Who We Are and Who We Are Not: Processing the US Midterm Elections
For the past two sensation-laden U.S. national elections I have been living abroad and watching through the virtual bubble of my phone and computer. Absentee voting can’t replicate the tricky-colored signs and barrage of TV ads trying to guide my voting fingers through my subconscious, but it’s not the circus I miss, it’s the connection.
This is my country, flailing about. Why do I think it would matter if I was there? I just do.
This is the American semi-myth, that not only every vote, but every opinion matters, and I have quite a few, full of contradictions. I’m a New Englander who is true-to-form frugal and hard-working, but drawn to the wider world more than to the land where I grew up. I’m from a big, diverse family, but rather than getting lost in the crowd I feel unique; I rarely meet another seventh-of-nine. I am a fiercely independent young woman but cling to my family like a life raft, texting and Facetiming the hell out of my Montenegrin sim-card, because my family defines both who I am, and what I am not.
Just like these elections…
Like America, my family is diverse, outspoken, proud, and prone to occasional outbursts. But in my home, we temper all this with love, and understand that every significant move one of us makes affects the others, because our lives are so interconnected. This is what it feels like we have lost, in the last two years, as a country, and what’s painful to watch all the way from Europe with these elections.
Gross injustice and political pandering has always been dealt with by our two-party system. If an elected official is suspected of lying, cheating, or other malfeasance, the other side tracks down the deets and runs an attack ad, or leaks the info to newspapers for an expose. If it’s really big, there’s a formal investigation and eventual hell to pay. We rely on accountability, and overall, decency, to make us feel safe and sane, because actions should have consequences, mistakes explored and learned from, language watched, and no one above the rules. These underpinnings of my family fit my community, and a country I was eager to serve when I graduated college.
Now everything is upside down and surreal. Tomorrow our president could announce that red was now called blue, and green was now called puce, and if anyone disagreed, they were traitors sucked into lies by fake news. It may not mean anything outright, but it leads to an environment where people more easily question who they are, and how they perceive right and wrong. Even more than his attacks on the press and truth, his attacks on the identities and place of minorities and women no longer always pierce the ears, but rather are a constant static many people go through their daily lives bearing; this is the most dangerous part of Trump’s America.
Sometimes we laugh and joke to overpower that static for a moment, because sometimes it actually is a little bit funny, but mostly it’s appalling because all these people affected by this slashed program, or that policy boomerang, are confused and upset and suffering. Millions of people have lost health insurance. Women’s bodies are on a bargaining table. Refugees living here legally for decades were displaced and sent back to countries where they had no home, job, safety or family. And yet there’s not a clear-cut consequence at the polls. Americans are voting like this is all just hyperbole. And for much of America, it really is a hyperbole; they do not see, understand, or acknowledge the diversity and difference within their communities, and furthermore, Trump encourages people to believe it doesn’t exist.
My parents said yes when they were told of kids who needed a family. Yes, us, please. Didn’t matter how difficult it would be, because to them, it was even harder for the child. Growing up with this open-door kind of mentality, I’ve seen that nothing bad can come from being welcoming and kind. People are only strangers the first time you meet them; a week later you can be family. The next week you may need a door opened yourself. We are all connected, and what we say and do matters expansively, in ripples and waves. A HuffPost article titled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People” does, in fact, explain this critical truth.
There’s plenty of room for hope, and evidence of change, in this election, if not lightning bolts smiting the unprincipled, and a “blue tsunami” of worthy-candidate victories. Largely in response to the Republican assault on health care coverage for pre-existing conditions, 29 districts flipped from Republican to Democratic (mostly suburbs), by an average of 22%, and overall - outside the suburbs - the voting map shifted 10% to the left (NYT article). Significant gains were made in gender equality in the House of Representatives (up to one-quarter), as well as by openly-gay, racial, ethnic, and religious minority candidates. Perhaps the door of exclusion has not been proverbially kicked down, but it’s further ajar. More kids can see their representatives and picture themselves in that position one day. Connecticut, where I am from, has just elected its first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, who is a teacher; I am so excited for my niece and other children to grow up in a state where Black women in power are expected, and the norm for a “qualified” candidate is experience in a variety of fields. America must stay hungry for more.
The ugly-cry tears are that we are still a divided nation bathed in a daily from-the-top rhetoric of bashing, fear mongering, and threats against female and minority rights. Democratic Senators in swing states who voted against conservative and controversial Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, lost their seats. West Virginia passed a ballot measure preventing Medicare funds being used for abortions. Alabama passed a vaguely worded “No Right to Abortion Amendment,” and gerrymandering from 2010 Tea Party Republicans made some Congressional seats virtually un-winnable for opponents.
The despair was basically waking up Wednesday without “It’s Over” on my news feed, too far away from home for that comfort. Of course, it wasn’t a presidential election year. For that we all have to survive and wait another two years. For some, these next two years will be harder than for others. And that is why I sit, reading news articles in a cafe surrounded by strangers speaking Montenegrin, and long to be with my family and my country, while also feeling blessed to be outside the insanity -- for now. Absentee voting is like writing with a pencil in your mouth. It works, but is no substitute for the real thing:
Democracy in SurroundSound rather than on mute.