Politics Then. Politics Now.

November 2, 2020

It’s the eve of what’s commonly being called “the most important election of our lives.” In addition to the non-stop encouragements to vote, the last couple months have also been filled with reminders for all of us to take care of ourselves, protect our mental health, to stay calm and control our emotions no matter the outcome.

In short, there’s a lot at stake tomorrow. This presidential election matters. A lot.

It didn’t used to be this way.

Oh, I know presidential elections always matter. But not like this one. Has there been a presidential election where the fear of domestic violence led to scenes like this?

I was born in 1968 and grew up in a politically mixed home. My dad leaned conservative, while mom leaned liberal. They never argued about politics. In fact, they rarely spoke about politics — especially presidential politics.

Much more important back then were state and local politics. I didn’t know much about Jimmy Carter other than what I heard about him during the Iran hostage crisis. I only knew a little more about Ronald Reagan when he became president, but I was pretty familiar with Milton Shapp and Dick Thornburgh. They were our governors in Pennsylvania through most of the 70s and 80s — my childhood, basically. We didn’t live in the city of Philadelphia, but from watching local news I was well aware of mayors Rizzo, Green, and Goode.

During election years and seasons, dinner conversations in our house were much more likely to be about who was running for the Middletown Township Board of Supervisors or the Bucks County Board of Commissioners. My dad spent his life in real estate, so I also remember conversations about who was running the local housing authority and organizations like that.

Back then, the federal government wasn’t nearly as big a part of the daily fabric of our lives as it is today. Decisions made (or not made) at the federal level just didn’t have a huge, direct impact on the daily lives of a lot of Americans* — and certainly not on our family.

(It’s not because we were wealthy and super privileged, either. I had a comfortable, middle-class childhood. For a time in the 70s, we owned a second home at the Jersey shore. That was pretty unusual. But at the same time, there were at least 3-4 periods of my childhood where my mom needed to work a 9-5 job to help pay the bills. In the 1970s/80s, that wasn’t nearly as common as it is today. Most of my friends had a mom waiting at home when they got home from school.)

State, county, and city politics back then? That’s the stuff that mattered.

Things are totally different today.

Government is much bigger. It spends 4-5 times more than it did in the 1980s. As a society, we rely on the federal government to do more than we used to. (see graph below) We have higher expectations of the federal government. We somehow expect it to right (almost) all wrongs and solve (almost) all our problems.

I think we ask and expect far too much of the federal government. Congressional approval ratings seem to hover in the 20-30% range, yet we keep wanting to let them keep more of our money to do more things that they usually do very poorly.

In this year’s election, some of the biggest topics involve the idea of the federal government providing health care to all Americans, providing a salary to all American adults, providing education to all students, and so forth. We are asking too much of the federal government.

Because of how media (traditional and social) functions today, many of us have allowed our identities and self-worth to become embroiled in who’s sitting in the Oval Office. I don’t need to go into much depth about how divided we are, and how tribal life is today in this country. For too many of us, letters like GOP and DEM are more important than USA.

Because of all this, federal elections matter more than they ever have. As long as we keep pushing for bigger government, for government to play a deeper role in our daily lives, this is going to continue. Not just continue, but it’ll get worse.

I liked it the old way.

*Note that I’m not saying federal laws and decisions never had any impact on anyone. That’s clearly not true and I’d never suggest such a thing.

(stopwatch image by anncapictures from Pixabay)

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