Doing What We Can - Maybe
It was a few days before the 1972 general election in Puerto Rico, where I grew up. While islanders couldn't (and can't) vote in U.S. presidential elections, the local races had everybody buzzing. I was eight years old, and this was my introduction to high-stakes politics.
I went with my parents to pick up a pizza we'd ordered. My dad pulled into the parking lot of the Marcano's Pizza Parlor in Caparra. We walked in, and I immediately noticed a small hand-scrawled sign that stated, "PROHIBIDO HABLAR DE POLITICA". ("Political Talk Prohibited").
On Election Day I remember the whole family gathering at my grandparents' house, which sat beside a main avenue, and standing on the staircase outside waving the New Progressive (statehood) Party flag at passing motorists. I remember being completely thrown off by a car that flew the banners of five different parties.
And then that night I stayed up late to watch the returns on TV, glumly watching my parents' choice get thumped by the Popular Democratic (commonwealth) Party.
That's how obsessive Puerto Rico is about its elections - they permeate the atmosphere to the point where eight-year-old kids get into playground fights over the partisan banners their parents fly from their windows, and restaurant managers have to clear the air in their establishments in self-defense. Electoral turnouts usually register in the mid-eighties - everybody votes, everybody talks about it, and everybody's got an opinion, usually a strong one, and sometimes physically expressed.
It never let up as I grew up - in elementary school and into high school, we'd talk about music; we'd talk about movies; we'd talk about girls; we'd talk about sports - and about politics. It was all over the place - are you a statehooder? Are you pro-independence? How could you possibly like the governor? What's the U.S. going to do to us if Ronald Reagan gets in? And on and on and on.
Then I went to college in Texas. And I was stunned to notice the difference in attitudes towards politics among many of my new peers. To put it mildly, most of them didn't care. If they could name one of their elected representatives, they were ahead of the curve. I had just turned 18, and was excited about getting to vote for the first time. So I was amazed to discover that turnout at my university polling place was somewhere in the middle thirties.
To this day, I remain puzzled as to why so many Americans are so politically apathetic, and why we struggle so hard to get 50% turnout on Election Day, even when all the marbles are at stake, as is the case this year.
I wouldn't be surprised if more Americans know who Kobe Bryant is than know who Donald Rumsfeld is. Or would instantly recognize Laci Peterson's face, but couldn't identify John Edwards if he walked up to them and shook their hand.
Why is this? Why is the country that for all intents and purposes invented the notion of participatory democracy so cavalier about the right to vote?
This isn't just an annoyance; this is dangerous to our republic itself. When half of the population sits at home on the first Tuesday in November, it paves the way for highly-motivated extremist groups with radical agendas to mobilize their troops and put reactionaries into office. We're seeing this with the rise of the religious right. This group is numerically a not-particularly-large minority in this country, but they've been able to take advantage of these low turnouts - especially in local races - and infiltrate our political system with their profoundly undemocratic and anti-American values.
If enough of the nonvoting Frederick County residents took the time to take a hard look at what Alex Mooney and his ilk are trying to accomplish, and what it would mean to their lives, he'd never win an election again.
So how do we resolve this? How do we get Americans to appreciate - and exercise - the right to vote that people trapped in Third World dictatorships would kill for?
Well, for starters, it would help if the established political parties would actually speak to real day-to-day issues, like education, health care, the cost of living, and other related matters. So many political campaigns get bogged down in the so-called "character" issues - which are nothing but excuses to mount personal smear campaigns - that much of the electorate simply tunes it out, unwilling to suffer the resultant banalities.
Our news media, of course, is no help on this matter, dwelling on the banalities (Lookie over there! Gore's switched to earth tones!) rather than on real issues.
There is also a perception that the two political parties are so distanced from the realities of the lives of ordinary Americans that voting won't make any difference. While this is patently untrue - it makes a lot of difference who wins this November, at many, many levels - it's still the sentiment among far too many Americans.
But overall, we get the government we deserve. If enough Americans haven't yet been directly affected by the disastrous reign of George W. Bush, a man whose record has absolutely nothing to recommend his retention, they will pay dearly if he makes it to a second term. And if they don't vote, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.
At least in Puerto Rico, when our government screwed up (which was quite often), we the public could always say we did what we could.