I did my homework for this election. The commercial media has been telling us that today is a momentous moment in our history. But I don’t trust any of those enormous corporations to tell the whole truth. Some of them use the format of “news” to present ideology, but never take responsibility for their unintentional or deliberate errors. Others are more truthful, but they share the obsession with manufactured drama with all those who sell their news: if it bleeds, it leads.
FOX and CNN and MSNBC and everybody in between have been selling a nationwide horserace this whole year. Horses only race for 2 minutes, which is why that is so exciting. Keeping us excited for a whole year costs the networks lots of money for polls, electronic maps, travel to places they never otherwise visit, more polls, and more video. It’s worth it for them: I just read about how campaign advertising is making this recession year a very good one for the networks.
So I’ve gone beyond the TV spin. I read my local newspaper, the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, and a national paper, the New York Times. I went to candidates’ homepages, read digital columnists and bloggers, and followed a variety of polls. I saw the endless signs every time I left my house. I have learned a lot about candidates, political organizations, and wealthy donors. I haven’t believed anything that I saw or read, except the spelling of the candidate’s name, until I found persuasive confirmation somewhere else.
I went to see Joe the Plumber and his local supporters, and I met the Morgan County Democratic Women and their speakers. Those evenings were the best homework I did. The speakers themselves were not especially useful to me. Almost all repeated words they had spoken many times before, offering their audiences simplistic slogans about complex issues, propaganda instead of education. I was more interested in the audiences, my neighbors. I went to see their responses, to understand their motivations, to feel their beliefs, to hear what they clapped for.
I’ve heard about politics from a lot of other people this year. Some write to me about my weekly articles, or even introduce themselves. Those new human contacts are the best part of being a columnist.
Not as much fun are the communications of another group of my neighbors, the virtual group who respond online to my weekly articles. No names, no inhibitions, no responsibility. Many people apparently don’t agree with what I write. That has been the story of my life, but what surprised me was how many angry Americans there are, angry at me, angry at the other party, angry at everybody.
It was all part of my research, trying to get outside of myself and listen to everybody else.
No matter whom I listen to, they all say that this election is momentous. The media did not make that up to sell us cars and toothpaste, although it helps their bottom line. Republicans and Democrats agree on little else, but that this will be a transformative year for our national politics. After saying that, I wish that they both would offer me more about how my family’s life, my community, my country will be better. Instead too many politicians just think about money: money for their projects, money for their friends, money to sell themselves to us. They think it’s all we think about — as if Tax Day was every day, as if we run our lives by the bottom line.
I was not a neutral observer. Like everyone else, I am looking for something from my government and my politicians. I think government is needed to help us undertake gigantic projects, like maintaining a national highway system, putting the energy we need more under our control, preserving American history and the American landscape. I want government to help those people in America who need help. I want government to protect the people in America who are victims of floods, storms, crime, corporate greed and military terror, even if some of them just arrived here. I want a government which treats all people with a full measure of equality, encouragement and opportunity, and which does not tell me how to live.
I’ve studied and seen many governments. Our American government is one of the best ever! I believe in that simple formulation. That’s why all the parts of my family came and stayed here. So I was looking for politicians who could convince me they would work towards those goals.
Most of what politicians say is useless, as useless as the repetitive pieces of mail I get every day, as useless as their nasty and rarely informative TV ads, as useless as their promises to correct their past mistakes without admitting them, to make money appear out of nowhere for all of us. Maybe they believe that can happen, because it happens for them whenever they need $1 million or $100 million to buy advertisements. Maybe they are just playing the game because they think they have to, in order to do good once in office.
It’s the good that I was looking for — what did they say was good? Whom were they going to help? Here is what I heard, over and over again.
The Tea Party, its candidates and its supporters, want to help themselves. They complain about their lives, but they never mention the people I see in real need: inner-city students, the uninsured sick, the scarred veterans, the homeless, the unemployed, the cheated, the disabled, the many, many poor. They show no understanding of what centuries of discrimination means to people, either the people they want to keep discriminating against or the people they say should get over past discrimination. They talk a lot about immigrants, but here is all they offer: we probably won’t harass you, if you have come here legally. They can find nothing good to say about our first black President or his family.
Conservatives cheer for politicians and entertainers who question my patriotism and my morality, who say I hate America, who ascribe to me evil intentions and laughable stupidity. If they came to power, I might become an enemy in my own country.
The taunt of conservatives that liberals have bleeding hearts is telling. Why is that bad? Is a stony heart better? Doesn’t every religion on earth urge us to sacrifice for others? George Bush had to campaign as a compassionate conservative, because he knew that normal conservatism displays no compassion. Tea Party conservatism sneers at compassion and praises self-interest.
The Democrats are not my dream team. Their sales skills are abysmal: they have been unable to convince most Americans that preventing credit card companies from cheating us, that keeping our savings and mortgages and stocks from going down the drain, that finally insuring the uninsured are good ideas. They waffle at tough issues, like getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. They have accomplished nothing on immigration reform. There is no end in sight to our war in Afghanistan. In Illinois the Democrats have just watched while our state slides towards bankruptcy, a problem they did not create alone, but whose resolution should have been their main task for years.
Yet I felt good among the Morgan Country Democratic women. There was a lot of talk about helping others, about how much government can accomplish. Instead of being angry, they were concerned. Maybe they were also naive about solving social problems with government programs, about continuing to spend more than government takes in, about their ability to do good. But they were trying, like Robin Kelly, who convinced me she would use the State Treasurer’s Office to teach Illinois citizens how to better manage money.
I don’t expect much out of our political system. Average people, like me and my neighbors in Jacksonville, or you and your neighbors wherever you live, have never had as much influence as the people who run the corporations, who inherit political clout from their families, or who use political office to stay in office.
I have lots of criticisms of our government. But I still believe in the progress American government has made in my lifetime, toward equality of treatment, toward helping those in need, toward protecting my liberty and my property from the world-wide power of commerce to pollute, cheat, mislead, exploit, and tranquilize our country. I still believe in the American promise that brought my European ancestors here.
So when conservatives pause from their incessant ranting about how bad American government is and how bad so many Americans are to tell me I’m anti-American, I naturally look the other way. That’s where I see people willing to make a sacrifice rather than a buck, who want to help others rather than help themselves, who seem to love other Americans. They haven’t been able to solve humanity’s biggest problems, but in a global comparison, they’re doing pretty well.
So I voted for Democrats.
Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at stevehochstadt.blogspot.com.