I first came to political consciousness during the Watergate era. We'd been living overseas and actually returned to the U.S. on the day of the break-in; the next few years, it seems to me, passed by in a haze of newspaper articles and Senate hearings. The names Haldeman and Erlichman still mean something to me.
Unfortunately, what they mean is a pervasive cynicism about politics. I can't be sure, but despite my engagement with the Watergate story at the time, it feels to me now that what it taught me was to be cynical. Yes, the "plumbers" (ah, how different that word is this year) got caught, but how many others didn't? Nixon resigned, and I lost interest in politics. Political news started to focus on personality, rather than policy. We started to hear stories about our idols -- they turned out to have feet of clay, too. As story after story of affairs, mistakes, and poor judgment poured out of a faster and faster news cycle, I tuned out. They were all crooks, cheaters, and liars, it seemed; I couldn't imagine that anyone honest even wanted to be president any more -- if they ever had.
This is my fourth presidential election as a college professor. I've dutifully reminded my students to go to the polls in years past, and have gone myself, but without much sense of hope, without much conviction that anything would change. While I now think the last several elections really did change our course as a nation, I remember in 2000, especially, thinking it didn't really matter all that much. I was wrong, of course, but I think lots of us were; instead of a campaign, we followed a horserace in which people backed their favorites for reasons that seemed to have little to do with how we actually live our lives. Alpha males and earth tones -- tactics, not visions -- dominated the coverage. Who cared?
This year I care. This year it really does feel like the election matters, and I'm approaching it differently. My state is suddenly a swing state. I've registered some voters; I've made a few phone calls. For the first time in my life, I've got a bumper sticker on my car. I'm writing about voting, trying (perhaps desperately) to link it to my work. I'm reminding my students to register, informing them of polling locations, letting them know about the campus shuttle service that will be available if they can't make it to the polls on their own. While I'm not open about my political leanings -- I don't want to alienate them or make them feel pressured -- I've made it clear that I think this election is important, and that I want them involved. On Election Day, I've rescheduled my office hours so that I can drive folks to the polls -- or knock on doors, or make phone calls -- myself. Some of them may as well.
My daughter votes in her first presidential election this year. The names Haldeman and Erlichman don't mean anything to her; Monica Lewinsky barely even registers. I'm glad of that. Like my students, she's coming of age in a time of hope. I envy them -- and I take heart that their involvement signals a new energy, a new beginning. For the first time in years, I can't wait to get out and vote.