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An Open Letter To My Neighbors Who Are Electing Their First President

Posted by Elwin Green on November 3, 2016 at 12:25 AM

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Unfortunately, voting isn't usually this much fun.

To my neighbors, Isaiah and Dorian:


This letter is to follow up on the conversation we had a few weeks ago about this presidential campaign, and somewhat about politics in general. I really enjoyed that conversation; I think you guys are pretty sharp.

I've been thinking some more about how you're both in your early 20s, and how this is the first presidential election in which you will be able to vote. And I have to say...

I apologize.

I apologize because, as someone who has been an adult citizen for more than 40 years, I have helped to create the political landscape that lies before you now.

When I say “adult citizen,” I mean someone who is able to vote. I have voted in 11 presidential elections now, in which seven men have won the presidency, four of them twice. Double that number for congressional elections, since members of the House of Representatives have two-year terms. Add in elections for governors and for the statehouse, for mayor and for city council, and I have voted in more elections than I care to remember.

But somehow, it seems that — how can I say this? — I've never quite gotten the hang of it.

By that I mean that I have never walked into a voting booth, or walked up to voting machine, and cast a vote for every office shown, feeling confident that I was making a decision based both on good information and my own values.

Sometimes I've voted on the basis of party; sometimes I have voted on the basis of knowledge of a candidate; and in 2008, like Steve Harvey, I voted on the basis of race.

But voting on the basis of good information and my own values? Not much.

I could list multiple reasons for that, but none of them would be excuses. In fact, I would say that I, and other Baby Boomers, should be the wisest generation of voters ever. We saw a president assassinated, we saw a president resign, we saw a president refuse to seek re-election. We saw a president impeached, we saw a presidential election basically decided by the Supreme Court. As a generation, we should have mastered presidential politics by now.

But if we had, perhaps the leading two parties would not be able to block third party candidates from participating in presidential debates. If we had, perhaps no one could conduct a serious presidential campaign without ever mentioning the poor. If we had, perhaps climate change would have become a key issue on both parties' platforms a decade ago.

If we had gotten good at electing presidents who bring out the best of this country's potential, we certainly would not imprison more of our citizens than any other country in the world (mostly young Black men like yourselves).

Sorry — I'm supposed to be speaking for myself. If I had been a better voter — a better citizen — for these past 40 years, perhaps I would have helped to make those changes.

Anyway, here we are now, with an election right around the corner. And you have a lifetime of elections ahead of you after this one. And I would like to share some lessons that can help you to be a better citizen than I've been so far.

1. There's more to voting than electing a president and a vice-president. Much more. On Nov. 8, you will have the opportunity to cast votes for at least seven offices other than the presidency and vice-presidency: U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, State Senator, State Representative, and State Attorney General, Auditor General and Treasurer. In other elections, you'll be able to choose governors, mayors, sheriffs, city council members, county council members. Every choice deserves the best attention you can give it.

2. So-called “mid-term” elections are just as important as any others. These are the elections in the middle of a president's term in which we elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Some of us who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 didn't pay attention in 2010, and the Republicans took over the House and have controlled it ever since.

3. There's more to citizenship than voting. Citizenship requires ongoing awareness. So, develop trustworthy sources of information about what your government is doing — local, county, state and federal. If that seems like too much, start with the local level and build from there.

4. Let your elected officials know what you think about how they're doing. Call, write, use social media, whatever. Let them know that you're watching. Again, start with the local level. Why? Because the local level is where you will have the most influence and where your action can produce the most immediate results.

5. You can take your citizenship game to a whole new level by reading the U.S. Constitution. Even if you don't understand the entire thing right away, the act of reading it will make you politically smarter than 90 percent of Americans. Discuss it with your friends, and you're on your way to being political geniuses (pizza night, anyone?).

6. Act out your citizenship between elections. Sign online petitions. Attend meetings. Share what you know. Participate in fundraising activities for causes that you care about.

7. There are more than two parties available for your participation. As much as people speak of “the two-party system,” it only exists as much as we allow it to. If neither of the major parties suits your thinking, find one that does. Be prepared to work at building it, and be prepared to explain to people why you're there. Learn to vote for platforms, rather than for personalities.

8. Remember who is in charge. As citizens, every government employee works for us, and the entire machinery of government exists to serve us. Some folks would say here, “It wasn't designed for Black people,” and that's true, but we're here now as citizens rather than slaves. This should not make us arrogant, but it should give us a confidence that may look like arrogance to some people.

To quote Louis Brandeis, who was appointed to the Supreme Court a century ago, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen.”

Let that sink all the way in. And let's talk again sometime soon about this crazy world we've stuck you with.

Mr. Green


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A print version of this piece appears in the Nov. 3-9 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Friday at Baker's Dairy, 7300 Hamilton Ave., then SUBSCRIBE  for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!

Categories: Citizenship and Governance