When I was a kid, I always knew who my dad was going to vote for, because he told me. I presumed my mom would vote the same way my dad did back then. I definitely don’t want to give the impression that she would vote the same way my dad did because my dad TOLD her to or because she couldn’t think for herself. (How very patently absurd, but I digress.) I presumed my mom voted the same way my dad did because in my young mind, I thought that married people would tend to think alike on important topics like that.
Then one Thanksgiving, we were visiting my grandparents. My mom’s dad, my Grandpa Joyce, was the kindest, gentlest man I have ever known or will ever know, I’m sure of it. I remember this particular encounter so clearly because it’s the only time I remember that dear man saying a curse word to me. Not in front of me, not overheard in the next room, but to me. I had asked him who he had voted for in the election that had just passed. This must have been 1972, when I was nine and would have studied it in school.
“None of your gosh darned business,” he said. (OK, not a curse word by today’s standards, but pretty strong language for my grandpa.) I remember feeling a sharp sting in my gut, like I had accidentally wandered into a place where I wasn’t supposed to be and been caught. Grandpa saw that I was taken aback, so he reached into the sideboard door where he hid (or so he thought he hid – all of his grandkids knew about this) his stash of Brach’s butterscotch candy disks. Grandpa handed me one, took one for himself and sat down at the kitchen table, motioning for me to join him.
“Voting is something you do in private and you keep it to yourself,” he told me. “It’s personal.” I would find out later that my grandparents were like the James Carville and Mary Matalin of their time, without the yelling and the Cajun colloquialisms. My mom says she doesn’t think they ever voted for the same Presidential candidate in their lives. Mom can remember my grandmother saying she didn’t even know why they voted at all, because they always cancelled each other out. Grandma Joyce had a lot of strong opinions about everything and she definitely wasn’t afraid to share them, but politics was a topic that simply wasn’t discussed with her husband, or with anyone else for that matter. It was personal and it was private. And besides, what good would it do? None. Period.
I think of that moment with my grandpa often. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t really know about the political leanings or opinions of our family or friends or neighbors unless we found out by accident, or maybe in a conversation over the extended family dinner table, a conversation that would be set aside and forgotten as soon as the dishes were cleared. We didn’t know (not for sure, anyway) who the nightly newscasters voted for. We didn’t know who our teachers or preachers voted for. And we especially didn’t know or care who most of our favorite actors and actresses, or singers or variety show hosts voted for. We didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. The privacy of the voting booth was sacrosanct.
Here’s what I’m thinking tonight: Wouldn’t it be great if we could step back to a time where not only did we not know for sure how people voted or were going to vote, but we didn’t want to know? Where we didn’t think it was any of our business? Political passions have always run high in our country, but the difference is that we used to be taught that the voting booth was sacred. You couldn’t be fired from your job because of how you voted. You didn’t boycott a business because of how you thought the owner voted, because they didn’t tell you how they voted. You couldn’t be denied admission to a school or a community organization because of how you voted. And you certainly wouldn’t end a friendship because of how a person voted or attribute awful characteristics to someone you cared about simply because of how they voted.
Social media and the 24 hour news cycle ensure that not only do we know how almost everyone in our lives votes, but people seem to feel an obligation to tell people not only what they think about everything, but why we should think that way too, and, well, if you don’t, then we just can’t be friends. Not to mention, you’re stupid. Or you’re an -ist, of some sort.
My husband likes to say that the only thing that will unite the human race will be an invasion from outer space. He’s serious. I’d like to start with uniting just a circle of people in my world, regardless of what they think about an issue or how they are going to vote in the next election. I’d be happy if I never saw another “-ist” word on my social media feed again, as long as I live. Because it feels pretty impossible to try to find common ground with people I consider friends and have known since childhood when the first thing I see on my morning Facebook feed are posts about “Read this! Everyone who voted for this person is a (fill in your choice of horrible thing here.)” Wow. I don’t think I’m that horrible thing you said I was, and I don’t think you really even think I am that horrible thing you said I was. But it’s out there, and so rather than trying to reach out to say “hi, how are your kids?” or “let’s get together for lunch. I miss you,” I just scroll on past, I won’t comment, and – probably most importantly – my mind won’t be changed, nor will yours. And our friendship will be forever changed. Is it worth it?