Sunday, July 17, 2016

Part 2 of One Voter's History with "The Lesser of Two Evils"

Part 1, which includes the introduction and election years of 1968, 1972, and 1976 can be read by clicking here.

Now we enter a much darker era in American history...

How to throw away a vote.

I couldn't find any buttons in my own collection from the year that ushered in Reaganism -- or from any of the elections in the Gordon Gekko decade -- so the buttons to the left were grabbed from Google images. (The soundtrack as I write about this year is the Clash's London Calling album.) For most of the 1980 election season I was working as a clerk at the Strand Book Store in the Village and living in Brooklyn, which -- when I see that sentence appearing in print across my screen -- I realize could describe an almost stereotypical media version of a #BernieOrBust voter in 2016. Having lived in California during the time when the right-wing host of Death Valley Days became Governor and started destroying the UC system and the rest of the state's progressive values, I already knew the dangers of Ronald Reagan. However, in the heart of  New York's hipper precincts he was nothing but a joke. We would get celebrities shopping in the Strand all the time; one day before the conventions David Brinkley was checking out and the clerk behind the register asked the anchor of NBC News who he thought would win the election. "I'm afraid it's going to be Reagan," is how I remember his answer. If those weren't the exact words, there was definitely a tone of disappointment and resignation to a fact that most of us saw as outside the realm of possibility (again, reminding me of the conventional wisdom about Donald J. Trump in 2016). Reagan was a joke. We saw him as Goldwater, heading for inevitable defeat in the summer of 1980.

So I don't know how to explain my vote. Between the boring cardigan-wearing Jimmy Carter and the genuinely scary Ronald Reagan, we were also given the choice of John Anderson, who made appearances on SNL and must have had some sort of interesting political ideas that appealed to me, because I pulled the lever for him, just as many Bernie supporters will vote for Gary Johnson this fall. I can attempt to blame the fact that I was distracted. Between September and election day I had left the Strand, got married, started grad school at Columbia, had my best man murdered, quit grad school, and was job hunting on election day, but I should have voted for the merchant of malaise, lowered expectations and cardigans, over Ronnie and John.

It's funny how this writing process election-by-election is jogging my memory, because it wasn't until I got to the last line that I remembered exactly why I didn't vote for Carter, and it has a direct relationship with 2016. I had not voted for Jimmy Carter in the primary; I had voted, of course, for Ted Kennedy! And Ted did not go quietly at the convention in August. As a matter of fact, he gave one of the most memorable speeches in the history of late-twentieth-century American liberalism.

"The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Compared to the aura and eloquence of Ted Kennedy, is it any wonder that Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis failed to inspire even many in their own party in these elections of the 1980s? It still seems tragic to me that neither Bobby nor Ted ever moved into the White House. That being said, once Ted (or Bernie) was out, we should have given all our energy to electing Jimmy (or Hillary) over Reagan (or Trump), no matter how uninspiring we personally found the man from Plains (or the woman from Chicago).

They were obviously trying to capture
some of that People's Party magic
with this design.

Here we are in the dark ages Orwell warned us about in 1948. (The soundtrack is Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine.) We're also entering the darkest period in my political life. I have no buttons or stickers from this period at all. I voted for Mondale and Ferraro in 1984, but I did so with very little excitement. If the Democrats hadn't put a woman on the ticket, I might have just sat it out. I had moved out of Brooklyn and down to the Jersey Shore, largely because of crime; I was commuting to an office job in the city as a young married guy who was worried about his first mortgage; I was prime recruitment material for the GOP and people were turning into Republicans all around me. Anyone who has ever seen any zombie movie can imagine the atmosphere. When were they going to get me?

I don't remember Ronald Reagan's reelection ever being seriously in doubt and I'm convinced that Donald Trump's visceral hatred of "low energy" candidates must come from memories of Fritz Mondale and the next Democrat who followed him to the slaughter in 1988.

... or not. I really can't remember.

"Maybe it is just the time of year, or maybe it's the time of man." (The soundtrack as I write this is not Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock' but Keith Jarrett's Dark Intervals.) Maybe it was the fact that I was approaching my mid-thirties, commuting to a conventional job, and living the expected conventional life, or maybe it was the every-man-for-himself Wall Street Zeitgeist, but for whatever reason this was the most conservative period of my life. I'm trying not to avoid a very dark fact here, but once again I really can't remember if I actually flipped a lever for W's daddy when it came right down to it.

The Democratic front runners were in rough shape after Gary Hart fell to a sex scandal and  people still remembered Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" statements from 1984. The convention was a mess, with Ann Richards' "Silver Foot In His Mouth" speech being the only shining moment; it's also remembered for the worst and longest keynote speech delivered by a young Bill Clinton.

Dukakis did nothing for me on a gut level. I didn't mind his silly ride in the tank, but I hated the way he purposely fled from the word "Liberal" until a lukewarm acceptance of the label in the last days of the campaign. I wasn't a fan of his wonkiness and the fact that he proudly stated at one point that he never read fiction (which I was writing at the time). I know it's shallow, but there are a lot of people rejecting Hillary Clinton this year for shallow reasons, or voting for Trump for even shallower reasons. 1984 never struck me as a choice between the lesser of two evils; it seemed more like the lesser of two nonentities.

I'm going to end Part Two here, giving the decade of greed its own section, but I have to finish on a positive note. Any flirtations that I might have had in the 1980s with the Dark Side of American politics came to an end with the birth of my son in late 1989 and the beginning of the first George Bush's first Iraq War in early 1990. Those events snapped me back to my liberal peacenik senses for good.

Click Here for Part Three: 1992, 1996, 2000

No comments: