Amid the thick smell of brown vinyl, I peered out of school bus windows in the fall of my fourth grade year, cataloguing the blue Gore/Lieberman and Bush/Cheney signs staked throughout my neighborhood. We didn’t have one in our lawn, and I don’t recall a single household conversation about the election, so I just idly watched the signs waver innocently back and forth with vague interest.
Later that fall, my friend and I were stopping by his grandparents’ house to earn our usual Coke and cookies when some mention of the election surfaced. I remember asking, “Does it really matter who wins the election?” The White House was states away, and people seemed generally pretty good, so did it really matter who flitted in and out of the Oval Office every day?
In this admittedly patchy memory, I remember my friend’s grandmother growing severe and informing me that yes, it mattered a great deal, in fact. What I remember clearly, though, is scootering home under the fresh burden of my own un-formed opinions, feeling that, even as a ten-year-old, I had a responsibility to be rooting for the right person.
Now, sixteen years later, I am, for the very first time, investing in a presidential election cycle. This is not to say I haven’t voted in the past two but instead that I’ve resolved to pay acute attention to the pre-November process this time around: I read debate re-caps, I follow political analysts, I chat politics with friends, and I dutifully check polls at 11:05 a.m. every morning. And even though I expect to have a few ulcers by November, it has been an invigorating endeavor, and I’ve learned so much. But as I reflect on the experience thus far, I realize that there’s one thing I’ve learned more than others: that what my friend’s grandma told me is only partially true. The winner matters, but it matters conditionally.
Before I continue, I want to be straightforward. I am very much “with her.” I am an enthusiastic supporter of Secretary Clinton and think we are very fortunate to have someone of her intelligence, experience, and resilience as a candidate for our nation’s highest office. I think she is the Hermione Granger of U.S. politics and the only remaining candidate possessing the capacity to find middle ground, an increasingly rare terrain in our political topography.
Additionally, I believe that Mr. Trump is an opportunistic, misogynistic bully who brings out the worst in all of us, individually and collectively, and whose success continues to legitimize the discriminatory views and violent actions of our nation’s most alarming bigots. However, I’m going to try to set that aside (spoiler alert: I won’t succeed) because what I’ve learned in this election cycle is that the victor of this campaign doesn’t matter for me.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to me. It means that if Mr. Trump wins this November, I will angry-cry, I will briefly lose faith in humanity, I will whine about it on Facebook, I will endure many lines of incredulous questioning from my European friends, and then I will be fine. Regardless of who wins, a few dollars will ruffle in or out of my bank account and State of the Union addresses may or may not ruffle my feathers, but my life will remain safely buffered from any drastic change. I am an upper-middle class, college-educated, white, Protestant male. I’ll be ok.
However, if Sunday school and this election cycle have taught me anything, it’s to think beyond myself to the people on the margins of society and the front lines of change. I think of the first-grader who lies awake at night fearing that her mother will be deported or the Syrian refugee who wonders if his kids will be able to play Rec league soccer without being bullied or the boy in the South Bronx who is still hungry even though his mom works two jobs. The results of this election cycle may not matter much for me or, demographically speaking, probably you, my dear reader, but they matter an incredible amount to others.
This is why it frustrates me to hear people complain that they feel like they’re choosing between two evils or that they’ll just stay home on Election Day or that they’ll pack up and move to Canada if things don’t go their way. I have two responses to this:
First, people who say those things have the privilege to say those things. Now, I’m sure that that first-grader and that refugee and that South Bronx boy are all thoroughly lovely human beings that want you to be fulfilled and successful and happy in life, but honestly, they probably don’t give a rat’s ass about whether or not you cast a ballot “that you can feel proud of” or if you managed to find a candidate “that represents you.” What they really want is good food and equal educational opportunities and a parent to tuck them in. Some of our fellow citizens are more concerned with finding a regular place to sleep than if you can sleep easy after Election Day.
And second, in an increasingly polarized political climate, it seems that outrage and refusal to compromise has trickled down from Congress to our own households, making us think that democracy is an all-or-nothing game. It’s the opposite. As David Brooks writes in his fantastic article “The Governing Cancer of Our Time”: “The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.”
I have been disappointed many times since choosing to follow this election so intently. What I’ve learned, though, is that I’m willing to accept that disappointment, to shoulder the burden of my finite vote, to compromise my values, and to wrestle with my principles if there’s even a hope for bettering the lives of my friends and fellow citizens on the margins. I’ve learned that a vote for myself is very nearly wasted, but a vote for my transgender friends and my Muslim peers and my friends’ and cousins’ daughters really does matter.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.