I have a ritual on elections. I volunteer to be a pollwatcher. I have done this several times. It makes me feel like I am “doing something” even though it is probably, on the margin, nothing. I am in a state of suppressed hysteria and can’t sit still or focus on Election Day, anyway.
This time I signed up with the Republican Lawyers Committee. They had a meeting a week or so before the election at the Union League club. It was a class, basically a primer on election law. It had CLE credit, too. Woo hoo. I went to that, and it was pretty good, and I met some cool people.
One guy there was acting really weird, demanding to know why he could not challenge a voter who did not speak English and “does not belong in this county.” His demeanor was all wrong. He slumped in chair, talked too loudly and was offensively argumentative. Other people argued back against him in a sane way. Maybe it is not paranoid to think he was a plant, from some Lefty blog or something, fishing for a chance to talk about how the Republican lawyers are bigoted against Spanish-speakers. He got nowhere, and left in the middle of the presentation. Strange.
The night before the election they were giving out assignments. I went over to the Union League Club again, and people were milling around, and they had some snacks out, which was nice. I ate a bunch of prosciutto on little crackers and cut up pineapple. I got assigned a set of six polling places, all on the West Side, not too far from Oak Park, the socialist village where I live. I was given a pile of blank, signed “credentials” which entitled me to stay in the polling places and observe and challenge any unlawful behavior I might see. I got a quick review of some of the stuff to look out for and a reminder of the limited scope of my poll-watcherly duties.
I had a good talk with a young man who was a firefighter who was going to be a poll watcher, too. He liked to read Supreme Court opinions and he had listened to the argument for the Heller case, and had well informed views of the case. Like almost everybody, he looked at other people’s jobs and saw the cool and fun parts. I told him it was literally one lawyer in a million who got to work on cases like that, and that putting out fires and doing EMT work looks exciting to other people. It is a cliché but a true one that everybody in every job gets weary of it and at some point or another thinks other people who made other choices have it better.
The next day I got up at 4:30 a.m. I put on a blazer and a tie and tried to look official and respect the dignity of the process. I wanted to get to the first polling place at 5:30, before it opened, to make sure it was set up honestly and that there were no ballots in the box before any had been legitimately cast. This is a rather heavy-handed way to cheat, but apparently it has happened in the past. Oddly enough, the first place I went did not open on time. The election judges were standing outside a community center for the elderly, in the dark and cold, a few of them smoking, clearly irate that no one had unlocked the place to let them in and set up the polling place.
Two voters arrived right on time at six a.m. and were not happy. One lady was yelling into her cell phone. She was calling the board of elections or something. Finally, someone came and unlocked the place about 6:30. The election judges quickly got the place set up only a few minutes before the first wave of voters arrived. One thing about being a poll watcher is that you make the election judges a little nervous or irritated because they figure you are going to find fault with something. So my presence only added to their flusterment, though I hope my demeanor was benign.
At the second place a very dignified gentleman had on a very nice Obama bomber jacket. Since Mr. Obama was not on the ballot, I decided this item of apparel did not constitute electioneering in the polling place.
I spent the day riding around to the other polling places. I had a nice rental car, a black Dodge Charger. As the sun came up it turned into a beautiful Fall day. It was a good day to be out and around.
One thing I like about volunteering to do this is it forces me out of my zone. You always get sent to hardcore Democrat precincts where they think something screwy might happen. So, I was sent to West Side polling places. These were areas I would never have gone otherwise. In the course of the day, I saw many voters and election judges. I saw a total of four other White people: one Caucasian voter, one Hispanic looking guy, and two White women poll watchers, who were Democrats. I have no idea why they were sent to the West Side. This was a pointless use of Democrat manpower, or womanpower. None of the places was as desolate or grotty or bombed-out as the phrase “the West Side” usually makes Chicago area people imagine, which was a pleasant surprise. The only place I really did not want to get out of the car was the sixth place I went, and I could not find the polling place. I must have been given the wrong address. Some young African American gentlemen gesticulated threateningly at me, with hooting sounds, as I circled the block a third time, and I decided that civic duty had its limits and I did not get out and ask them where the polling place was.
