More than 30 years ago now, I was selected as my high school’s intern for our local Congressman. I spent a week working from the Capitol Hill office of Representative Bruce Morrison, a Democrat who represented the third district of Connecticut.
Though he was running for Governor of Connecticut that year, he still kept a very full schedule, and as Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee he was working on a bill that has instrumental, for better or worse, for bringing in tech workers from outside the U.S.
Bruce Morrison did not win his contest for governor, though I turned 18 that year and I am proud to say that the very first vote I ever cast that year was for him. The winner, Independent Lowell Weicker, instituted a deeply unpopular state income tax, was hanged in effigy in Hartford and did not run again; the Republican candidate, John Rowland, later became governor and wound up serving time in federal prison for bribery and campaign fraud, so Connecticut judged extremely poorly that November. Rep. Morrison did not run for political office again but left a lasting legacy. Among his many credits is that he was instrumental in helping bring about the Irish Peace accords by normalizing relations between the U.S. government and Ireland’s Sinn Fein.
I was only working in Congress for one week, but it was thrilling to be at the center of our country’s government, being part of what was making the news and seeing the workings of government up close. I helped write a letter to a woman in Mystic about the Women Infants and Children program, sent faxes to other Congressional offices, and did tasks that were menial office tasks but felt like they carried the gravitas of democracy nonetheless.
I would spend hours after work in the visitors’ galleries of the House and Senate, watching the debates. It was thrilling to see Senators and Representatives argue their positions with eloquence and mutual respect. The formality of how they addressed one another, as “Senator” on the Senate and “Gentleman” or “Gentlewoman” in the House, lent grace and dignity to the proceedings, even amid what counted as partisan rancor in 1990.
Among the tasks was going around to various offices collecting signatures on a letter to the Secretary of State in the wake of army killings of students in Zaire, which later resulted in Congress cutting military aid to that country (their dictator would be overthrown in a coup seven years later). I walked the halls of the House office buildings, finding my way to the various offices and sometimes meeting the different Representatives along the way—I usually only handed the letter to a staff member who would go into the inner sanctum of the office and return with the signature of the Congressperson, but chatted with a few in person. At one point while gathering these signatures, I ran into my sophomore year English teacher, Mr. Degenhardt, and my high school’s former Principal, Gilbert Cass, and showed them to our Congressman’s office.
At another point, a Congressman who pledged to sign the letter was on the floor of the House. I was not allowed to go there. Only Representatives, pages, and certain other staff were allowed. Luckily, someone—I think it was another Congressman—ran the letter to the floor and back for me.
The floor of the House of Representatives was a kind of sacred ground; it was for people who got elected, who entered by the will of the people. It is not another part of the office, or a fancy perk Congress gave itself. People died to keep it free. In fact, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House during the War of 1812.
So last month when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it took on the same kind of unfathomable horror that the September 11th terror attacks did. Though it was of an entirely different scale and purpose, there was an element of watching something we didn’t think could happen here. Even in the most depraved days of Trump’s two presidential campaigns, I had a higher level of faith in his rank-and-file supporters than to think they could be led so far astray from reality.
The past several years have shown us that the fringe elements of our politics have gained traction among the mainstream and have no allegiance beyond their own ideas. The history and honor of our country mean nothing to them, as they see themselves as elite warriors correcting injustices rather than as citizens with obligations and responsibilities. Whatever destruction they or their allies cause is considered justified by the morality of their cause.
What the last four years have laid bare is that both political parties are broken, with great swaths of voters and activists that will be led to violence based on misinformation and propaganda.
Overwrought self-styled patriots, who thought Donald Trump was the last bastion of defense of law and order and America itself, stood with crowds that murdered a police officer in an attempt to thwart a democratic election. Self-indulgent social justice advocates, who looked the other way as mobs burned down police stations and created “autonomous zones” in major cities, posted tributes to fallen Capitol police offers and talk of meting out punishment for sedition.
The partisans stuck with extremists in their midst want to blame someone else. Trump supporters claim these were really Antifa activists in the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Black Lives Matter supporters would have us believe it was secret Trump “Boogaloo” militia burning and looting U.S. cities last summer.
Two central tenets can guide us forward out of this decades-long quagmire:
- There must be an absolute and unwavering respect for and obedience to the truth.
- American institutions deserve our utmost care and protection, not because they are perfect but because they are ours.
The truth knows no political allegiances and always disappoints dogmatic partisan politicians. Our institutions were created in different times by different people than comprise America today, but they were made to last and have survived multiple wars and upheavals. If we respect them, they can thrive again.
The old adage of “vote early and often” is at least half true now in New York City, as the city has instituted early voting this year. This past Saturday the 26th was the start of an early voting period leading up to the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election day.
The last few election cycles have shown us that no corner of the country is immune from serious voting issues. The mid-term election of 2018 was the first time I saw this voting chaos first-hand in the five boroughs. I voted early in the morning, when there are usually fewer people around and voting should be smoother, and there were already difficulties handling the moderate numbers at the polling station. That only got worse as the day wore on, and reports of long line and other logistical issues were crossing the wires by midday.
