The “P” Word:

Making Peace with Politics

by Robin Bonner

P and R
It’s said that there are two things you should never discuss at dinner parties and family gatherings: religion and politics. And, as I talked about religion in the winter issue, it’s only fitting that I give equal attention to politics in the spring. The point, of course, is neither religion nor politics—what matters is the meaning of our beliefs to us as we age. What we can ignore when we’re younger, we’re less likely to live with later on, and it’s interesting how we feel compelled to (finally) act on our beliefs. So, bear with me.

I grew up in a staunchly conservative family. Without realizing it, Dad modeled himself after “Archie Bunker” of the 1970s-era sitcom All in the Family. His favorite quips were, simply, “There are liberals and there are Americans” and “You show me anything wrong with this country, and I’ll show you how it’s the fault of the liberals.” That’s about as black and white as it gets. My mom followed suit, although less vocally and more implicitly. And, I know there are people who feel that way today. I’m not one of them. With me, however, it's not so black and white.

I went off to college in 1975, at the dawn of the environmental movement. I had already “discovered nature” camping with my family as a child, and I continued to be drawn to outdoor activities as a young adult. At school, I took up with a bunch of hikers and rock climbers. We “saved St. Anthony’s Wilderness,” became members of REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), and discovered the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. John Denver gave us a Rocky Mountain High. I met my husband, Gary; we were both officers in our college Outing Club. We graduated and married. Gary found a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources and I with a major college textbook publisher, where I worked on biology and environmental science (among other) books. After 30 years, we’re still employed in the same fields.

I don’t remember voting at 18, but I know that, in the first presidential election I participated in, I pulled the lever for Jimmy Carter. I felt bad for Carter about the Iran hostage crisis (he was in office at the wrong time), and I still think highly of him today. He was a friend of the earth and of peace, and so has been a friend of mine. I think one could argue that he’s done more in his lifetime to help humankind than any U.S. president to date (other than, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln). Anyway, Dad learned to live with my new ideas. We sparred occasionally, but, much to his credit, he took it all in stride. I learned a lesson from him about unconditional love.

All About the Money
I understood where Dad was coming from: He worked hard for his salary, and because my mother didn’t work outside our home, our family’s finances were very tight and money was always an issue.

Mom and Dad, on their wedding day.
Dad was born just after the Great Depression. His father was out of work for a lot of his adult life, and Dad’s mother, the breadwinner, was a scrimper. Dad didn’t like to see his taxes increase to fund social services (i.e., welfare) for people who weren’t working like he was. He worked like the dickens, too: all week at work, then on the weekend, he maintained and upgraded our home. It was as simple as that, and I could see his point. After eight years of Catholic elementary school, we attended public high school because Dad’s tax dollars were paying for it. Same thing with community college. Most of Dad’s most important decisions were based on money—and the more economical alternative always won.

Finances weren’t the only driver for Gary and me when we began our married life, however. We chose idealistic (although not very financially lucrative) careers, but, because we both worked, we could base our decisions on our ideals and not solely on costs. When we bought our first car, a Toyota, Dad asked why we would want to spend so much money on a car (as is the case today, Toyotas cost more than Fords). We said it was because it used less gas. His immediate reply was, “You could have bought a heck of a lot of gas for that money!” He couldn’t relate to the idea of saving the earth’s resources—we paid more for the car because we wanted to consume less fossil fuel, not because we didn’t want to pay for it.

As we grew older, we adopted other “liberal” views: that all Americans should be treated equally, women and men should be paid the same for the same work, and everyone should be treated with respect, regardless of their lifestyle choices. Although we raised our children as Catholics, the denomination in which we grew up, we came to embrace the philosophies of different religious denominations and even the idea of no organized religion at all. We looked for common ground among various beliefs, and we discussed these views openly with our kids. We’re not fans of abortion, but we think women should decide how to handle their pregnancies. (And, when given the opportunity, we encourage them to have the child.) Consequently, we’ve never based our voting decisions on only one issue. We embrace science as an important part of our thinking, but we also consider the ethics of a decision. What we learned in history, geography, and sociology classes was that people are basically the same everywhere—they have the same needs and wants—and their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be protected from the greed of the few.

Books shouldn’t be censored, but we should discipline ourselves, and our children should also learn discipline, to make good choices about what to read. We don’t hate any particular group, and we discourage hate in others. We don’t think our religion makes us “more right” than other people. We value our education and felt that it was important for our children to have a good one, as well. We promote education for everyone, especially for both genders in cultures that do not emphasize educating girls. We believe that world citizens should obtain a well-rounded, uncensored education, that this is the best solution to many of the world’s problems. Many people hate those who are different from themselves because of fear and ignorance. The only way to combat that is for everyone to be broadly educated—to learn how to weigh all options and think for themselves. Although Gary and I both always worked hard and taught our children to do the same, we are comfortable with paying taxes to support services for the public and the less fortunate.

Through the years, I would often get out to vote in an election, but sometimes I wouldn’t. I’d almost never get out for a primary. All that changed about 10 years ago, when I realized the importance of each and every vote. And I have no doubt that the fact that I was approaching midlife also had something to do with it. As I aged, I found I was becoming more and more fixed in my political leanings, and it has become less and less likely that I will change my mind. (If my ideals haven’t changed in more than 30 years, good chance they aren't going to.)

In 2000, I was enthusiastic about Al Gore, who would have been the most environmental president of all time. I got involved with the election as an “official” poll worker—my first stint at the polls—and found the process interesting. I never paid much attention to “civics” in school, so I had to learn a lot. (I’m still learning.) I felt I wanted to “do something” during that election, though, and so that was it. I cried when Gore lost, especially because the problems with the voting process (hanging chads in Florida, etc.) cast doubt on the outcome. It was amazing that such irregularities could exist in the U.S., the “cradle of democracy.” Some people object to the two-party system, but, voting outside that system (i.e., for Ralph Nader) got us the result we had in that election. It certainly cured me of any urge to become an Independent.

Then, in 2001, our country found itself dealing with the cataclysmic events of 9/11. And, instead of cultivating the world’s sympathy and waging a full-out war in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden and put al-Qaeda out of business, in 2003 we invaded Iraq, with only tales of “weapons of mass destruction” as an impetus. (Where are the "pro-lifers" when it comes to war, I wonder?) Congress, giving the benefit of the doubt to the commander-in-chief, went along with the plan. I remember feeling stunned. I figured we were calling Iraq’s bluff and that nothing would come of it—until the radio broadcasted news of the first attacks. I’m still stunned, in fact. Consequently, I spent eight years pretty depressed about the direction in which our country was headed. Only Comedy Central lightened things up: Thank God for Jon Stewart.

Fast-forward to 2008. Finally, we’re going to have the chance “for change.” I understood some people’s issues with Hillary Clinton, but I was all for the first woman president to be elected during my lifetime. And, I figured she earned it, after putting up with Bill. (Damn him. Such a bright guy, otherwise.) Again wanting to “do something,” in the May 2008 primary, I signed up to drive people to the polls in a neighboring borough. It made me feel involved and helpful. And, it was another interesting election. When Hillary finally conceded to Obama, I was fine with switching my allegiance. I had edited a book about Barack Obama (and researched photos for the same) a couple of years earlier, and I liked what I read about him. A well-educated, intelligent man who worked with the underprivileged of Chicago, helping them to improve their neighborhoods. And, a black American. How cool was that? Almost as good as the first woman. I felt I could really connect with all of this. The environment would become a priority once again. I was hopeful.

Naturally, when Obama won the election, the Bonners celebrated. Maybe now this country would get back on track: rather than lining the pockets of those benefiting from big business and the war machine, we would have affordable healthcare (just as our younger daughter graduated college) and coverage regardless of preexisting conditions, a commitment to sound environmental practices, and regulation of the financial industry. Even the priests at our church stopped preaching their usual one-issue politics from the pulpit. In fact, I caught a sermon by one visiting priest that stressed voting for “social justice” issues—with no mention of "pro-life"—a first in quite a long time. I was giddy with expectation.

Local Politics
So, in January 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as 44th President of the United States. I was surprised and delighted with the respect shown him during the inauguration and afterward by mainstream media newscasters and all members of Congress. Everything was so civilized—the ceremonies, the broadcasts. As a country, we seemed to be turning a new page. We would surely work together to move forward.

Well, the honeymoon lasted for about a month. Since then, it seems to me that there are a lot of “poor sports” on the other side of the aisle, especially after Democrats sat things out for eight years, and did so somewhat civilly. Whereas the Bush-era Democratic Congress made some mistakes (e.g., approving the war in Iraq), their errors were usually in being too conciliatory, if anything. Prevailing today, however, we have a “we’ll do anything to see him fail” attitude that all but cripples the country. That alone has only added fuel to my midlife fire. Why does it seem that people can't work together for the best of our country?