Nonetheless, despite this regrettable and unpleasant non-incident, I was struck by the lack of any overt hostility or racial tension caused by my presence throughout the day. Precisely one person looked at me glaringly. (This was balanced off by one young lady looking at me a little flirtingly, though this may be a figment of my middle aged imagination.) As someone who grew up in the Boston area in the 1970s, I can recall getting off of a subway platform in the wrong place and having a silence fall among all the people on the platform. I can recall going to a high school event at the JFK library, and walking past the Black kids getting on school buses coming out of the housing projects there, and it was like a wall of ice, dead silence, and finally someone yelling “motherfuckers!” and we ran like Hell. Closer to home, tensions ran very high during Harold Washington‘s first election.
So, we really have made progress on this front in America.
I did not see anything that looked dishonest to me. But I could easily have been fooled. For example, people could come in, show an ID, have the election judge look at it, give them a ballot and they could vote. Unless I checked every person’s ID, all day, if a phony voter was colluding with the election judge, he could always get in and vote. So, maybe this happened. Maybe it did not. Or maybe some of the voters came in and voted in exchange for something that happened outside my view. I will never know. Maybe my presence deterred something. Maybe not. I don’t know.
There were, formally, by rule, Republican election judges at each polling place. But in fact they were certainly just local Democrats filling that role for the day. The rule is that if a voter asks for help filling out the ballot, there has to be a Democrat and a Republican election judge. At one place an older lady came in with a purple streak in her hair (I heard her say she was born in 1938, though I would have guessed at least ten years later) who could not see well. She needed help with the ballot. The election judges sort of glanced at me, and one very nice lady said, well, we need the Republican judge to come with me. A gray haired old head said, no, I am going to eat my lunch, you just do it. Lunch first, Illinois election law, second and last. I could have made an issue out of it. I decided not to bother.
One thing I always notice, and which I like about visiting polling places, is the faintly solemn tone of the proceeding. People take voting seriously, and it has the feel of a civic ritual. Not to the level of religion, nor to the level of a jury, but above the ordinary course of business. There is nothing quite like it and I hope it never changes.
I stayed at one polling place until it closed. I watched the ballots being counted. I saw them put in a sealed bag, in a zipped box, then put in a locked metal cabinet. They ran a tape showing the vote. The GOP lost 245 to 8 on the statewide elections. I was surprised there were any GOP votes at all. I would like to have met the few GOP voters. Thank God for the secret ballot or it would have been zero.
With a disparity that severe, cheating would almost be superfluous.
I chatted with the Democrat precinct captain. He knew every voter in his precinct. He made sure that people got out to vote. He had been in that neighborhood for 25 years. That is the Democrat ground game in Chicago. Even with nothing illegal going on, the Democrats dominate in some neighborhoods, and there are no Republicans at all. In many neighborhoods it is a one party city.
After I was finished with this, I met up with Bruno, my fellow ChicagoBoy, and we went to the party for Cedra Crenshaw, who unfortunately, and despite being an excellent candidate, lost her election. Adam Andrzejewski had been involved with her campaign, and he was there. I told Adam, and I believe it, that he would have beaten Pat Quinn. But I won’t talk about the Illinois GOP anymore because it depresses me too much.
We watched the election results come in from around the country. It was a great night, but people were pretty subdued about it. The GOP victories are more like stopping the bleeding than cause for any major celebration. Also, they have to earn the trust of the American people, which they squandered before, and I don’t know if they are going to be able to do it. I saw Boehner’s speech, which was fine, and had the right tone. I wish he had not gotten teary-eyed. It seems like that is a little too tolerated these days. Man up, John. This is going to be really, really ugly.
Two nights later, I went to an event at the University Club sponsored by the Acton Institute. It was a nice event, full of interesting conservative and libertarian people. Again, a subdued tone. No gloating whatsoever. I remember 1994 very clearly, when Conservatives were ecstatic and we really believed the country was going to change course. We were childish. We now know the politicians will stab us in the back and that party labels or professed beliefs mean nothing when confronted with money and power and corruption of Washington. Maybe this time it will be different, but the track record is not good, and the situation is very dire now.
