It is hard to imagine that it has been six months since November 8, 2016. For what it’s worth, I imagine that all of us have a tale to tell for how that day went down.
Here, for your enjoyment, is mine.
The night before was a late one for me because I had an evening theology class at my college. The discussion was on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. Considering this was coming only eight years after the election of 2008, the subject and the material seemed slightly off to me. We first talked about the Civil Rights Movement, but the conversation moved inexorably toward the invisible black hole that was the 2016 presidential election. Although we never speculated about who would win, we did talk about the incalculable ramifications that this election, like 2008, would have on the country and the world at-large.
Although we constantly like to think that these elections happen in a vacuum, events like the recent French presidential election should be ample evidence to show that this is not the case. In the end the entire class of six and our teacher agreed that whatever the outcome would be, it certainly would be a unique event quite unlike any election any of us had seen.
The next morning I got up shortly before 8 a.m. and went to my polling station to commit my civic duty. I had done so three times already that year; in April, in June, and in September. Each time I always made sure to note how many people were voting with me in the booths and how many had already voted by the counter in our vote-scan tabulators.
In April the number who had voted by 6 a.m. (when the polls opened) was one (me!). By June the number who had voted by 10 a.m. (when I finished my morning routine) was thirty. By September the number who had voted by 12 p.m. (after a brief lunch) was twelve. This morning the number at 8:30 was a steady 125 and rising. Unlike my last trips, a steady line was in place, with people checking into their polling site and moving to their voting booths with ease.
I could not understand why people did not vote in the same numbers on any of those primary dates just as I did now, but as I had come to observe over the past year in working for the Bernie Sanders campaign, democracy was not a right afforded to its citizens without a fight. Sadly, these questions would need to wait for another day, and I cast my vote and promptly went to the hospital.
See, my father is a doctor at a nearby hospital. When the schedule permits we usually get together for lunch and swap stories about our day so far. He tells me his stories on the ward, and I tell him about my assignments and friends at school. I was going to see him early today, though, because I badly needed a pick-me-up.
I’ve been voting since my eighteenth birthday in 2009, and my feelings after voting could be comparable to soaring under the warmth of the sun. It felt exhilarating to be participating in something people had fought and died for. I not only honored their sacrifices but also felt invested in the great experiment that is democracy. The past year had been a rude awakening, however; democracy, even one as vaulted and rarified as ours, was in a bad way. My father—having lived through a dictatorship, a coup, and numerous authoritarian regimes—perhaps could give me perspective over what I and the world had been a witness to over the last eighteen months.
After quickly going through our respective days, we soon came to the heart of the matter. I am not very good at hiding my disaffection, and my father saw right through my slumped appearance and quiet demeanor.
I told him about the unique melancholy and detachment I had felt while voting earlier in the day and the feeling that no matter who won, things had been said that could not be undone with the unambiguous will of the people tonight. Although he agreed that the campaign had been one that would be better remembered for how politics could reach for our coarser behavior, there was still much to admire about the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and a congressional candidate whom I had also worked for earlier that month.
After the Democratic Convention in July I had worked for a time for the Clinton campaign, canvassing on the streets of Philadelphia. I suspect that I did so out of some guilt perhaps, but I also felt an urgency unlike anything I had felt before. Even then the experience felt much more canned and sterile than what I had suspected it would be. Perhaps the most difficult experience of the whole affair was to hear people repeatedly tell me (paraphrasing), “With the Electoral College, I just don’t think that my vote counts.” After spending three hours in a bus getting to Philadelphia from the safe blue state of New York, it was something that was quite ironic to hear.
Another warning sign I saw was the oft-repeated phrase, “Ahh those politicians, they’re all just crooks! Who wants to vote for them anyway!” I could not help but feel that my position as a lowly campaign volunteer was a poor one through which to explain the mechanics of our electoral politics as well as the merits of civic engagement. It was way above my pay grade.
However, persist I did, both on my own and with a wingman, either in an open dialog or in a mostly one-way conversation. Despite my best attempts and my honing and tinkering of the wording, I could tell my message was not getting through. It was not that my sincerity was in question; my heart just was not in it anymore.
After October 7 I hung up my walking shoes. I had simply had enough. The Hollywood Access video and the WikiLeaks revelations made me realize that I was dealing with forces that were beyond my ability to comprehend, let alone explain to others. The break was exactly what the doctor—or my old man!—ordered. Life and its welcome monotony and routine came back to me in a welcome flood of comfort and relaxation. The election was as far away as a foreign country across the ocean or on the other side of the moon. I had learned an important thing: everyday life is more important than any election.
