Christmas in November

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 5, 1996; 12:00 AM

I love Election Day, and I remember the very first time I went to the polls. It was a local election, and the polling place my parents took me to was in a neighbor's garage. It seemed like a big party. Everybody greeted everybody else very warmly. This election stuff seemed pretty good to a 7-year-old.

I voted for the first time two years later, meaning that my mom allowed me to make all the "X's" on her paper ballot. Our candidates didn't do very well that year, but our candidate for mayor, who lost, won the next time. With free elections, there's always a next time. I learned later from the philosopher Michael Walzer that "politics is the art of doing the same thing over and over again until it works."

What fascinated me about elections was how people came to the conclusions they did -- and I assumed they were rational, which is the key to having faith in democracy.

My late uncle was the city clerk in his town. Knowing his nephew's fascination with voting, he saved me a block of 100 ballots cast in the 1960 election. I studied every one, trying to put myself in the mind of each anonymous voter. Why did this obviously Democratic voter like this one Republican candidate? Why did another vote for John Kennedy and then the rest of the Republican ticket? Was he (or she) Catholic? Was it Massachusetts pride? Was it Richard Nixon?

Where I grew up, in Fall River, Mass., there were some rules: Everybody rooted for the Red Sox and everybody loved politics. Kids would put political bumper stickers on their bikes and get into schoolyard fights over who was supporting whom. A friend of mine once said that there were three kinds of people in my town: people running for office, people getting ready to run for office and people recovering from running for office.

Politics for us was not a chore. It was fun, a string of parties, living room meetings, weekend clambakes, friendships. The friendships got complicated. A friend would help a friend's campaign, then later work against him, then make peace. Politics was normal human conflict carried out in public, and with some accountability.

What's most troublesome about our political mood is not some grand problem in civic life but the fact that politics, for most people, is no longer fun. Everything is technocratic. People don't stuff envelopes. Direct-mail companies do it. In many campaigns -- not all, thank God -- it's a big problem just to figure out what a volunteer can do. What matters now is raising the money to pay for everything. But if money is everything, what do people do?

True, the new technologies work. Polls are more rigorous efforts to understand what I was trying to figure out with all those ballots. But as fewer people are connected to the work of campaigning, politics becomes more abstract. There is nothing like the bond you develop staying up all night with friends to put out a mailing on time.

These fraying links with the fellowship of politics mean that we forget what a gift elections are. People in countries where their leaders were foisted upon them by force and violence don't make that mistake.

A few friends and I visited Portugal in 1975 when the country had its first free elections in half a century. The joy in politics reminded me of my hometown. Everywhere, everybody talked passionately about the elections and wore the colors and buttons of their party. Every square inch of public wall space was covered with posters. On Election Day, most of the country had voted by early afternoon. People stood in line for hours. The turnout was well over 90 percent.

What they appreciated is that electoral democracy is a miracle of human development. It's the idea that every citizen, rich or poor, Ph.D. or high school dropout, has a stake in the common good and, in principle at least, an equal voice in deciding how it will be defined and achieved.

It's also the idea that the give and take of electoral argument -- especially the arguments friends have in bars and living rooms and churches -- is inherently good.

As the late historian Christopher Lasch put it, democracy may not always be efficient, but it is "the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible."

So I confess: I will enjoy voting today. And I'm bringing my kids with me. They, too, are discovering that democracy is fun.


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© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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