I was fourteen and living in the Midwest in 1992 when Bill Clinton upset the incumbent president and won the White House. I distinctly remember listening to election returns on my clock radio and crying myself to sleep.
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I have always been interested in politics to an unusual, and often unhealthy, degree. After suffering for weeks from a stomachache when I was 8 or 9, our family doctor suggested that I might have sores on the lining of my digestive tract. In other words, I had ulcers. The doctor asked if I was experiencing any stress. The best explanation that my parents could offer - and it is now part of Pattison family lore - is that I worried far too much about politics.
I'm a registered Democrat now (though I more closely align with the Greens). But back then, I was an unabashed conservative. I watched Ronald Reagan's televised speeches with an expression of pure love. While most of my friends were fans of "Star Wars" the movie, I was studying Star Wars the missile system. I sent away for information on the Strategic Defense Initiative and asked to be put on the mailing list.
In fourth grade I wrote a report on the link between CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. I predicted skyrocketing skin cancer rates and the disappearance of Louisiana unless something was immediately done about the ozone hole. The teacher gave me an "A" on my report but my parents expressed disappointment that I had so easily given in to popular opinion. I had assumed that global catastrophe was a nonpartisan issue, but, upon reexamination, I found, to my surprise, that the ozone hole was a threat cooked up by secular media and academic elites, many of whom did not believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. The ozone hole was real, but it disappeared and reappeared in cycles that had everything to do with God's mysterious ways and nothing to do with my older brother's aerosol hairspray. I vowed to never again get played by liberals. Indeed, I made a point to challenge teachers and textbooks whenever necessary. Or whenever I felt like it – this was rural Kansas, after all, where we still opened every school day with a moment of silence, in clear and happy defiance of the ACLU.
Future research papers would more carefully reflect the Republicanism I inherited from my parents and adored in Ronald Reagan. Topics included: "Why Chinese communism will fall to American-style capitalism." "Why the I.R.A. is a communist terrorist group." "How the build up of nuclear weapons makes us safe from the communists."
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I remembered all of this today when I found myself getting too agitated about the presidential race. I gear up for the primaries the way some folks gear up for March Madness, only I have to wait four years between tournaments. (I have yet to fill out an actual bracket forecasting the winner in each state primary or caucus, but I definitely make mental predictions - with a reasonable success rate.)
But I wonder if I focus too much on national politics. Certainly it matters a great deal who wins the presidency - the last seven years have shown us the great powers that can be consolidated in the hands of an imperial president. But do I, by expending so much energy worrying about who who sits in the Oval Office, diminish my own power? my own capacity to affect change?And what about local politics? There are upcoming elections for Portland mayor, city council, school board, county commissioners, and Oregon legislature. These positions are arguably more important to my own day-to-day life (and the lives of my neighbors), but I don't know who's running in any of these races or what's at stake. This doesn't seem right. I remain an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama (I plan to write more about that on my blog in the next couple of days), but I resolve to pay more attention to local politics from now on. And only within reason.