I’ve been watching the exciting primary season unfold and gather momentum from my home in Austin, Texas with a detached curiosity. Texas usually does not get much attention due to the late date of it’s primary and due to the fact that it is usually recognized as a “blue state” but in recent weeks our state has been thrust to the forefront of the Obama/Clinton battle as the candidates, eager to proclaim victory in the delegate-rich state, have been campaigning tirelessly to reach us with their positions.
Why am I not more engaged? I was fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your perspective) to be born in 1969—right in the middle of the period between the 1960’s and early 1980’s Douglas Coupland coined as “Generation-X.” For those of you not familiar with the group of people this generation represents, I’ll fill you in with a few details from Wikipedia: “Generation X was generally marked early on by its lack of optimism for the future, cynicism, skepticism, alienation and distrust in traditional values and institutions.” According to some, we Gen-X’ers are over-educated, underemployed, uninvolved in the political process, and generally have a dark side reflected in the grunge music of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and others that became popular in the late 80’s and 90’s.
I won’t take the time to agree or disagree on every point of the conventional wisdom of my generation but I will say this regarding my participation in the political process. Or should I say my lack of participation. I’m not completely politically apathetic. In fact I believe I’m better than the average citizen. I vote in national and local elections, pay taxes, read the newspaper every day, and recycle (!). I don’t attend city council or homeowner association meetings but my husband and I are raising our children to be critical thinkers about issues and to never use the word stupid to describe our political leaders. It is ok to use that word to describe policies as long as there are some facts given to rationalize that position but it is never ok to use to label a person.
I know that many people excuse their disengagement on the idea that no one person can make a difference and that the monstrous political machinations and bureaucracies that are Washington, D.C. and state and local governing bodies cannot be moved by small voices. That may or may not be true but a big reason why I can’t make myself get too excited by any candidate today is that they do not seem to be courting the vote of my generation. Why? We simply do not have the numbers to command the attention of our political leaders in the same way the Baby Boomers do or the lobby that is the AARP. Unloved and overlooked by seasons of politicians, my generation is going to inherit some particularly nasty problems, such as rising national debt and a social security system that is going to buckle the and knees of the too few workers in Gen-X as the gray wave of boomers start to and continue to retire. This corresponds to the time my husband and I will be desperately trying to scratch enough together to pay for college for our four children AND fund our retirement exclusively because no one in my generation thinks there is going to be any kind of social security system to speak of when we retire. Maybe that is more cynicism from a Gen-Xer, but so far our political leaders seem to be more interested in getting elected than addressing some of these real problems.
Does this excuse me? Some days I wish we had a candidate that would woo the generation to which I share my birth order—like the young people that were so invigorated with the Howard Dean campaign (although, ironically, who did not show up to vote on election day!). Would a candidate like this give us hope that our concerns would indeed be heard? Please don’t misunderstand—I believe we live in the greatest country this world has ever seen in terms of freedoms, quality of life, and (generally) respect for individual rights. The problems I alluded to earlier that my generation will face do not compare in the least with the numerous, severe problems so many nations face around the world. Can we do better, given our resources and the deep bench of talent we have in our country? Absolutely! So why do so many like me feel powerless to affect change and have our concerns heard?
The other day my husband and I were conducting our usual morning political discourse over coffee and the local newspaper. We have to begin at 5 a.m. so that we don’t have the constant interruptions of our children but at least we are making it a priority to keep informed and articulate our viewpoints. He lamented that he may as well not vote in the upcoming presidential election, given the likely choice of candidates form which we may have to choose. Some days I feel exactly the same. What’s the point? If I had to choose, on election day, between going to the gym or going to vote, which one would win out?
Then I think about all the small voices that over time and tribulation became the large voice that was able to impart the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920—the right for women to vote. Because of this, I am obligated to vote, if not for any message I may be trying to send to Washington or Austin but then certainly for the message to my three daughters and one son that voting is the least of my civic obligations as a proud citizen of the United States of America. So many people want to come here to be afforded the opportunities we take for granted—and we won’t even vote? It is truly shameful, if viewed in that context.
I was reading recently at bedtime from one of my generations’ (and all generations, for that matter) greatest authors—Dr. Seuss. We were reading that fantastic fable Horton Hears a Who!, soon to be released as a major motion picture. If you recall, Horton has adopted a clover that contains a marvelous community of tiny people called “Who-Ville.” In one of the last scenes, Horton, who has shepherded this clover through countless trials is faced with the prospect that his clover will be dropped into a pot of hot oil by all the disdainful non-believers. Horton—in a great effort—summons the mayor of Who-Ville to get every voice to cheer and jeer—to make a sound to let these doubters know that they do indeed exist, even though they are very small in size and numbers. The mayor finds one silent voice amidst all the noise and he implores this tiny lad “We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”
I think sometimes the greatest lessons come to us through our children or through children’s stories. We get so busy in our important, grown-up lives, that we often forget these simple truths. I suppose I know where I’ll be on November 4, 2008.