Slouching Toward Election Day


Election night, 2012

Election night, 2012

We are less than three weeks from Election Day. If you are someone who works in the civic arena, this day, which comes every two years, is part of your emotional and political DNA. You’ve experienced highs and lows on Election Day, some that maybe changed your life. It can be brutal and it can be joyous. Oddly, it is a day when our country often feels most divided—elections do that—and then somehow we collectively put the acrimony aside and come together, sort of. At least up until now.

This election feels emotionally more intense than many in the past, and the personal stress is more widespread than it was during the primaries, when it mainly tore up hard-core partisans. (See my April 2016 piece “Voting Without Illusions” for more on that) We are now living in the age of mass participation, where the vast majority of adults are online and engaging with public events and each other via social media every day. We are wired up in a vast new kind of nervous system, and it is indeed a NERVOUS system. The worst and most polarizing declarations are spread, amplified, and echoed, to the point where perhaps half the country is sure that Trump is a fascist and the other half thinks Clinton is the devil incarnate. Instead of getting ready to celebrate the breaking of the glass ceiling, we seem to be poised for more confrontation as Trump threatens to dispute his likely loss in two weeks.

According to a new national poll done by Harris for the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of Americans are “coping with high levels of stress brought on by the election,” including 55 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans, Leslie Alderman reported yesterday for The New York Times. Shrinks across the country are seeing a surge of patients reporting election-triggered ailments. She writes:

Therapists say that some of the issues that have emerged in this election—national security, terrorism, hacking threats, gun rights and sexual assault—play into some of our deepest fears and anxieties. Issues of secrecy—Mrs. Clinton’s emails and Mr. Trump’s tax returns—and allegations of conspiracies and a rigged election, have compounded some patients’ feelings of distrust.

Of late, as Trump’s misogyny has come to the fore, women in particular are reporting deeply emotional and physical reactions to his candidacy. See, for example, this story by Laura Bassett, a senior politics reporter for the Huffington Post, about how the necessities of her job—in this case, of covering the latest Trump outrage, is triggering “memories of an assault that I thought I had processed and put behind me more than a decade ago.” Couples are having conversations about events decades ago, often in which the wife tells her husband about an experience of sexual assault that she had never talked about before, reports Jack Healy for The New York Times.

I’m not a conservative, so I’m not privy to many intimate conversations about how the election feels on the other side of the aisle. But it is clear that in addition to all the backlash politics embodied by Trump and his followers, and the status anxiety of whites and men fearful of losing standing to the rising new American majority, there are people on the losing end of the new economy who feel they have been sold out and abandoned, and they are grasping for attention and salvation.

In just the last 24 hours, I’ve heard from two friends who are involved in nonprofits that do innovative issue organizing, suggesting that we need some kind of post-election ritual to help people and communities heal after the election is over. They are right. We should figure something out. (If this strikes a chord for you, email me at msifry-at-gmail-dot-com and I’ll set up a discussion.)

Why Elections So Engage Us

As we slouch anxiously and organize furiously toward November 8, I find myself thinking back to how I personally became one of those people for whom Election Day is so fraught. Here is my story; I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

My first election memory is from 1972. I was one of those nerdy history buff kids. At the age of ten, I clipped out the page from Newsday, our local paper, that listed all the states and the number of electoral votes assigned to each, and stayed up watching the news as the returns were announced, making my own tally. George McGovern was my candidate—in the sixth grade mock debate that year I had been part of his team. (I still tease my friends who, like most of the kids in my suburban Long Island school, had backed Richard Nixon.) When Nixon trounced McGovern, who only won Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., I felt pretty bad. But I’ve been a politics junkie ever since. I bet for many of us, the obsession starts like this, in childhood.

I don’t remember election night 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat the incumbent, Gerald Ford. I remember that in the last weeks before the election, Carter held a huge rally somewhere in the middle of Nassau County that a lot of my parents’ friends went to—a sign that something was changing in those post-Watergate days. But the actual election night left no impression on me.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was different. I was 18 and in college and way more politically aware. There were hints of war in the air. Carter, who had pardoned Vietnam draft resisters as one of his first acts upon taking office, had revived the draft after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in July 1980, as part of his ultimately unsuccessful effort to appear more “tough” than Reagan. My buddies and I sensed that we could be called up and that we needed to resist. Politics felt pretty personal. Reagan’s victory also marked the defeat of a number of stalwart liberal senators, and the election of New York’s precursor to Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, the creepy Alphonse D’Amato. He hailed from Island Park, a stone’s throw from my hometown, and we knew how he had used his time as a political fixer in Nassau County to build his machine. The times felt dark.

By 1984, I was a year into my career at The Nation magazine, going from an internship in the fall of 1983 to managing the magazine’s publicity and small donor fundraising arm. (Yes, this is what 22-year-olds did at magazines back then—we managed the social media!) We had been living through contentious times, with Reagan’s open support for murderous thugs in Latin America and South Africa and his nuclear saber-rattling with Russia generating enormous opposition movements at home. The first debate between Reagan and Democratic candidate Walter Mondale had opened a window of hope for us leftists. First, Reagan’s wandering closing remarks at that debate had raised questions about his mental health and possible dementia, which suddenly made it seem possible that he could be defeated for re-election. Then Reagan made a well-delivered joke at the next debate, about not holding his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him, and that issue was dropped.

In the second debate, a different window opened that also offered hope of damaging Reagan’s reelection chances. Citing a story that The Nation had ousted published by investigative reporter Patrick Sloyan, Mondale had accused Reagan of failing to heed the warnings of the intelligence community about the security of the Marines then based in Lebanon. A terror bombing took 241 Americans’ lives, and Mondale’s charge stung the commander in chief. For a brief, heady moment, we thought we were turning the election. (As the magazine’s PR manager, I vividly remember calling various news outlets, trying to get them to cover the story, and getting ABC News anchor Peter Jennings on the phone. Tongue-tied, I stammered through my pitch and then stumbled when he demanded that Sloyan give him his sources, which he of course was refusing to do.)

But no one managed to prove that Reagan truly knew about the warnings from the intelligence services and the furor died down. I spent the days before the election watching a British drama about a plot to steal an election. I was depressed by it all.

To be honest, many election nights are a blur. In 1994, I remember how painful it felt to realize that the Republicans had broken the Democrats’ hold on the House, putting Newt Gingrich into the Speaker’s chair. In 1998, I was in Boston with a group of campaign finance reform organizers working with Public Campaign, where we celebrated the passage of a Clean Elections ballot initiative we had spearheaded there, and then sweated the hours away waiting to hear about the success of a similar measure we backed in Arizona (where our side also won). While we nursed our beers and waited, we watched—agog—as the baldheaded professional wrestler Jesse Ventura celebrated his unexpected victory in Minnesota’s governors race. “We shocked the world!” he exulted. Indeed.

In 2000, I was sacked out on a bed in a cheap Washington, D.C., hotel room, having hung around a desultory “victory” party held by Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign—which I had been covering for The Nation. I remember how my head spun as the midnight news of Al Gore’s rescinded concession to George W. Bush roiled the country. All I felt then was nausea and a profound sense of despair, that the country was spinning into a constitutional crisis. Adding to that feeling later—the knowledge that Nader’s campaign had contributed to Gore’s loss in Florida, and then the awareness that the popular vote winner there and nationwide would not be president.

Election Night Can Hurt, or Heal

In 2005, I was with my partner in crime, Andrew Rasiej, as we sat in a bar downtown and thanked the staff of Advocates for Rasiej, a valiant crew that had tried to propel him into the Public Advocate’s office, the number two job in the city, where we hoped to push a tech-savvy agenda built around spreading public WiFi and connecting the city’s do-gooders and problem-solvers through a 21st century network. We were a bit early in those hopes (recall, all we had were blogs back then), and not only did we come in fourth in that race, behind the incumbent Betsy Gotbaum and perennial civic rights activist Norman Siegel, we even got fewer votes than someone none of us had heard of, one Michael Brown from the Bronx. It was so bad, we just laughed and ordered boilermakers.

In 2006, I was in a hospital bed recuperating after a minor operation went awry and I lost a lot of blood. Watching Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats win back the House majority was deeply satisfying after the years of Gingrich and his thuggish deputies Tom DeLay and Dick Armey (anyone remember him calling Barney Frank “Barney Fag” on the floor?) ruling the joint. My body hurt but I felt great.

And then there was 2008, the only time I can remember celebrating in the streets. We had organized an election watch party for friends of Personal Democracy Forum, down in SoHo at Meetup HQ, when the news of Barack Obama’s victory was declared. And then this happened:

That was the first and only time I’ve seen Americans dancing in the streets on election night. Ending eight years of the bombastic and bumbling George W. Bush with the election of our first African-American president was indeed a moment many of us wanted to celebrate, in public, loudly and proudly. They danced.

What will happen this year?