The speakers at the event were Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who is the honcho of the Acton Institute, Joseph A. Morris, a Chicago conservative who has been around a long time and reliably says good things, and Brian S. Wesbury, a professional economist. (Why doesn’t Joe Morris have a real bio page someplace? Here he is with one of his many bow ties.)
To boil down the presentations, Sirico and Morris presented a consistent picture of the need for economic libertarianism to have a moral foundation. This was solid, fusionist Conservatism with a pedigree running back to Frank Meyer, with references to Hayek and Wilhelm Roepke and even a kind word from the Catholic priest for Ayn Rand. This was a Kool-Aid flavor that the crowd could be relied upon to enjoy, and I did. Morris in particular was very University of Chicago-style in his presentation, very bookish, which is fitting as he is an alumnus of the College. I love that kind of talk.
But having spent a day on the West Side, and having just met the entrenched Democrat foot soldiers in their own bunkers, it struck me that these intellectual arguments have very little purchase outside a fairly small circle. The question is: How do you say these things to voters of ordinary intelligence in a way that they care about? The answer may be: You can’t. If so, a case has to be made to these voters based on other things besides the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Free Market Economy. I happen to agree with those ideas, and I like talking about them. But I would also like to be winning elections for people who agree with these ideas, or will at least act consistently with them, more or less, most of the time. The two things may not have as much to do with each other as I wish they did.
The third speaker, Mr. Wesbury took a different tack, claiming that the economy is not nearly as badly off as the nutty conservatives are all saying. But he had to make an implausible leap to get there. Confronted with a net present value of $60 Trillion in unfunded government obligations, he said, in effect “everyone” knows those won’t get paid. He “proved” this by asking if anyone in the room under age 40 thought they would ever get any Social Security money. No one did. But that does not prove very much. A roomful of well-read libertarians and conservatives who are cynical about the government are scarcely a simple random sample. I don’t think that “everyone” knows that these trillions of dollars are never going to be paid. People are more likely to persist in a delusion than face a reality that ugly. Denial and whistling past the graveyard will last until the last possible moment. When the millions of people figure out that they are actually, in the aggregate, sixty trillion dollars poorer than they thought they were, some very non-comedic hijinks are likely to ensue. Nor do I think that the prospect of civic unrest when people figure this out is so laughably remote as Mr. Wesbury seems to. Further, he seems to think that an almost automatic political process will lead to an orderly writing down of these unpayable obligations. The opposite is more likely true. Politicians of both parties will kick the can down the road as long as they can, and we won’t get any reform until some kind of catastrophe is upon us, and then it will be a mess that makes things worse, and that makes the already powerful yet more powerful. All the news is bad, and no one wants to be the messenger. The American voter has a habit of responding to bearers of bad tidings with hostility rather than a grateful handshake. Maybe that is changing.
So the evening, much like the election itself, had the feel of being not quite there yet, not quite as serious as we really need to be, not yet.
I had another rental car which I drove home from this event. It was a Dodge Charger again, gray this time. This one had satellite radio in it, which I was ecstatic to see. I tuned it to 25, the Little Steven Garage Rock channel. As I pulled onto the Eisenhower I heard my beloved Joan Jett singing You’re Too Possessive. I turned it up to a righteously high volume. And, way cool, the DJ was the mighty Handsome Dick Manitoba, of the legendary Dictators. HDM also blessed me with one song by my all time heroes the Ramones and one by the Yardbirds before I got home.
A great American car, great American technology, one of my favorite rock legends spinning great records …
It does not get any better than that.
This gave me way more cheer than any of the politics.
The point of life is not politics.
The politics needs to be bulldozed back.
The Government needs to be hacked down to a rational size.
It is crowding out everything else, choking and starving out everything else in American life.
What we have now can’t be and should not be sustained.
We need our money and our freedom and our lives and our pursuit of happiness back.
We need more rock’n’roll.
God bless America.