Dear Readers –
My political commentary generally relates to events two centuries ago, and in other countries. However, this week’s events have compelled me to break with precedent and write something about the 2016 presidential election.
My parents grew up in the 1960s. They were college students in Ohio during the Kent State shootings; they had classmates who went to Vietnam and never came home. I asked my mother once what she thought of the social protests, if she had ever joined the marches for civil rights, for women’s rights, for peace. She said no. She kept her head down and stayed out of it. She was afraid of being expelled from school. I remember being disappointed in her answer, ashamed of her fear.
Forty-six years later, I can’t sit this one out.
Let me start by saying that I wish our president-elect the best of success. Ready or not, he must lead. I hope that he is able to step up to that great responsibility and lead well. Though I have – often – disagreed with the policies of presidents of both parties, I have always respected the office.
His job will not be an easy one. There are many Americas. We are a fractured country – and have been fracturing in ways visible and not-so-visible for a long time. In 2010 I spent nearly a month driving through the America those on the coasts call the “fly-over states.” Even then I saw towns all but abandoned, empty store after empty store along empty streets. I come from an Appalachian state with pockets of deep and documented poverty, poverty that is mocked and misunderstood, poverty that the people living there can’t simply drive through.
For some, like the 1 in 6 American men who are not working, the economic recovery has been something that other people experienced, and not them. There is a colossal distrust of the American political establishment. In the summer of 2016, Congressional approval ratings dropped to unprecedented lows as constituents expressed disappointment not only with Congress overall but with their own representatives’ performance.
But these trends only show statistics, and this election was won on emotion. Anger, fear, hope, uncertainty. The voting block with more anger than hope spoke, and though they do not speak for all Americans, they decided for all of us who the next president will be.
Some of their anger, I understand. These are the people I come from, and like the author of Hillybilly Elegy J.D. Vance, I’ve moved away but I cannot forget. And yet not all poverty is treated as innocent poverty, and whites may disproportionately use it as an extenuating circumstance for other ills. As an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail noted, “You may have noticed that, the story goes, white people are on drugs because they have no jobs, but black people have no jobs because they are on drugs.”
Economics is a factor but it is not the only factor. Gender is a factor but it is not the only factor. Race is a factor but it is not the only factor. We desperately want an explanation for the unexplainable, but seizing on a simple one only places more blinders around truths that we struggle to acknowledge.
This election, perhaps more than any presidential election in recent memory, is at the intersection of the personal and the political. Now we are all reckoning with the aftermath. Some are feeling joyful and affirmed, others are mourning. We are coming to terms with this new America in our different ways, some with vigils and protests, some by writing, some by carrying signs, some by seeking solidarity. Some methods take us out of ourselves, and others drive us inward.
I hope that none drive us to hate. I confess that this America is a country that I struggle to recognize. I woke up on the morning of November 9 feeling as if I’d been hit with a very ugly family secret. I had believed that the American people had learned from our past mistakes, that we could do better than our institutions, which I will be among the first to admit are flawed.
The path to creating a more perfect union is not merely feeling, but acting. Voting is a small act, but it is a powerful one. Why else would those who had it put in decades of efforts and intimidation and brutality to keep it out of the hands of minorities and out of the hands of women? For many the opportunity to vote was won the hard way. Though it is your right to abstain, please don’t. Too many people sat out this election. We as a nation lost their voices.
Last night I was at the vigil-turned-march in downtown Washington, DC. I left the house with a warm coat and a fresh coat of lipstick. Someone handed me a safety pin and I pinned it onto my jacket. Though some commentators have derided this action, I disagree. Wearing a safety pin doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. It reminds me that too many of my fellow citizens cannot feel safe in the country that they call their own, that they have as much of a right to as I do.
Wearing a safety pin reminds me that I should be prepared to keep the promise that the pin signifies. My world has many kinds of people in it, and some may need my help. Mr. Trump has made vicious comments about women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, people of non-Christian faiths, veterans. Those comments have emboldened an ideology that I cannot and will not ever tolerate. I cannot ever think that this is not my battle. I’m reminded of the Muslim photographer who made me laugh during three days of long photoshoots in DC, of the woman at my gym who works out in a headscarf. Of my sister and her wife. Of my husband, born overseas, and a naturalized citizen who gave over a decade of service to the United Stated Navy.
I think of the time I was on my way to meet a black friend after work and one of my car tires blew out. Someone stopped almost immediately to help – but if our places have been reversed, would someone have stopped for her? Would the helpfulness I encountered in the Midwest have extended to me had my face been a different color?
I don’t know and I cannot know the answer to these questions. I can only try to let the America that I grew up believing in not slip away, and I can only be humble, to not think that by trying to do the right thing that I am righteous.
And I can hope. I can hope America will indeed be great again, but not in the way that Mr. Trump imagines.