The Anatomy of One American Voter
This post is unusual in that it is excessively long. Apologies on that count. Politics have been eating at my brain all week and it made me think about my motivations as a voter.
The unethical, monied arena of American politics is picking up steam. Political support is reaching all the frenzy of a stock exchange pit.
I find unwavering, unquestioning support of any human or organization to be slightly creepy. This is what puts me off about religion and sports teams and Beyoncé fans. Essentially, any group that seems to demand that one check their critical thinking skills at the door, lay out a bunch of money or spend a lot of time looking for ways to condemn others is too simplistic. And I’m very skilled at being angry all on my own, thank you very much.
This voting cycle is challenging me. So much of it looks like politics as usual, the spewing of vague, unsubstantiated promises, inflammatory rhetoric and sound bite triteness. I stare at the crowds holding signs for this candidate or that and I think What makes you so sure? I’m not. It made me think about who I am as an American voter, uninterested in joining campaign rallies, cynical about every word out of any politician’s mouth, and disdainful of the half-assed reporting being done.
I have prejudices – against the wealthy, against old white politicos, against corporations, trash-talking politicians, and religious demagogues. Overt nationalism gives me the heebie-jeebs. I have to work with my own biases and critically think about what matters. I need to listen, read and research, because I know relying on my gut feeling or knee-jerk reaction is not rational. I have a history that informs my choices and I need to be honest about that.
I was born a first generation American. My mother and her family emigrated from England in the early 1950s. Historically, the women were homemakers with little power and unhappy marriages. The men had respectable careers and wandering eyes. Children were born. Divorces were decreed. Poverty happened.
My mother had me when she was 18. My father was around for the first 5 years, but I have little recollection of him. Then a stepfather. 4 kids later, my mother was married to an alcoholic who was irregularly employed and abusive.
I was born into a family comprised of drinking Republicans, raised in the shadows of Seventh Day Adventist fundamentalism and lived in poverty, lining up for government cheese and butter. Judgments from all corners were swift and dogmatic.
I believed in a vengeful god. As a little girl, I expected to be punished for every infraction. My home life served as evidence. I was baptized in a pool in the front of the church wearing a gown with weights in the hem. The pastor slowly pushed me under the water while my hand scrambled to grab onto his robe. I was 12.
By the time I was 18, I was filled with doubt about the existence of god, the necessity of religion and my ability to believe in something I could not see. In 1987, a 6-year old girl named Lisa Steinberg was murdered by her adoptive father. She was on the covers of magazines. She looked a lot like me when I was her age. It stuck in my head. If I was so protected by faith, why did no one protect her?
It was the studying of Ancient Near Eastern History in college that made me lose my religion. Not some liberal professor or godless academic. It was learning about the Egyptian gods and how gods were changed to suit political purposes and control populations. It confirmed my suspicions that religions were driven by men in power.
It was a nice little set up for them. Ancient texts confirming that they were more important than women, than children, than animals. Organizational rules that ensured women could not lead, corporal punishment could be used on children and that animals could be sacrificed and eaten with alacrity. It was a theological casino where the house always wins. I let it all ride, left with my pockets empty, but my heart lightened.
I signed up for the Army when I was 17. I was a smart kid, but no one ever talked about college in my household. We worked. We survived. We didn’t ask for more. But I wanted more. I took tests and signed on for an eight-year gig in military intelligence as a Russian linguist, 4 active duty, 4 inactive /reserve.
Basic training was at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I got held up because my mother was not a citizen. When the background check finally cleared, I joined the ranks of women trainees. We were the first company of women to be trained more on par with the men. Except every day, we knew we weren’t.
Physical training put us in thin gray t-shirts and gym shorts. A lieutenant would walk around, watching us do sit-ups, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his dick was always at attention. Drill sergeants bellowed out Jody calls that would only make sense for men and then laughed their asses off when we’d repeat them.
I spent a lot of time doing push-ups, because I had a bad habit of making direct, angry eye contact with people who were bossing me around. My drill sergeant had the red-rimmed, watery eyes of an alcoholic. I hated him on sight.
I graduated basic to spend a year at the Defense Language Institute in California. Then 3 months at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. My final duty station was Wuerzburg, West Germany supporting an infantry division. I spent two and a half years there, mostly out in the field or at the motor pool with a team of 4-5 men. Off-duty I rambled about Europe either drunk or hungover.
For my reserve time, I joined a field support hospital unit, got re-trained as a combat radio operator and waited, with the rest of the unit to be called up for the first Gulf War. Despite the combat-hungry commander, who called Washington nearly every day to volunteer the unit, and all the training sessions about how when I got over there, I couldn’t drive and had to keep my sleeves rolled down, we never got called. Once the war paused, I left the unit and did the rest of my time on inactive duty.
I settled in to use my college fund. I tested out of basic college requirements and did a cheap year at a community college before attending the University of Iowa. I graduated with my BA in two years and with no plan, went to grad school. The college fund was gone, so I worked three jobs to pay for that first year. I was out of my league and regularly fell asleep during lectures. I quit because I didn’t want to pay any more to be miserable.
I’ve always worked my ass off, but seemed ignorant of the fact that I was chronically underemployed. I cleaned toilets and did laundry at a hotel. I waitressed at a truck stop. I cashiered, unloaded trucks and did ungodly shifts at a big box retailer. I was a security guard, a library manager, a medical records reviewer. I made doughnuts and sold VCRs. I translated Russian political documents and managed a medical residency program at a university. My last job was as a small business manager.
I worked with a wide variety of people in very different environments. And the only lesson that really stuck with me is that there is no they or them. Every single person has a story. Which makes life complicated. Which makes politics complicated.
I never imagined that I would get married or have children. I didn’t have good relationships and they didn’t fit in with my fantasy of being a writer who traveled the world and sipped coffee over the New York Times.
It took me awhile to realize that I was hungry for stability. I decided to stay in one place. I hung out my single shingle and met my partner. He was a progressive Lutheran with a sense of humor and a MacGyver competence with duct tape and PVC pipe that was damned impressive.
My wedding with 10 people in a park and a justice of the peace dissipated in the face of his beliefs. His wedding was in a Lutheran church with a zillion people and all the trappings of tradition. He got his wedding. I kept my name. Almost 16 years later, we still like and love each other. And vehemently disagree about religion.
Having a child is a game changer. At 37, it also meant that I would never sleep a full night again, as babyhood evaporated into the insomnia of perimenopause. I attended parenting classes, because I knew more about changing a tire than I did about raising a kid. It has been, for me, an amazing experience. Older, good job, more money, higher education – people may disavow a need for stability to have a happy home, but holy shit – it helps.
3,728 soccer games and music lessons later, I am raising an amazing person. More amazing than I ever could hope to be. She knows how to work, she’s kind to others and she asks the best questions. What will the world hold for her? Who will represent her?
I’m a fervent supporter of public education, but I’m angry about it. Kids have become guinea pigs for the pedagogical meanderings of disconnected administrators, while teachers try not to drown under the unrealistic expectations of bureaucracy and taxpayers. The unimaginative application of corporate values to education has created a cobbled-up mess of logos and hot air.
People can complain (and do) all they want about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but somebody finally did something. Our health care system is unfettered capitalism at best, mercenary at worst. The PPACA may be the wrong thing. It may need some work, but no one seems to have come up with an alternate plan that can be reasonably implemented. At least not with the sloppy mess we now have in Washington.
Despite my military experience, I am scared of people with guns. The availability of assault weapons, this much-defunct wild west mentality, the insecurity that drives conspiracies, the hyper-machismo, the idea that more guns means we’re safer, is absolutely delusional. Have you met humans lately? Some of them can’t drink hot coffee without injuring themselves.
I used to say in that pithy way that wishy-washy people do, I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Since none of the major parties represents these ideas, I went from a registered Republican to a Democrat to an Independent. I’m really none of those. Most of the time I vote Democrat, because their rhetoric sounds less likely to kill us all.
The point of this incredibly long post is that I’ve come to believe that it’s not just the politicians who are lying. Voters unwittingly lie about their motives, their beliefs and their objections. They lie because they don’t think about what informs them as a voter – which means their choices are ones of default.
I see people fervently supporting one politician over the other and wish they’d just take a timeout and ensure that their beliefs are reasonable and for the common good, because it matters. Even if our political system is corrupted, even if we feel powerless, personal integrity matters.
I love my country. I love its potential, its diversity, and in the end, its optimism. What I love, most of all, is its changeability and believing that I can be part of that.
I’m an American voter.
What experiences inform you as a voter?