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Vote the way you did that first time

It is easy to get jaded about voting, especially with all the partisan bickering that precedes it. But watch first-time voters -- those who have just come of age or those who live in newly free countries -- and you'll remember how it felt that first time.

A young Iraqi girl, who accompanied her family to a polling station and asked for her finger to be inked even though she was too young to vote, showed her inked finger in Karbala, Iraq, last March.

AP Photo/Ahmed al-Hussainey

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Do you remember the first time you voted? For me, it was 1972, the year Richard Nixon faced George McGovern. I won’t tell you who got my vote or whether I eventually felt justified or embarrassed. And, no, it isn’t obvious, even if you harbor suspicions about a person who later made a career in the media.

Like many adults, I’ve gotten blasé about voting since that first time, although when I see the excitement of voters newly enfranchised by age or freedom, I feel a tug of remembrance. When Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel went from dissidents to presidents only months after the fall of communism, when South Africans chose the indomitable Nelson Mandela in 1994, when Iraqis joyously held up inked index fingers in 2005 – democracy once again seemed like the secular sacrament it did that first time.

What causes politics to go from idealistic to cynical? Most of us would probably agree that the answer is found not in the voting but in the campaigning – all the belittling, shunning, accusing, or feigning of outrage over a poor choice of words, an obscure vote, or a youthful indiscretion dug up by opposition researchers. Though you wouldn’t know by watching TV ads, a political opponent who views the world differently from you and me is not, by definition, a Manchurian candidate planning to replace the Constitution with Marxism, corporatism, or animism.

Politics can ruin dinner with the family and spoil lifelong friendships. That’s a pity, because there’s very much right with healthy disagreement over difficult issues. Opposing positions need to be considered, assumptions challenged, the sure voice of authority questioned. But to argue doesn’t require red-faced shouting.

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