In light of all of this, in the fall of 2009, I found myself thinking about how I could, in some small way, try to make things better. What could I do?

Robin with Nancy and Arthur Fairclough, officers of the Perkiomen Valley Area 15 Democrats (treasurer, secretary, and area leader).
Where we live, in a rural area about 35 miles from Philadelphia, Republicans are well organized and “man” the polls, whereas Democrats don’t really have a presence here. It’s a normal occurrence to go over to the polling place to vote and not see one Democratic banner, one Democratic poll-worker, or one Democrat greeting voters. Basically, in the 25 years or so we’ve lived here, we’ve always felt like we were the only ones. Then came my chance to help.

A good friend of ours, treasurer of the local Democratic political action committee (yes, apparently, there was one), decided it was time to step down. And, he was looking for a replacement. We attended a fundraising picnic the group was co-sponsoring, and the area leader approached me about taking over the treasurer’s position. I would have to give it some thought. I’m an editor, not an accountant. It’s easy, they told me. Right.

It was thus that I became treasurer of the Perkiomen Valley Area 15 Democrats. I began to attend meetings, get my feet wet doing a few financial reports for the state and county, and help with pre-election postcards (yay for my writing/editing skills!). I then spent Election Day 2009 handing out Democratic literature at our polling place. (I was appointed committeeperson for our precinct by our area leader.) Election Day itself was nerve wracking (can you say "freak out"?), but the rest was fun. I always hated to feel like the only Democrat voting at the poll. In 2009, though, I was the only Democratic poll greeter, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. As it was, I hung out with several school board candidates (as such, they appear under both parties on the ballot), and even the Republican committeeperson warmed up to me eventually. Everyone was nice, and by the time the polls closed, we were all joking around as if we’d known each other for years. It took a great act of courage on my part to just be there, but I survived and was a better person for the experience. I was doing what I could to combat political divisiveness at the local level.

So here we are, in the midst of spring 2010 and my first full primary election season. As our group’s monthly meetings progressed, we agreed to make phone calls to invite other registered Democrats to get involved. Each voting precinct is given two slots for official poll workers from each party (inspectors and clerks, who help sign in the voters). The judge of elections is appointed by the majority party. Each group can provide an official “poll-watcher” as well as an unlimited number of unofficial "poll greeters," who hand out literature about the candidates and issues. Of course, each precinct should also have two committee members organizing everything, but I would be happy if I could convince enough people to fill the “official” slots and ensure that there would be a friendly face (or two) to greet Democratic voters. (In reality, the number of Democrats in this area almost equals the number of Republicans, so the groups aren’t really that far off, although that’s not the way it feels.) Out here, Republican fill most government posts, and the Democrats have traditionally "stayed in the closet."

We obtained “super voter” lists from the county Democratic committee. The lists show the most involved Democrats—the ones who voted regularly. I made 20 to 30 calls and finally convinced two lovely retired ladies to sign up as minority inspector and minority clerk for our precinct. Amazingly, everyone I talked with was enthusiastic (or at least polite), and I soon compiled an email/mailing list that would facilitate getting information out easily in the future. A number of people agreed to help at my precinct and the neighboring one the day of the primary. My dream of a friendly, two-party polling place may just become a reality.

The big day came and went, with much success. People commented that they hadn't seen a Democratic poll greeter in a while (if ever). They were happy to see us. We laughed and carried on. (I had two people on all shifts except where I filled in once or twice, alone.) Upon meeting our local (Republican) tax collector, we all but asked for his autograph. "Bet you'll only get such a warm reception from a Dem. They're the only ones who enjoy paying taxes!" we told him. He couldn't resist a big smile. Our guy running for state rep didn't come out on top of the special election (to complete the existing term), but there's always the fall. Just having a cheerful presence at the polls (all 11 of us) would be enough for now.

I’m hoping that eventually, we’ll have a healthy, civilized, local two-party system, where no one is afraid to vote or to let on that he or she belongs to one party or the other. Maybe at some point, we’ll even be able to discuss the issues, reasonably, without fear or hate. After all, we may have different points of view, but we all want the same things for our families. At the local level, we aren't much different from one another. And, by working together, perhaps we'll provide a role model for those at the national level. For, "as different as we are, we'll still the same."

I feel better already. Thank goodness for midlife crises and the way they propel us into action . . .

Robin C. Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us

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