Our Greatest Civic Ritual
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
This year my polling place was across the street from my apartment. Nice, I thought. I showed up at 6:05am wearing a pullover and no coat, expecting to be in and out. It turns out that they had five voting booths and a line that went on for blocks. There was a guy ahead of me in line wearing a gorilla suit. His vote counts the same as mine. It was 40 degrees out. An election official named Ron propped the door open just as I got inside, creating a nice wind tunnel, making it even colder indoors than out. Thanks for that, Ron. Eighty minutes later, I am back at home writing this while trying to unthaw.
Good God, I love Election Day.
Aristotle conceived of politics in a democracy as citizens gathering in the public square to collectively determine how we ought to order our life together. As is often misunderstood, however, we do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic, where the people decide who gets to make the decisions. And so every four years we have Election Day. We decide who will, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, be the decider.
It is remarkable when you think of it. Judging by the previous election, by the end of the day more than 130 million ballots will have been cast in this, our greatest civic ritual. Power will be allocated by the people: the Democrats get to have this many seats in the House, the Republicans get to have this many in the Senate. The most powerful person in the world will be selected: the president of the United States.
Except for a few isolated incidents, the decision of who will hold the most powerful office in the world will be made peaceably, without threat of violence or coercion, by public action.
And this enormous, consequential, historic decision will be made by regular folks showing up in the cold — some idiots among them not wearing coats — holding Starbucks holiday cups in their hands, complaining that they’ll be late for work, waiting to cast a ballot.
What’s most impressive is what won’t be there. There won’t be soldiers. There won’t be guns. There won’t be tanks and weapons. No jets flying overhead. There will be campaign representatives, but they won’t be strong-arming or intimidating anyone. Except for a few isolated incidents, the decision of who will hold the most powerful office in the world will be made peaceably, without threat of violence or coercion, by public action.
What in the history of mankind would make you think that such a thing was possible?
I am already on record as believing that President Obama will win re-election. But what if he doesn’t? Will he try tomorrow to secure the loyalty of the military and to deny Mitt Romney the throne? Will he try to keep the power he has by force? Of course not. This is so far outside the realm of possibility that most wouldn’t even think of it.
I ask again: What in the history of mankind would make you think that such a thing was possible?
May the best man win? No, not quite. But may the man best for the country win? There you go. That’s right on the mark. But the problem with a republic is that the people may not know the best man for the country. Perhaps we should simply define the best man as the man the people want? We’ll let the political philosophers sort that one out. It matters not today.
The problem with a republic is that the people may not know the best man for the country.
What matters today is the great release from this long, long drama. Will Sarah Palin run? Newt is in the lead. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9. Donald Trump, seriously? Which agencies will you eliminate, governor? You didn’t build that. The 47 percent. Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. Big Bird. Chris Matthews’s head exploding after the first debate. Joe Biden puttin’ y’all back in chains.
What matters today are “I Voted” stickers and exit polls. The results from Loudoun County, Virginia. Twitter and Facebook and the lunch conversation at AEI. Emails and texts with old friends. Is turnout up or down? Is it raining in the swing states? Did you hear what Henry Olsen said? Or Michael Barone? Or George Will? Parties tonight. Scotch to celebrate an unlikely victory by Mr. Romney; gin to numb the pain of the president being reelected for Four. More. Years. The results are coming in: Ohio. Florida. New Hampshire. Virginia. Wisconsin.
Good God, I love Election Day. It feels like a miracle every time. At its best, it is a moment of great national unity. At its worst, it is something that generations past would never have believed possible. It is exhilarating.
Michael R. Strain is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Strain also writes “England’s Deep Magic.” Michael M. Rosen asks, “Are We Doomed No Matter Who Wins?" Lee Harris discusses “Obama and Second Chances.” Jonah Goldberg questions "Why Are Elections So Scary?" and offers "A Vote for Election Day." Norman J. Ornstein says "Here's How to Avoid Another Election Debacle."
Image by Bergman Group