You’re right from your side
And I’m right from mine.
We’re both just one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind.
— Bob Dylan (1964)
It is upon us like a welter of locusts, the quaint quadrennial ritual of presidential politics entering its endgame. I already know how I’m going to vote, but that’s irrelevant here.
What interests me is a question that has been on my mind for some time. It has weighed on me more of late, as my distaste for the tenor of the campaign — dating back to the Republican primary season, by itself a low point in the history of public discourse — has me disappointed in my own preferred candidate and revolted with the other. The trough of fear and spite through which the 2012 campaign slouches toward Election Day grows deeper and darker with each passing news cycle.
The question, then, is this: Does it matter who wins?
Thinking about the answer to that question brings to mind some potential qualifiers, beginning with the brutal, barren fact that we live in a country that is fundamentally divided on the very idea of America. This division is not along two party lines, but is rather an expanding web of political fissures, widening rapidly along fault lines that are burrowed deeply into the national bedrock.
Judging by the level of our discourse, America is a nation of shouters and finger-pointers. Americans argue past each other, rapt in the zeal of delivering themselves of their own opinions, categorically loathe to accept even the prospective validity of another. They — meaning We — seek affirmation of their prejudices in echo chambers of like-minded ideologues. They treat honest differences of opinion as grounds for character assassination, if not worse. There is Right and there is Wrong and never the twain shall meet — except that it does, in the never-ending conflict over whose version of America will play against the backdrop of the next four years.
This endless election cycle has ill effects on the body politic. For one thing, it perpetuates a bitterly partisan atmosphere that greatly reduces the likelihood that any president — or, for that matter, the federal government as a whole — can succeed on anything more than a piecemeal basis (unfortunately, it does nothing to decrease the likelihood that a president might fail on a superlative scale). It also masks, or at least obscures, our collective apprehension of certain facts about our country and its place in the 21st century.
We can argue all day and all night about who’s to blame and why, but the fact remains: We’re in a tight spot. Or, to put it in terms to which most of us good Alabamians can relate, we’re getting well over into the fourth quarter and we need a touchdown. That’s no position to be in when nobody in the huddle trusts anybody else and everybody’s out for Number One. We fumble away another opportunity or two, and there goes the season. Hell, there goes the program.
Or maybe it’s not as cataclysmic as all that. Maybe it’s just that the country has grown too big and too divided to govern as such. Maybe the United States should split into a loose confederation of five or six republics, with boundaries determined roughly by predominant political philosophies and affiliations. Maybe our future could be one of peaceful coexistence rather than scorched-earth political warfare.
Or maybe we’re stuck with each other and just need to embrace that and make the best of what we have. On that note, maybe the thing to do is focus the preponderance of our political attention locally. The local level — the block, the neighborhood, the council or commission or legislative district — is by far the most immediate point of contact between citizens and government. It also is where the individual’s vote means the most, where the investment of engagement has the greatest potential to yield a tangible return. To steal yet another term of some residual currency, local politics is where the rubber meets the road.
Even so, I believe strongly that it does matter who wins the Presidential election. I believe that one candidate is clearly superior to the other, and that the outcome of their contest will have impacts in several areas of fundamental importance. I believe the term “economic recovery” will have a vastly different meaning and effect if my candidate wins than if the other man does.
What I do not believe is that someone who takes views opposite mine, or who votes for a candidate other than the one I support, is by definition an idiot, a subversive or a proponent of class, racial or economic warfare. Indeed, if the rifts in our nation are to heal, if we are ever to arrive again at a shared vision of what America is and should be, the politics of division must be subjugated. That happens one person, one group, one community at a time, until momentum for transformational change builds.
Which brings us back to the local level, our deeply divided little corner of this deeply divided big country. Even as we make our respective choices at the polls this fall, my hope is that we return our focus quickly to a future closer at hand and more within our command. I hope that we become habitually attuned to what might happen in Birmingham — in what we might accomplish here, together, building on the foundation of our innate strengths.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to him at email@example.com.