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Cast Off Cynicism and Cast Your Vote
I remember my first voting booth: a cardboard refrigerator box in the hallway of Oak Street Elementary school. In the 1972 election between Richard Nixon (R) and George McGovern (D), my sixth-grade class studied the electoral process, ran campaigns for the candidates, and cast our votes in our handmade polling station. At home, my dad (a staunch Republican) and sixteen-year-old brother (a vociferous McGovern supporter) dominated dinner conversation with heated political debate. At age eleven, I didn’t have the rhetorical skills to join the conversation, but I knew that on Election Day, I could cast my own vote. That was my first step into the U.S. political process, and, since graduating from college, I’ve voted regularly, even when the outcome did not yield victory for my chosen candidate. I believe I have a responsibility to participate in the process, to record my vote—even when the political landscape reflects few of my personal values.
As a college professor, I hope students recognize the responsibility and the opportunity a presidential election offers. Campaigning is about articulating and promoting social values and not just about backing the winning candidate. People are important, but issues like education, health care, housing, the environment and military, etc., surpass individual campaign platforms. Although we may feel powerless when the dominant political views do not agree with our own, we all have a stake in these issues on a national and local level. This past spring, traditional-age college students (18–23) staked their claim in the political process by participating in the presidential primaries at record levels. Even my small liberal arts college campus was politically engaged on a new level. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez asked to interview seven Goshen College students for the “League of First Time Voters” series.
Like many university and college campuses, Goshen College benefited from the close Democratic presidential primary race. As the nation focused on Indiana, one of several states that gained importance as the primary competition continued into May, Democratic canvassing resulted in voter registration on campus, a campaign office downtown, glossy flyers in the mail, and repeated candidate visits to northern Indiana. All of these activities facilitated vigorous engagement in the political process, as well as passionate commitment to individual candidates. As the primary race continued, though, I heard some complain that the extended Democratic primary race would have negative consequences in November. I disagree. Expanding political debate and including more people in the process can only have positive results for our democracy as a whole and our communities in particular. People should value public conversation as much as their chosen candidate.
Every vote offers a political perspective that will be acknowledged, even if it does not directly determine who takes office in 2009. Just in the past year alone, Clinton and her supporters have had a significant impact on our country’s perception of women and political power; Obama and his supporters have altered assumptions about race and political power. These reflect important social changes created by individual as well as communal action.
Primary elections are only one step in a long political process, something a seasoned politician like Hillary Clinton knows very well. When I visited Clinton’s Web site on June 9, 2008, two days after she suspended her campaign, I found her encouraging supporters to back Barack Obama. “Together,” she says, “we can write the next chapter in America’s story.” Together and can are important words. We need to value our communities as much as our individual beliefs. We also need to believe that our participation matters.
Indiana is a state that has only voted blue (Democratic) in four presidential elections since 1900. Some might argue that casting my Democratic ballot here has no more impact than voting in a refrigerator box. But a democracy guarantees participation, not consensus. If I could send an e-mail blast to all of this nation’s college students, I’d tell them this: if the 2008 state primary was your first step into the U.S. political process, please don’t let that be your last. It’s your right and your responsibility to cast your vote on November 4, 2008, no matter which candidate you support, and on every Election Day in the future.
Beth Martin Birky is a professor of English at Goshen College.