Image Credit: HELVETIQ on Flickr
Amherst, Massachusetts, 1980: Reagan v. Carter
I’m floating peacefully in a warm sea of amniotic fluid, when the voice of Ronald Reagan penetrates my subdural Shangri-La. It reverberates through the nodes and ventricles of my mother’s body like the voice of Darth Vader, causing me to somersault and burrow deeper into the womb. There I wait, weeks past my due date, growing ever plumper and more powerful off my host.
On November 4th, my parents watch the election returns on our analog TV. I cringe away from the artificial light flickering across my flesh dome. Every few minutes, my father gets up to adjust the antenna, coaxing the signal from Springfield, Massachusetts, 25 miles away. The result is unchanged; Reagan is winning. My mother’s ribs contract, sending waves through my sea of tranquility. She thinks: how could any reasonably intelligent person be taken in by this slick Hollywood salesmen? Surely, we will all be blown to nuclear high heaven before his four years are up. Heeding the warning knell of her heartbeat, I cross my arms and legs and stay put, undeceived by the midwives’ crafty attempts, in the weeks that follow, to trick me into a more favorable presentation.
I manage to delay my arrival until November 26th, forcing my parents to spend Thanksgiving at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. My mother plays the part of the turkey, while the nurses attend to my swooning father, and the doctor yanks me, ass-first, kicking and screaming, into the Reagan era.
1980s Child, I belong to the shifting borderlands of Generations X, Y, Z and the Millennials, the crystal ball of my destiny clouded by smoke from coal burning power plants. The particulates drift slowly over the Berkshire hills, falling softly on the tobacco fields of the Connecticut Valley, where they mingle with emissions from Volvos station wagons, Corollas, and Subarus, their bumpers plastered with progressive bumper stickers, and from my parents’ own brown Saab, carrying me home.
1984: Reagan v. Mondale
To my mother’s surprise, the apocalypse has been postponed another four years. The election itself fails to imprint upon my long term memory, but I do remember President Reagan. I believe he is our King, like the King in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and I wish that Queen Nancy would wear more befitting gowns, with ruffles and sequins, instead of red suits and shoulder pads. King Ronald has the same square jaw and perfect hair as CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather. I can only tell them apart because my parents roll their eyes and mutter under their breath when His Royal Highness appears on the screen. Don’t they worry that he’ll say ‘Off with their heads?’Aren’t they proud to be American? Mom says she would rather live here than anywhere else, but sometimes the US acts like a bully, pushing the littler countries around. I know about bullies, the snot-nosed kids who cut in line for the swing set and run over my My Little Ponies with their Big Wheel tricycles. They always get their way, but deep in my heart I believe I am better than them, that one day I will be a Woman of Letters, and they will weigh three-hundred pounds and live vicariously through their favorite football team.
1988: Dukakis v. H.W. Bush
Thanks to Dan Rather/Reagan and NPR, I have a pretty good idea how the election works. It’s a marathon, like the one in Boston, only longer. The candidates race each other across the all fifty states, beginning with Iowa. I picture Mike and George HW, pasty little legs pumping, their jerseys, emblazoned with the logos of their corporate sponsors, sticking to their sweaty skin. And every evening, a breathless nation tunes in to Dan Rather/Reagan and All Things Considered for the latest standings: Dukakis has the momentum crossing the prairies, but hold on, Bush is gaining in coal country! Now they’re neck and neck coming out of the Appalachians! Does Vice President Bush have the stamina? Will they have to substitute him with Dan Quail, who doesn’t even know how to spell potato? How can can we trust the nuclear codes to someone who writes potato with an ‘e’ on the end? Excitement mounts as the candidates round homestretch. Supporters cheer and wave signs of encouragement.
“When are you going to vote?” I ask Mom. This perfectly reasonable questions catches her by surprise.
“I think it’s November 8th this year?”
I protest: why put it off to the very last minute? Wasn’t she listening to the news? Dukakis needs her vote right now. I’m aghast when she explains that as of yet, not one single vote has been cast.
