There's a special election today in California and my parents, bless their (conservative) hearts, are working the polls in the town where I grew up.
Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I'm an über liberal who's passionate about politics. I come by it honestly — my mother was working as a diplomat in Madrid when she and my father met. (She was the cultural attachée for the Paraguayan government, which at the time, was a junta under Alfredo Stroessner.) And my father's always been a role model of civic engagement. So you might say that politics are in my blood.
The poli sci geek in me still smiles when I think about the '5' I earned on the AP US Government & Politics exam in high school. It's no surprise that I majored in political science, history, and sociology as an undergrad. Or that I've worked the polls five times. I used to volunteer with the International Rescue Committee, helping would-be citizens practice for their US citizenship civics exams. I've phone banked for several candidates and issues. I'm a religious NPR listener, New York Times reader, and all-around political animal. I belong to the National Organization for Women and am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. And if I still had cable, you can bet your ass that I'd be watching Jon Stewart or Bill Maher right now.
I'm currently reading Sarah Vowell's "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," an insightful gift from a friend. As I laugh my way through the pages, I'm realizing that I'm not the only one who grew up weirdly fascinated by all things political.
When I was a little girl, I remember being very excited to go to the polls with my father. (My mother was not a citizen; therefore, she couldn't vote.) My dad's polling place was in a neighbor's garage. A large American flag was posted on the door and Popi and I would quietly wait until it was his turn to step into the booth with his ballot book and vote.
My childhood was also filled with current events. Each night, my dad would turn on the evening news and read the newspaper. Over dinner, my father and mother would talk about politics and world events and when I was old enough, I joined the discussion.
In 1987, my dad asked my mother and I where we wanted to go on our summer vacation and I said "Washington D.C., Williamsburg, and Philadelphia." My mom wanted to go to France (it was the 200th anniversary of the revolution), but that would have to wait. After all, I was a twelve-year-old on a mission to see American history first-hand and it was the 200th anniversary of the constitutional convention. That passion continued in Mike Black's US history class and I won more than a few trivia and history challenges at Cope Junior High.
By the time I reached high school, I took AP US History from Tim Knapp and AP US Government & Politics from Mike Ware. I read Supreme Court decisions with passion and debated my classmates and teachers. By my senior year, I was a raging liberal and my parents were even more conservative than they had been to begin with. Sidebar: My father is GOP or die. My mom is a fascist. I say that because her family supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And she's spoken fondly of the dictator's draconian policies. I should ask her about Guernica sometime ...
Anyhow, there's a moment in "The Breakfast Club" where the Anthony Michael Hall nerd character is being ridiculed for his really crappy fake ID. When asked why he has it, he says "so I can vote." Although I never got the fake ID, I can honestly say that I related to that sentiment.
I went away to college when I was seventeen. That year, I fell in love with Bill Clinton's ideas and the prospect that he and Al Gore might actually unseat George H. W. Bush and be the first Democrats in office in what seemed like forever. I got into interesting arguments with Reza Naima, who lived upstairs in my dorm and was a hardcore Libertarian and fellow U2 fan. I debated with my father, who planned to vote the party line, and with my mother, who was so disgusted with Bush that she decided to phone bank for Perot, even though she wasn't a US citizen. (Her frustration at not being able to cast her vote was what made her finally trade in her green card and become a US citizen. That, and the fact that she's always recoiled at the 'Resident Alien' label. I can't say that I blame her.)
The first time I got to vote, I was so proud that I actually got a bit dewy-eyed at the polls. I also distinctly remember a photograph on the front page of the Los Angeles Times my sophomore year, showing a snaking line of people queued up at sunset to vote in the first free elections in South Africa. The caption included a detail about how most of them had gotten in line well before sunrise. Later that year, I read about SNCC volunteers during Freedom Summer and learned the horrible fates of Emmitt Till, Michael Schwerner, James Cheney, and Andrew Goodman. Then, a few years after graduation, I recoiled in shock when I learned the inhumane way that Matthew Shepard spent the last hours of his life. Just a few months ago, I was introduced to the story of Alice Paul and the other Iron-Jawed Angels.
And that's why I'm headed to the polls today and exercising my right to vote, in spite of New York Times articles that tell me voting is a purely symbolic act. I'll do my best to keep from getting tears in my eyes when I sign the registrar's roster for my precinct. The truth is I'm secretly glad to be maudlin about it. I revel in goosebumps and feeling my heart in my throat as I step into the voting booth.