Thanks to the contentious primary elections, I’m talking about politics more than ever before.
In Manhattan, where I lived for years, everyone I knew was a Democrat, so when elections rolled around, there was nothing to discuss. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan whipped Walter Mondale, my friend Lynne and I walked the dark, silent streets, asking, “Who voted for Reagan?” Even our aging suburban parents were Democrats.
When I moved to Wyoming I found out. Every county had voted for Reagan, giving him a 70 percent landslide. Wary Wyomingites didn’t talk politics with anyone whose views they saw as suspect — like a former New Yorker — and Democrats huddled in basements to chat, like members of radical cells. A Casper friend, a Southern Baptist, and I still get deep down and dirty about religion, but when I stray toward the P-word, she changes the subject faster than a jackrabbit hops. Once she excused herself with, “You know I’m a Republican?”
In 2008 Democrats didn’t bother campaigning in Wyoming (an organizer gave me a list of Montana voters to call.) But when I moved to Denver, shortly before the election, Obama-Biden signs filled the windows. Perhaps I’d arrived in a more comfortable political landscape, but who would I talk politics with now?
This year, in the midst of a never-ending presidential primary, featuring a slew of unexpected and controversial candidates, I am talking politics with everyone I know, and some people I don’t. In my fifty years as a voter, this is new.
Last week politics came up in the breakfast room of a Leadville motel with a Pueblo Republican, a school principal on a snowboarding adventure with his son. As CNN rehashed the latest on the TV above the waffle maker, the principal said he just couldn’t do Trump. With a glance at his boy, he said he was worried about the inconsistent Donald’s finger straying near a nuke button. He might vote for Hillary….
When I took my jeans to my Iraqi tailor, an American citizen who happens to be Muslim, I asked him if he planned to vote. “No,” he said, “I don’t get involved in U.S. politics.” “Why did you come to this country if you don’t want to participate in a free society,” I asked. Anxious lines crossed his brow when I warned him that one Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, was advocating patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. “What can they do to me? I have a business … a family. I pay taxes,” he said. He did know that Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in camps after the Pearl Harbor attack. Then we moved on to Middle East politics…
My 90-year-old friend, Evelyn, is a lifelong North Carolina Republican, the widow of a United States District Judge. We usually chat about family and health issues. But this time, before I hung up, I asked, “So are you campaigning for Trump or Cruz?” Evelyn laughed. A fiscal, but not a social conservative, she planned to write in Kasich, no matter who her party nominates. Although my dinner was waiting to get in the oven, we couldn’t resist another hour of lively primary gab. Evelyn had sensible things to say about Hillary vs. Bernie, too.
The next day I phoned a college friend, long involved in politics. “What do you think about this primary stuff?” I asked. An hour later, I knew. An ardent progressive, Don was surprisingly sanguine about the 2016 outcome; political candidates say whatever they think will help them win, he said, but you can’t know what they’ll do until they get elected. “Take Lyndon Johnson…” He went on to teach me political history I never learned in school.
In the last month I’ve talked politics with complete strangers, a gay Denver friend, another born in Puerto Rico, my New Jersey bond broker, business people, and folks I’ve known for years who began by saying they were sick of politics. And nobody reached for the concealed carry.
By not shying away from a risky argument, we discovered we were closer in views than we thought, maybe because we’re all aware that none of the candidates is flawless. (Even the Bernie Bros at my Capitol Hill caucus wouldn’t swear that, if elected, The Bern could achieve his goals.) Hearing others’ perspectives, it turns out, is useful and helps us feel less alone with our pressing concerns. As Heidi Cruz said in a CNN Town Hall, “It’s not about us, it’s about the country.”
And no doubt our country is coming into difficult times. More than ever, we need a great leader. We agree that income disparity is a problem — a point Walter Mondale raised in 1984. We face issues about immigration, big banks, student debt, climate change, trade agreements, corporate greed, rising Obamacare premiums, racism, homegrown jihadists, and in Wyoming, lost jobs as shifting markets and environmental policies batter the energy industry. No matter how much you love your gun collection, you cry inside when a child is murdered in school, or shot because he played his radio too loud at a gas station.
As for me, I fan my smoldering coal for Bernie because he isn’t a hawk and has long been committed to equality issues, though I’m not certain that he’s more presidential than Hillary. I have to admit that Donald Trump’s in-your-face declarations aren’t 100 percent wrong. (I agree that we shouldn’t offer developed countries military protection free-of-charge.) And from talking and reading about politics, I’ve learned a lot about primary and caucus procedures — which cry for an overhaul to make them uniform and inclusive. But I’ve been pleased to discover that when ordinary citizens talk about politics we, unlike our elected officials, can “cross the aisle.” And, if you ask me, hope lives there. In fact, sharing views about American politics may be an essential patriotic act.
Most encouraging, when I picked up my shortened jeans, my Iraqi tailor greeted me enthusiastically.
“Vicki,” he announced, “I am going to vote!”
— Vicki Lindner is an Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Wyoming, and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she serves on the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She is the author of a novel, co-author of Unbalanced Accounts: How Women can Overcome their Fear of Money, and many essays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles.
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