I remember extremely well the first time I ever voted, and I don’t have a great memory. I can still see the banners on the walls of the high school gym in suburban Philadelphia as I waited in line, weighing the choice before me with the sense of gravity unique to 18-year-olds. My birthday had been just days before, and for the first time I could participate in the political process I had watched carefully in the preceding years.
Even though, like most people in Philadelphia, I was a Democrat, my favorite candidate in the primaries had been Pat Buchanan. At a time when I was first sensing the tide running against the idea that America was good, he knew it was and said so. He stood for simple conservative principles, and it appealed to me. When he spoke I thought he mostly believed what he was saying.
But Buchanan’s renegade run in 1992 didn’t amount to much. I found myself looking squarely at George Bush, some guy named Bill Clinton, and a weird billionaire named Ross Perot. It’s some time ago now, but I recall just not being excited by Bush. I don’t remember thinking he was awful—he was just uninspiring. I had been vaguely against the war in Iraq, as one was, but it wasn’t that. He was just boring.
I couldn’t take Perot seriously. The third party idea seemed ridiculous to me. When he talked, the long, winding Southern accent and weird analogy-ridden stream of consciousness he produced baffled me. I knew he didn’t like Mexico or trade, but beyond that, he seemed clueless.
Then there was Bill. As impressive as Barack Obama is, for my money William Jefferson Clinton has been the most gifted politician of my lifetime. Given my druthers I’d have preferred Kerry (Bob, not John), but Clinton had a way, and it was a third way. As a conservative-minded Catholic kid who went to a progressive Quaker school and had deep union roots, my loyalties were all over the place. Clinton seemed to sweep them into a vision of an America that celebrated all of them.
But there was something else, even then: the scandals, the lying, the cheating. It was all there. The warning signs were flashing. Even the studied smile of his sturdy wife couldn’t hide the trouble brewing behind and ahead of them.
Seeking the Good for Us and Our Nation
When the lady checked my voter registration, I thought of my history teacher, who was also a Democratic ward leader. To her credit, while urging us all to vote she always told us never to pull the straight party ticket. She saw that as a violation of democracy. Each candidate should be considered and approved on his or her own merits. The smile that crossed my lips as I was told to proceed to the voting machine came from remembering her joking about voting early and often.
I took the matter very seriously. I was voting in suburban Pennsylvania, and even then we knew what that meant. I hadn’t read Fukuyama’s “End of History” yet, but I felt its implications. Having dipped my toes as a child in the silent terror of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union did feel like an end. Now we would enjoy the peace dividend. Without constant struggle we would focus on bettering ourselves and the nation.
That was where Bush fell flat for me. Why hadn’t he finished what he started in the Gulf War? Why couldn’t he describe in glowing terms the America I wanted to live in? Dana Carvey didn’t help. After a while, Bush just didn’t seem very smart or capable. I’d eventually learn I was wrong about him. But I wanted more than he was willing to promise.
What’s Changed in 20 Years
The old voting machines were big metal monsters with a confusing array of levers. It was like an amusement park game, the metal worn from so many fingers. I stared at it for a moment after closing the curtain behind me. Alone, in low light, I started pulling the levers with satisfying clicks. The very first one was for Clinton.
More than 20 years since my first vote, I am again mired in an election with Clintons and Bushes and the billionaire, Buchananite Reform Party figure of Trump. I still feel that no candidate reaches the level of competence I want from a president. I envy my friends who adore and admire Clinton and Trump, the passion they feel, like when I watch the Phillies. How secure they are in the certainty that theirs is the best candidate.
In “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce describes the joy that his hero Stephen Daedalus feels after his first time going to confession. He writes, “The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making his limbs light.” I felt that way after my first time voting. I felt proud and a part of something.
That’s the difference 24 years later. I don’t walk out of my voting place with a hop in my step any more. I don’t relish the feeling of having changed history. I worry about taxes and the rent and keeping the streets safe. Maybe I don’t want to be inspired any more, I don’t want a politician to promise changes in my life that only I can make.
I cherish my vote, I really do. It is a connection to the ancient source of democracy and the great experiment of America. But it has become hard for me to celebrate my vote any more. I do in regard to some local politicians here in Brooklyn whom I think are great, but in this presidential election, voting is a chore.
Twenty-two years ago, I had to settle. Now I do again. It doesn’t feel like much has changed.