The mess of the 2018 election caused a series of reforms in New York City around voting, one of them being instituting early voting.
Early voting has been a solution adopted by other states. It encourages participation as many people who work (just about every single voter) often find it hard to take time off during a busy workday to vote, and this has become increasingly difficult as larger turnouts have overloaded polling places across the country. It’s an idea that is long overdue in being implemented, and many states began making this change in the wake of the 2000 presidential election difficulties. Early voting is friendlier to working families and make it more difficult for voter suppression tactics to rule the day. It also helps reduce some of the voting chaos by alleviating some of the crowding of Election Day.
It is wise to start early voting this year. Whatever goes wrong can be corrected in time for next year, an election year that promises a very large turnout. This is not a big election year in New York – there are no Congressional seats up for a vote, a special election for one City Council seat, and only one city-wide election for public office (for Public Advocate), as well as a smattering of ballot initiatives that rarely generate significant turnout or excitement.
So far there have been two major kinks in the city’s early voting: 1. In many cases the early voting place is not in the same place as the regular polling stations, and this has not been widely explained. 2. Some early voting locations that are located in schools gave those schools very short notice that their gyms or cafeterias were going to be off limits for a few days.
Another shortcoming of the early voting so far is the notices sent to voters. Usually the city sends a document that includes a detachable card that has all the relevant voter information on it: where to vote, what district you are in etc. The card sent before early voting has none of this, but does have a scan-able bar code on one side.
In a democracy, voting is a serious obligation for people who wish to remain free. The ballot box is our first defense against tyranny, our first step in making change, and the ultimate check and balance for people in power to be held accountable. By giving us more time to do it, this important duty is easier to execute. Whatever the faults of the city’s first attempt, it is a noble attempt and deserves our support.
As the presidential race of 2020 is already underway, before the office-holders elected in the mid-terms have even taken their oaths of office, it would be a great time for Americans to demand that the level of conversation be switched permanently to ‘grown up.’ The stakes are very high with the looming possibility of a recession, a bitterly divided Congress and an executive branch in a constant churn. It would be a real treat for a few brave candidates to insist on taking the high road and talking about how their policies will benefit the citizenry.
This will run afoul of the zeitgeist of contemporary politics. Rampant partisanship has created a knee-jerk politics where not only is everyone expected to wear their allegiances on their sleeves, but to be at the most ideologically pure part of the spectrum with blind obedience. Facts that may run counter to one’s argument are “Fake News” or “Hate Facts.” Serious adults don’t use terms like that except to mock those that do.
We’re seeing the worst in tantrum politics and mental gymnastics among both major political parties as the current budget impasse over a border wall continues. Trump’s insistence on a border wall is a clear sign he doesn’t understand the issues, and Democrats are hard-pressed to demonstrate any serious commitment to increased border security or give lie to the notion they want open borders.
Both parties once were able to function and understand nuances of policy. Sovereignty and human dignity are not mutually exclusive. It is inexcusable for Americans to support a porous border and deny our right to a sovereign nation. It is also inexcusable that children would die preventable deaths in the wealthiest country in the world, no matter their circumstances. We are a better country than to let people die of common disease or dehydration in detention centers; we also won’t be a country without strong, enforceable borders—there is no contradiction in those statements.
Let’s all admit that our political opponents are not monsters and that seeing the logic in the other side’s argument is not a betrayal of our own ideals. No, people advocating for stopping family separation at the border are not doing so to create some kind of socialist global utopia just as people advocating for tougher border controls are not trying to reproduce the Third Reich on American soil. These are not staggering revelations to the worlds of adults, but these are gut-punching concepts to hyper-partisan audiences that tend to dominate the public conversation these days.
Future generations will look upon these times as days of decay and decline, when a vacuum in leadership and long-standing myopic public policy exacerbated a fractured society. The values that make our society great can endure even if our institutions crumble, but it means a conscious effort to build new communities for those of us with clear vision and willingness to see beyond the outdated prism of our fraying standards.
We can rebuild communities if we leave the echo chambers of media and engage with the world around us. If we can take anything constructive from the Trump candidacy and record in office, it’s that people respond to frank dialogue and people who stick to their guns. Trump trampled several political sacred cows in his road to the White House—I thought his candidacy was dead when he insulted John McCain before the first primary was held. Have no doubt: Trump’s success in winning office came from his being rooted firmly outside the political establishment. You don’t have to be a fraudulent, vulgar ignoramus to break out of the mold and effectively challenge that status quo. Let the barriers Trump broke down let in a better slate of candidates and activists. There are decent people who hold all kinds of political opinions. Hear them out and be one of them.
Let this be the year you speak your mind and demand honesty and understanding from candidates within your own party. The first step of breaking out of our political rut is to embrace the politics of honesty and change on our own terms.
Demand more from the election of 2020 than we got in 2016. We (hopefully) can only go up from here.