On Election Day, I got up early to vote, earlier than I ever have since I cast my first ballot to participate in our valued democratic process in 1988.
A lot has certainly changed within those 32 years, mainly the civility of our politics. Looking back on the ‘88 election, there were hard-nosed political punches thrown from both sides, especially when supporters of George H. Bush’s campaign ran the controversial Willie Horton ads to purposely make Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis appear soft on crime. These ads ran through the South and fueled racial stereotypes of African-American men as sexual predators. Horton was a convicted murderer who raped a white woman while he was furloughed from a Massachusetts prison. Dukakis was governor during Horton’s release, and the ads derailed Dukakis’ hopes to win the White House.
The strength of the Democratic ticket that year was vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen had a historic “mic drop” moment in his debate against Dan Quayle, telling the Indiana senator that he was “no Jack Kennedy.” If we had had social media back then, Bentsen’s reply — or “clap back,” as the younger generations say these days — would have gone viral on Twitter, and he would have been a meme in a matter of minutes.
Despite the overt racism in the Horton ads, I was still excited about voting, a college freshman reveling in the optimism of my youth. Going to the polls in 2020, however, I sensed more of a feeling of urgency than optimism. My polling location is predominately African-American, and the line was already wrapped around the building minutes before the doors were opened at 6:30 a.m. It was a brisk 37 degrees outside, and while bearing the cold air, we were told that the keys to the voting machines were misplaced. Cries of frustration immediately came from several in the line. A young woman in front of me said, “It’s a scare tactic!” Another person farther behind me shouted, “They don’t want us to vote!” I immediately began praying that no one would get unruly with the poll workers. After about 45 minutes, the keys were located, but there were still malfunction problems with the scanners and four of the six voting machines. That took another 20 minutes to fix, and then the line gradually began to move. After being in line over an hour, the first person who had completed voting emerged, and people began to cheer.
Now that Joe Biden has been elected as our 46th president and Kamala Harris has made history as the first female vice president of Black and South Asian descent, I have been thinking about people who didn’t stand in line at all, both young and older Americans who are fed up with our political process. The Monday before the election, I watched a “PBS NewsHour” segment titled “Why Some Americans Have Chosen Not to Vote This Year.” This report featured three young adults and an older man who is most likely a Gen Xer. Their explanations for not voting were blunt reflections of how many feel about our current political leaders. One of the respondents, a young black man, explained that he felt we did not have a candidate who could ease the tensions in the country and foster change. A young woman who is residing in Greece with dual citizenship stated that neither candidate inspired her to cast an absentee ballot. The oldest respondent said that no one had done anything to earn his vote.
About 4 in 10 eligible voters have stayed home in recent elections, according to “NewsHour” tracking, but no election in my voting lifetime has been as antagonistic as this one. Being older now, I know to never put my trust in any politician. I cleave to Psalm 118:9, which says, “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes,” princes meaning those holding powerful authority.
Looking at our present political state, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we are gravely wounded as a nation. The hurt runs deep across racial lines and economic disparity, deeper than I think most of our elected representatives can comprehend. I won’t say that my optimism has completely waned, but we need prayer, Godly compassion and forgiveness intertwined with our politics. This is the only way we can progress and heal.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc