A story of five election nights

On letting go of magical thinking and saying yes to the work of a lifetime

N.G. Pryor at the American Legion polling place, Tallahassee (Florida Memory/Flickr)

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Also: There are a lot more of you this week, thanks both to my interview with Anne Helen Peterson about QAnon and my conversation on Elena Aguilar’s “Bright Morning” podcast. Hello! It’s really nice to have you here and I hope this is a useful space for you. Feel free to let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to make it better and/or if there’s anything I should know about you (and yes, I recognize that I have a backlog of emails from new readers that need responding— I’m getting there, I promise).

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I’m 39. This will be the sixth Presidential election since I turned 18. My politics have evolved a bit over time, I guess (I went from being more radical to more reform-y and then back to being more radical again, except this time with a newsletter). In broad strokes, though, I’ve lived every one of these elections as a pretty boiler plate electorally-minded leftist/liberal white person (EMLLWP).

I’ve stayed up really late for a lot of weird election nights. I’ve made my share of mistakes.

2000 was Bush vs. Gore. My hippieish Quaker college had just spent the previous two months imploding into itself over The Nader Question. [Quick note for those of you too young to remember The Nader Question: Picture every single day on Twitter, but played out in person between young white men wearing Phish shirts and young white men wearing Dismemberment Plan shirts]. I don’t have to describe the off-campus couch where myself and what felt like 20 other people watched the results that night; I can guarantee that it was identical to the couches where you likely spent the lion’s share of your early 20s.

I also don’t have to describe the mood in the room over the course of the night. I’m sure you can picture it. It started out light and dumb. It got tenser as time went on. The Nader/Gore thing kept creeping up. I specifically remember at one point a buddy came back from the bar, barged into the room, pointed his finger at a swing-state Nader voter, yelled ‘THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT, MATT!” and then walked right back out the door.

By midnight, we were still all watching Florida. I went to bed feeling confused. Over the next few days, that confusion would turn to helplessness as the news was first filled with images of preppy young Republicans storming a voting office and then with reports of an all too tidy and sudden Supreme Court decision. It all seemed very organized and coordinated but somehow out-of-reach. It took me many years later to realize that we could have protested, we could have engaged in civil disobedience, we could have been the news story. We didn’t do that, though. We voted and watched.

Did the 2004 election really happen? God bless John Kerry, but was all that just a collective fever dream? Here’s what I’ve got: I was teaching in New Mexico. I really liked the folks with whom I watched results that night. I am almost certain that I was a subpar instructional leader the next day.

Oh, I remember Barack Obama’s speech at the DNC. I fell hard for that speech. Oh goodness I’m a sucker for a good speech.

Speaking of which…

2008 was a really pleasant evening

I was living in Madison, Wisconsin. My wife was in medical school, which meant that the house where we watched the results had a slightly better couch. Man, it was a great night. I was surrounded by med students, but for once none of them were talking about Boards study groups. We all cheered and hugged and spilled Spotted Cow on the carpet and then my wife and I rode our bikes back home. We crossed State Street and the undergrads were partying in the street and climbing lampposts and carrying on but in a chill and lovely way and it was just so thoroughly perfect.

The city in which I was living was full of thousands of young people who had been part of Obama’s vaunted OFA organizing army. The state in which I was living was rife for organizing— chock full of communities feeling increasingly left behind by an unequal world. You can imagine the story that could have been.

We could be forgiven for not talking about “what comes next” that night. The thing is, we never really got around to having that conversation. The Obama administration famously mothballed its organizing infrastructure and took a path rooted more in political pragmatism than populist imagination. The Tea Party showed up instead. We mocked them for being gauche and racist and astro-turfy but we didn’t really do anything in response. We voted and watched.

I watched the 2012 results alone

That was a weird one. I had spent the entirety of Obama’s first term focused on various jobs— on promotions and performance and internecine pettiness. It was nonprofit work so we were all doing out best to put something positive into the world, but goodness if so much of every day just felt like chasing each other’s tails. I was really depressed that fall and was showing up particularly poorly for lots of people in my life. I remember really looking forward to election night as a fun respite (“huh?” you’re saying; well… good point). My wife, herself exhausted from residency, wisely chose to just go to bed. I don’t remember what happened next but the whole night just felt dark and heavy and I didn’t even pay attention to the results even though my “team” won.

I didn’t know at the time that depression belied a deep craving for community and creativity and building non-competitive, non-hierarchical relationships. I wasn’t yet able to put my finger on why it’s impossible to build a better world if you spend all your time consumed by your day job. I didn’t know that the emptiness I was feeling wasn’t about me but was about all of us. All I knew to do was vote and watch and hope that I could trick myself into feeling better.

I mean, you don’t really need me to tell you about 2016

Has there been any story more over-told than that of the great white liberal primal scream of November 2016? Well, suffice to say, the Knox-Bucks household had one of those nights and one of those mornings. The only “local color” I’ll add is that my wife was profoundly pregnant at the time with our second child. We’re talking, “this baby is about to come any minute” pregnant. We were both 100% convinced that our daughter would arrive on election week. Instead, she wouldn’t make her entrance into the world until a couple surreal, fugue-state weeks later.

We talk a lot about that night and morning, but do we say enough about how weird so many of us were for many months afterwards? Goodness, it was tiring. Everything Mattered and Every Action Required an Immediate Reaction. Safety pins were encouraged. Safety pins were harangued. Lyft was temporarily declared to be a grand ally of justice, in contrast to something bad Uber did that I have since completely forget. People kept nodding seriously as they talked about Constitutional Crises and Faithless Electors. It was a lot. Sound, fury, etc.

State Library of New South Wales/Flickr

I write all this with some degree of embarrassment and regret, of course, but also a great deal of affection and grace— for myself and for that so-easily-mockable micro demographic of people like me. What I see in these stories is a whole lot of people who cared deeply about making our country a bit kinder and gentler. The problem is, we grew up in a time when concepts of solidarity and community and taking care of each other had been worn down by the three horsemen of American individualism (unfettered capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy). We were doing the things that we were told would be enough: we voted, we threw ourselves into our jobs, we focused on tending to our little plot of heaven.

A funny thing has happened in the subsequent four years though. More and more of our neighbors began experimenting with a very different and more active way of doing politics. They aren’t merely showing up to vote and then going about their lives. They aren’t assuming that “the other side” will be the one to apply pressure to people in power. They’re actually asking for the world they want to live in (and practicing building it with each other) rather than pre-negotiating their expectations downward. They aren’t waiting until they have the right job or right platform to make change- they’re just doing it. Most of the folks doing it best are younger than me. By design, as few of them as possible have aimed to be household names in their own right. A disproportionate number of them are Black and Latinx and Asian and Arab and Indigenous. They are imperfect and will make mistakes but mostly they rule and I love them. They are reclaiming a legacy that, though buried, has been the driving force between every one of the most positive changes to have ever taken place in our country.

This is all to say… there’s an election next week. It is all most of us can think about. At some point (a day later? a week later? may weeks later?) we’ll know where we stand. We’ll have a better sense as to the contours of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. Perhaps there will be cause for celebration, perhaps cause for mourning. There will be sighs of relief or lungs pulled tight with tension. Either way, we’re allowed permission to take a beat and calibrate. We’re exhausted, after all. There’s a lot going on. But then, please oh please, go build something. It could be small: a study group with your college friends, a modest mutual aid fund with your neighbors, an invitation to your church friends to get involved in an immigration justice group. Whatever it is, the point is to tend and water it and keep it growing over the long haul. It is to remind yourself that the work that matters is always there, that what happens every four years on election night isn’t our one single shot but the sum of everything we did or didn’t build in the intervening days. If I can help, then consider me part of your community. If I can’t, know that I’ll be cheering you on.

I voted yesterday. I’ll be watching results next week on my boring middle-aged person couch. But then I’ll get back to work. It will be hard and long but the thing I’ve discovered after twenty years of magical thinking is that it is in the moments when we say yes to the slow but joyful work of a lifetime that we create the possibility of building a better world.

This week’s song: “Changes” by Phil Ochs