We went to an election party last night. The group oozed Liberalism: we were teachers and government employees, we were well-educated, we were non-religious.
Our hostess had planned several anti-Bush activities (to go along with the ubiquitous unplanned Bush bashing). We took a Bushisms quiz, attempting to pick out Bush quotes from quotes of former U.S. Presidents. (Not difficult.) We whacked a Bush piñata. And for our final act of blatant disrespect (civil disobedience?) we doused a Bush effigy with gasoline and set it aflame in the street.
(Some of this made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure why. I dislike Bush, too, but I felt like we crossed a line somewhere, going beyond rational anger to irrational hatred. And this is coming from the guy who actually lit the effigy; Kris couldn’t get a match to light.)
When our anti-Bush activities were over, we gathered around the television to watch the election returns.
It was painful. And not because of the results (though those were painful, too.)
At home, before we left, I’d been glued to my computer for two hours, following Yahoo! and CNN as they tallied the early returns. Over and over and over again, I relaoded the pages, mostly to no change, occasionally to a few more electoral votes for Bush, a few more for Kerry. I felt connected. I was receiving instantaneous feedback. I had access to the information I wanted when I wanted it. How were returns in Florida breaking by county? A click of the mouse, and I had those numbers.
I took my iBook to the party, hoping to access an internet connection, either via landline or by leeching off a nearby wireless node. No such luck.
I was at the mercy of the television.
Reception was poor (no cable), and mostly we watched PBS, which seemed obsessed with ten minute segments on the historical context of this election rather than showing the election returns themselves!
The local news channels were worse: “Let’s show ten minutes of Tom Potter claiming victory in the Portland mayoral race. Who cares about that Presidential race, anyhow?”
I cared! And the fact that I was sitting there, on the couch, watching punditry without any hard data drove me crazy!
“And let’s only show the results for a half dozen races at the bottom of the screen.” Argh!
“Do you want to leave?” Kris asked, sensing my frustration. I did.
At home I lay in bed, laptop on my chest, reloading the same pages again and again and again. I watched Kerry inch closer in Ohio — “He’s within 100,000 votes now, down from 180,000!” — I watched his lead in Iowa disappear.
I was in control of the information, I determined which data was most important to follow.
Television is no longer relevant to me.
Earlier in the day, I heard an interesting piece on NPR: a commentator was discussing the most divisive elections in United States history.
He claimed that the election that most divided us was held in 1896, between William McKinley (and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt) and William Jennings Bryan (of Scopes monkey trial fame (or infamy)). The U.S. was coming out of a severe economic depression. Also, there was a great debate regarding the country’s growing prominence on the world stage — what role should we play?
The Presidential election of 1968 was also especially divisive, the commentator said. Race, economics, Vietnam — these ripped the nation in two. He then explained how 1932 was a contentious election year, primarily because we were in the midst of the Great Depression.
As this man spoke, I realized that these elections were spaced exactly 36 years apart. I further realized that the election of 1860 — 36 years before 1896 — was also divisive (how had it not made this commentators list?). What’s more, this current election was coming 36 years after the last instance he’d cited.
So now I’m dying to know: is this 36 year cycle a regular thing? It’s held true for 150 years, but will it continue to hold true? Will 2040 produce another election in which the country is sharply divided? And what about 1824? And 1788? Were these years of great polarization with the United States?
The older I get, the more interesting history becomes…