Friday, March 10, 2000
When local voters went to the polls on Tuesday, there was a blank section on the primary ballot in a slot that has traditionally been filled with a list of Carlisleans seeking their neighbors' endorsement. Who were these missing candidates? They used to be aspirants for elected positions as members of their Democrat or Republican town committees, the folks who interview prospective candidates for state offices, hold caucuses, endorse office seekers, write to newspapers and proclaim their support of candidates or referenda with signs and pamphlets at the transfer station.
In the past, officers of the two local political organizations vied with one another for the quantity and quality of potential committee members that appeared on their respective primary ballots. So what happened this time, or more important, why should anyone care?
As it turned out, the two town committees recovered from their embarrassing omission via last minute write-ins or stickers, but the broader significance of the two- party goof remains disturbing. It mirrors a well-documented trend in the national body politic, the apparent withering of political participation at the grass roots. Voter turnout has been falling over the past three decades, and although Carlisleans do relatively well on that score, the town was not alone in its failure to field a local candidate slate. According to town clerk Sarah Andreassen, her counterparts across the Commonwealth reported a similar vacuum in town after town.
Political analysts point to a number of causes; disillusionment with scandal and evasion among the top echelons of government, disgust with the posturing and obstructionism that have characterized so much of the political process in Washington. Above all they cite a sense of powerlessness in the face of a system usurped by those who dole out campaign money in obscene amounts to influence the course of legislation. To quote former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "People see that the parties have become money machines, not people machines."
All that admitted, critical issues are at stake in this election. Republicans, Democrats and Independents agree on what most of those issues are, if not on how they should be approached. But unless there is unavoidable pressure from the voters, whether at whistle stops, at televised debates, or in letters to the respective campaigns, the issues will not be explored in any depth.
At a time when mega-mergers are putting all sources of news, commentary and entertainment in the hands of fewer and fewer media moguls and when we are encouraged to skip over the difficult topics and seek happiness in ever greater consumption and non-stop entertainment, citizen activism is more critical than ever. But can one person or ten people or even 100 people do anything to change the equation?
Citizen organizations are often the most effective means for compiling the research necessary to define an issue, draft referenda, propose legislation and finally arouse vocal public support. Although they often do not realize it, such grassroots groups can often gain support through their local Republican and Democrat committees, if they just go talk to themand this brings me back to last Tuesday.
Of course, party organizations are established first and foremost to select candidates and win elections. However, if they are functioning effectively, they can also serve as sources of personnel, organizational know-how and influential contacts to help non-partisan groups achieve political goals. They are, after all, people who care enough about government to work at it. Further, office holders at state and even national levels do care what their local committees report is important to voters in their towns and districts.
Finally, we forget at our national peril that grassroots participation, whether through parties or non-partisan activity, is the lifeblood of American democracy. If, as the candidates on the campaign trail keep telling us, the government is to be returned to the people, the people must take it back. What the Republic needs at this kaleidoscopic juncture in our history is not a nation of consumers and observers, but a nation of citizens.
Seba Gaines is a long-time activist in the Democratic Party.
I've been feeling mortal lately; it comes with passing the great Senior Citizen birthday. At 15, or even at 30, life stretches out like the Yellow Brick Road, endless and promising infinite possibilities. There's time to make CEO, write the novel, travel to Timbuktu, read Proust, and get the kids through medical school. Not to mention cleaning out the basement. So you put everything off, knowing that there's always tomorrow.
Pilots have a saying that there's nothing more worthless than the altitude above you or the runway behind you. After my 60th birthday, I suddenly found a lot of runway behind me. The past few weeks, I've been feeling the limits of life. There's nothing hovering ominously over my head, but that endless future potential has vanished.
The future, I see now in wise hindsight, consists largely of fantasies. Some are sensible ones: career choices, rearing family and financial planning. Looking back, I see that plans go askew more often than not. We imagine our future, do our best to achieve it, and adapt when things change, steering through the rapids with a chart of dreams.
The past, we think, is more solid than the misty future. We know what happened, or so we think, but we remember selectively and rewrite histories. When I talk with my mother and brother about shared events, we tell different stories; we have constructed different pasts. Who is to say which, if any, is "true"?
So, old at last, I'm trying to live in the present moment, where things are as real as they're going to get. The old dreams have gone stale, but it doesn't matter. I'll never read beyond volume six of the nine volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. I'll never get to Timbuktu. My basement may get cleaned out when I move to a retirement home. The "meaning of life" is more modest now the meaning of sun and pussy willows and a walk around the cranberry bog.
I wish I could have understood the limitations of life at 15or at 30. It's so much easier to appreciate the little things than to yearn for glory and riches and seeing the world. What I wanted so badly seems silly nowneighbors to envy a fancy car or a big ski trip or a generous income. Now I have my pussy willows, and soon I'll have ladies' slippers, blueberries and the daffodils planted where the oil tank used to be. I sit in my cozy nest and write as the eastern sky turns to peach and magenta and copper red. Right here and now is where it's happening; anytime else is a fantasy. I'm learning to make the most of it.
Even the boring moments provide much to savor. Sitting in a waiting room, enduring a traffic jam, or conversing with the Wrong Person at a dinner party is "boring," because the mind craves something more exciting. Even in those moments, there is so much to observe and enjoy. The Wrong Person holds interesting secrets buried deep inside.
Getting old isn't all aches and pains and wrinkles. It can be a great release, when you can finally let go the dreams of future and past. Right now is a pretty good time to live.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito