I have lived through 16 presidential elections.
I don’t remember the 1956 election at all, possibly because I was two years old, although I do know that “Ike” and “Adlai” are frequent answers in crossword puzzles. What I recall about 1960 is probably more the result of historical videos (Nixon’s beads of debate sweat) than actual memories.
But I remember a little about Johnson-Goldwater. And in 1968 and 1972 I was involved. In 1968 and 1972, everyone was involved. That was because it mattered. You could get killed in Vietnam.
By 1976 I was disillusioned. I think I stayed that way for 24 years. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; it was just that I was beginning to suspect it didn’t make much of a difference who won. I don’t remember much of the campaign issues in those years, just the defining characteristics of the losers: Dukakis’ caterpillar eyebrows. Perot’s Dumbo-like ears. Dole’s T-rex arm that always held the pen. Ford’s clutziness.
It’s possible that my memories of those elections were entirely shaped by Saturday Night Live.
By 2000, the division of the country was becoming undeniable. It seems to me that this was the first time America got separated so definitively into red states and blue. Sure, the colors had been used to track results before that, but they were just that: colors.
Now they were feelings. They were identities. You were red or you were blue. Just like, once upon a time, you were blue or you were gray.
In 2004, even if you thought Bush was an incompetent liar, how excited could you really get about John Kerry? But then came elation nation–the ecstasy of hope and change Barack Obama brought to bear. Even if you didn’t like the result, you had the feeling that this was going to change everything.
And you were right. Everything got worse.
Not because of Barack Obama, but because of the colors. Congress began operating as if it was a sleep-away camp during color wars. Instead of America being “us,” the country became “us vs. them.” And there was nothing subtle about it. Even if Obama had nominated King Solomon for the Supreme Court, Republicans wouldn’t have considered him.
And so now our animosity has reached the grand finale, with a surprise ending. And I don’t remember people ever being so distraught about an election result.
It’s true that it’s much easier to be distraught these days. My contemporaries might have been downright suicidal when Nixon slaughtered McGovern in ‘72, but they couldn’t express their pain and sorrow instantly like we can now.
Now you could spend election night watching your online friends sink deeper into depression with each state that turned red. Increasingly dramatic emojis accompanied tweets that began nervously and escalated to overwrought despair as the evening went on.
And the morning after…if you happened to live in a blue state, or even a blue area of a red state, you saw folks moving zombielike through their days, not angry, not sad, but numb with disbelief.
They exchanged awkward comments about the Canadian border; suddenly-informed opinions about “America’s Brexit;” jittery jokes about stock market futures.
I didn’t receive an email–not even spam–until around 10:30. It was like the whole country was holding its breath, as if electing Trump was the equivalent of setting a detonator.
Oh, come on, America, breathe. If anything’s going to explode, it won’t be until mid-January. And don’t forget the really important election result: for the first time in years, the executive and legislative branches of our federal government are the same color. It may not be your favorite color, but at least it doesn’t clash with anything.
And at least something might get done.
It remains to be seen if that’s better than nothing.
See you soon.