positions need to be considered, assumptions challenged, the sure voice of authority questioned. But to argue doesn’t require red-faced shouting.
“Argue” comes from the Latin root word for “prove. Working out a proof is a scientific process, a careful way of getting as close to true as possible. Trying to understand the best road forward with health-care reform, the war in Afghanistan, and environmental and economic policy isn’t easy. If you were plotting these as mathematical equations, there would be so many variables that the results would always be guesstimates.
It is still worth trying to establish facts, examine them, and come to a conclusion. Some dedicate themselves to this task. A group of citizens that I know in Connecticut, for instance, is trying to devise a new way to find common ground on the issues – not to force a compromise but to determine where we can agree and thus move forward on tough subjects such as the proper role of government in the economy.
There are many such public-spirited organizations around the country – from the League of Women Voters to Operation Vote Smart – trying to bring light, not heat, to the discussion of political issues.
There’s a smart-alecky term for what all these groups do. The term is “goo-goo” – meaning good government. Good government traditionally has been about electing reform-minded leaders. This new form of goo-gooing, many people hope, is about trying to bring reform upstream from the ballot box so that we’ll relearn how to argue about political issues and recapture the original spirit of voting. It may not happen in 2010, but there is always another election campaign around the corner.
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.