“Then how come Dan Rather already knows who’s winning?” That, she says was exactly why they shouldn’t do polls. It influences the results. If people think Bush is already winning, they might not bother to go out and vote for Dukakis.
Despite the disillusionment of ’88, I continue to look forward to the presidential race every four years, the way other people anticipate the Olympics. Maybe it’s because I come from a family that does not follow sports, and politics fulfills some tribal need to identify with a team.
1992: Clinton v. H.W. Bush.
On election eve, I sit beside Dad on the sofa, watching an over-produced docudrama called The Man from Hope. By now my parents, conforming to demographic trends, have amicably divorced, and I spend Sunday and Monday nights at Dad’s house. As Clinton’s pink, puppy-dog-eyed face floats across the screen, Dad pumps his fist and shouts “GO Bill!” Dad can relate to Bill, because Bill is a Boomer too, and protested the War in Vietnam. Mom can relate to Hillary because she has a job and her own opinions. I can relate to Chelsea because she has a cat and braces. I write her and Socks a letter, but they never write back.
All my friends parents are voting for Clinton too, except maybe Morgan’s dad, who owns a gun and a Rottweiler. Hampshire County, Massachusetts, is a political anomaly: white, rural, Democratic.
Scottsale, Arizona 1996: Clinton v. Dole
I now live most of the year with Mom in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she is studying to be an acupuncturist. In Scottsdale, we are surrounded Republicans, who it turns out, look just like everyone else, except they drive bigger cars. My high school paper, The Saguaro Sabercat, of which I am Opinion Editor, is the lone voice of liberal dissent in the howling conservative wilderness of my suburban high school. Unfortunately, no one reads it except the Editors, and a handful of students who make a game of finding the typos. I cultivate my image as an East Coast Intellectual by growing my hair long, and wearing peasant skirts and hemp jewelry that can’t be found at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall but are readily available in Amherst.
I’m still not old enough to vote, which is too bad, because thanks to my AP History teacher, Mrs. Perl, never in my life will I be better informed about American politics. Mrs Perl, a New York transplant with a nasal accent and a yellow bouffant, is a woman ahead of her time. She teaches us that Alexander Hamilton is the most underrated Founding Father, and that America has a fatal weakness for populist bad boys like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. At age 15, I can recite the all the presidents forward and backward in chronological order, and provide a cogent, five-paragraph explanation of the electoral college system, but for some reason I can’t get a date to the prom.
Bob Dole is such a boring candidate that even Arizona goes for Clinton in ‘96. It certainly has nothing to with the endorsement of The Saguaro Sabercat.
Madison, Wisconsin 2000: Bush v. Gore
Inspired by Dad’s stories of 60s protest marches, I become politically active. Mostly this involves sitting around licking envelopes at the Dane County Democratic Party Headquarters, or standing with a clipboard outside the student Union when it’s 20 degrees, urging fellow students to vote for the lesser of two evils, Al Gore, instead of Ralph Nader. Once, I get to shake Al Gore’s daughter’s hand at a campaign event.
The first Tuesday in November dawns dark and ominous. I’m buffeted by frigid winds as I make my way from my dorm to my polling place, the UW Student Health Center. There I am congratulated on casting my first ballot by the blue-haired volunteers from the Wisconsin League of Women’s Voters.
The next morning we still don’t know who won. The cold, grey weather adds to the apocalyptic atmosphere. I walk to class along the lakeshore path, and I can’t make out the separation of water and sky. The middle of America feels like the edge.
Very few students show up to my Western Civ lecture that morning. We pass around the latest Onion, chuckling over the headline: Nation Plunges into Chaos.
Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico, 2004: Bush v. Kerry
Election Day falls on November 2nd, which happens to be the Day of the Dead. Me and my expats friends are the only ones in the bar, a tourist trap we normally wouldn’t be caught dead in. The waiters wear black waistcoats, the menu is badly translated into English, but they get CNN. Children in grotesque masks stream by the window, but the cold and rain is keeping most people indoors. The wet pavement is plastered with orange petals from windblown marigolds, known here as cempazuchitl, the flower of the dead. We all have sore throats. My friend instructs the waiter on how to make a hot toddy with mescal, the local choice for drowning sorrows. We tell the him to turn up the TV so we can hear, but we don’t like what we hear so we tell him to turn it back down. By 9 p.m. the TV is on mute, but we can see the red hemorrhaging across the map of the states.
I’d paid 200 hundred pesos— about $20—to DHL my absentee ballot to Wisconsin. That’s almost what I earn in a week, teaching English at a private language school, not a bad income by Mexican standards. Technically speaking, I am an illegal worker. I entered the country in August on a 90-day tourist visa, of which I’m now on the first of three extensions. This is common practice. An an FM3 work visa costs about three months wages, but the biggest obstacle is having to negotiate the byzantine bureaucracy that is the Instituto Nacional de Migración.
The morning after the election, my students try to be comforting. “Don’t worry teacher,” they say. “The election was definitely rigged. Not all the gringos are that stupid.”
Boston, Massachusetts, 2008: Obama v. McCain
Now an MFA student at Emerson College, I slave away each morning on an awful epic autobiographical novel based on my experience in Oaxaca. After lunch, I take the orange line train from Community College Station, twelve stops to its terminus at Forest Hills. All the suits get off at Back Bay, and by Forest Hills I am in the racial minority. I’m usually the only white person on the Number 30 bus to Mattapan, which got stuck with the nickname “Murderpan” during the crime wave of the 90s. Sometimes a pair of Mormon Missionaries or City Year volunteers get on, looking tentative and lost. They always turn to me, the safe pasty person, to ask if they’re on the right bus and what stop to get off at.
I leave work early so I can make to class by 6 o’clock, emerging from the subway onto the tree-lined, gaslit paths of Boston Common. In class I am back in the majority. My program has few students of color, which is too bad, according to one professor, because “ethnic lit” is hot right now.
At work we hold our own election. We create a simplified ballot, with pictures of each candidate, so that even the kindergarteners can participate. We go around to every classroom, call up each child individually, and snap their picture as they cast their ballot. Never have I seen such an enthusiastic electorate. It’s hard enough to find dolls or action figures that look like them, much less presidents.
We tally the results and announce them over the PA. Obama: 63 votes. McCain: 4 votes.
Somerville, Massachusetts, 2012: Obama v. Romney
I live stream the returns on my laptop because I do not own a television. I also do not own a car or a home. I am 32-years-old, I have a Master’s Degree (albeit in Creative Writing) and a good job making 47K (very generous by non-profit standards) with great benefits, doing meaningful work. As a single professional woman in a major east coast city, my salary is just enough to pay for a shitty one-bedroom apartment, make my student loan payments, and buy grain-free, meat-by-product-free cat food. I may not be doing as well as my parents, but I’m one of privileged ones. For me, inequality is not an academic abstraction, it’s part of the landscape. My morning commute takes me up and over the hill, past the Bunker Hill Monument and million dollar condos, to the brick low rises of the Boston Housing Authority, where I coordinate a school-readiness program.
On election night I’m so nervous I can’t sit still. The polls are close. I brace myself for the possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency: tax cuts for the rich, military spending, MassHealth for all.
The horror, the horror.
Leverett, Massachusetts, 2016: Clinton v. Trump
I am now 35 and living in my parents’ basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Apparently all the millennials are doing it. Except that I didn’t move back home because I lost my job, defaulted on my student loans or ran up thousands of dollars in credit card debt. Other than the gourmet cat food, I lived pretty much within my means. But I was disillusioned with the organization I worked for, and longed for more time to write.
As it happens, the parental basement is twice the size of my old apartment in Boston. Built into a hillside, it has floor to ceiling windows looking out on trees and jurassic-sized ferns. Sometimes I see foxes and their kits, or skunks snuffling along the edge of the woods. I hear the brook babbling down the hill, and the neighbor’s roosters crowing.
Living with my parents is temporary of course, until I get a break, a book deal, marry a millionaire (who doesn’t want a trophy wife who can discuss Ulysses at dinner parties) or more likely, make enough tutoring on the side to get my own place again. November 8th, 2016, is an unseasonably warm day. My New England town looks like a postcard; copper leaves still cling to the trees, and the steeple on the congregational church is sharp white against the blue sky. Finally, after all these months, I feel myself getting swept up in the historical moment. Millennial that I (almost) am, I would still rather have voted for Bernie Sanders but can’t bring myself to vote for Jill Stein either. I remember 2000 all too well.
On election night Dad mixes blue cocktails, which we drink from tumblers made from “%100 shattered glass ceiling” and engraved with Hillary’s signature—a thank you gift for my parents’ generous campaign contribution. We didn’t plan on finishing off the entire bottle of curaçao.
By 2 a.m., I am curled up in the fetal position on the sofa. I can’t tell how much of the pain in my stomach is just a hangover or the feeling of impending doom as state after state is called for He Who Shall Not Be Named. How I’d laughed at his small hands and smaller vocabulary, which only served to reassure me of a Democratic win. It’s one thing for me to laugh at his hair; an educated white woman whose ancestors fought in the Revolution, I’m among the last he’ll come for. With my thirty-five years and a thirty-four B’s, I’m probably deemed unworthy even of sexual assault) but what about the others?
The childhood bully, the same one who pushed me in line for the swing set, has finally seen himself reflected, in High Def, on the big screen before him. Decades of frustration—lost jobs, lost dreams, lost football games—burn in his gut and inflame his arteries. He rises up, heaving his corn-subsidized bulk from the recliner, and cheers like its the Super Bowl. But he’s just a fair weather fan. I’ve been a fan of the game since I was seven, since Mikey D. read George H.W.’s lily-white lips. I can’t pinpoint when it became a blood sport; was it in ’92, when Hillary refused to stay home and bake cookies? in ’94, when Bill redefined what ‘is’ is? or when George W. proclaimed that the world either with us, or against us? How did we get from Potatoe-gate to Pussy-gate in a single generation? Who should we blame: the Boomers for selling out? Generation X, for their apathy? or the Millennials for being too distracted by their smart phones?
Don’t look at me, I want to say. I wasn’t born until 1980, and the according to The United States Social Security Administration the cut off for Gen X was 1979. The Millennials didn’t come along until 1982, if you believe Harvard researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss.
In the days after the election, my stepmom goes around to all the checkout lines at Stop&Shop and flips over every copy of the the Globe and the National Enquirer so that the “stupid people” (her words) can’t read the headlines: Hillary:CORRUPT! RACIST! Doomsday if Hillary Wins the Whitehouse! Only Trump Can save us. She covers up every picture of Donald or Melania Trump with Michelle Obama’s Vogue cover. Having fulfilled her civic duty, she can now get down to knitting pussy hats for the revolution.
Meanwhile, I attend an emergency Town Hall Meeting with our junior Senator, Ed Markey. The line to get in stretches down the block and around the corner. Most are white females over 55, an army of active adults dressed in full Patagonia battle fleece. Where have they been for the last thirty years? Training secretly in the guise of book clubs and library committees, stocking up on rations at Whole Foods?
When the Senator finally steps to the podium, I notice a young blond—a Markey staffer, I assume—sitting on the stage floor, tethered to the wall by the cord of her smart phone. She hunches over the screen, tapping frantically, presumably tweeting out urgent messages to her generation, who are at this very moment organizing in cyber space, amassing virtual hoards of resistance.
Prince Obama could not wake Snow White. It took a slimy, forced smooch from the Orange Ogre for Cinderella to abandon the Castle of Complicity. I hope we’re not too late to aid our black, brown and queer sisters. Even here, in the Connecticut Valley, the bully is never far; he’s the one who cuts off my Prius in his 4×4 with the confederate flag sticker; he’s ahead of me in the express line with 50 items, getting his news from the National Enquirer.
Anna Laird Barto is a writer, activist and family support worker in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared publications such as Juked, Gulfstream, The Boiler Review, and NewFound Journal. She received an MFA from Emerson College. She is working on a novel set in a fictional Mexican city loosely based on Oaxaca. Visit her at https://annalairdbarto.com/