For election day I planned to continue my willful ignorance by steeling myself from the wall-to-wall coverage. After running a few errands, I took the family car toward a nearby park on a river, and as the results started spilling in, I tuned in to the nearest music station. Rather than listening to commentary and the latest figures, I spent the evening on the hood of my family’s station wagon, listening to rock ‘n’ roll.
Sure, there were the occasional updates from the disc jockey, but my mind wistfully rolled the tape of the history of the world as the night wore on and the temperature plummeted. I had my own pet theories about how the night would proceed, but rather than ruminate, my mind rolled about the world much like pinballs dart about a machine, bouncing off everything they touch.
“Wow, I can’t believe my grandma lived and died without seeing the Cubs win, and now I have.”
“Nobody’s on the river tonight. Guess it’s not the weather to go boating or fishing in early November.”
“I wonder how candidate X [not Clinton or Trump] is doing? Probably losing.”
“Gosh, I better remember to get that paper handed in to my professor. He seemed insistent we hand it in on-time.”
“Man, I wish I had a telescope! The stars look really good tonight!”
“That reminds me—I better get the camera from my friend’s dad. I’m sure he done using it by now.”
After flipping through a couple of pages of the latest book I was reading and catching a few minutes shut-eye, I made my way to some civilization in the form of a twenty-four-hour diner.
It being long past the midnight hour, the place was mercifully empty and quiet. The PA system, tuned in to a slow-jazz radio station, kept me blissfully unaware of the tumultuous events ensuing in New York City. A few fellow patrons quietly munched on some late-night meals on the counter or in individual booths, and mostly alone. Most were truckers taking a break in their long trek across the nation on the way to their destination. The parking lot was lined with Mac trucks silently awaiting their pilots for the next leg of the journey.
Again, my mind wandered, thinking about the stories these men of the road could tell me if they had the strength or the time. After placing my order, I quickly took a stroll around the establishment to snoop out the trucks’ license plates. Of the six trucks out there that cold November morning, there were trucks from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Missouri. In the swing-state sweepstakes I had hit two out of six—not bad!
At roughly 2:30 a.m. I returned home. The viewing party had long since departed, and only my mother stood as a silent sentinel awaiting my return home. “Whatever happens, everything will be all right,” she cryptically told me as I hugged her. None the wiser about what was unfolding across the country. I thought nothing more about my troubles and restless mind, and I quickly drifted away.
The morning saw me awake very late after everyone had left for work or school. My class was in the evening, so I showered, dressed, and stepped out to what I thought would be a changed world.
My plan was to do as before: visit my father for lunch after doing some homework at the nearby library. The walk was a brisk eight blocks filled with the sights and sounds of a neighborhood. As I began my early morning walkabout I began to notice the profound and deafening silence I encountered as I ventured through the streets.
Don’t get me wrong: people were out and about, cars were running everywhere, and the soundtrack of city life seemed perfectly normal. But nobody spoke. There was no conversation, no smiles, no laughter, no mumbles—nothing. At the end of a simple fifteen-minute walk, I had learned more than any news article or video could ever tell me.
As if by osmosis, I had learned the outcome of the race by the sheer magnitude of the event. I recalled what joy and hope people had in their expressions, faces, and voices after 2008. It seemed now that that blissful period had tragically run out, run aground, and was torn asunder, never to return.
I unilaterally ended my media embargo at midday, just in time to listen and watch the Clinton concession and President Obama’s remarks, largely the most symbolic and final chapters to the most historic and divisive election our nation had ever known. I for one did not share in the shock many had, but the feelings of anger and despair were all too familiar by now.
Had not Bernie been actively defeated—or even sabotaged—to avoid this very situation from becoming a reality? Why, oh why had she used the word “deplorable”? How could this happen? The Electoral College again!? I had so many questions, but the worst thing was knowing that to some questions, there would never be a satisfying answer.
Since then I’ve thought long and hard about what I as a citizen did wrong to help contribute to what occurred six months ago. In fact, we all share some of the blame for what happened—not as individuals but as a part of a civilization.
One thing I can say is that people have gotten the message, and perhaps that is what good has come from this election. No longer will we see ourselves as merely pieces of life but now as parts of the fabric of society. No longer will we believe that our involvement in some action or effort is to be taken for granted or will passed on to someone else. No more will people see politics as a flavor or a sport of choice but rather as a dynamic debate. No more will people see the other side as some unintelligible group of aliens—in more ways than one—but as citizens, compatriots . . . as people.
What the long-term impact of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, will be is too early to tell. But if the last six months are any indication, it goes to show how people can see the real power they have as individuals, the great strength they carry as a group, and the real value we all share as a nation. As our country’s motto aptly says: E pluribus Unum.
Out of many, one.