This big storm of an election
Every fourth autumn, it seems, we are told that this time — yes, this election, this year — is the most important in a generation, the big choice that will shape the nation’s future more than any election in recent memory.
It just can’t be, can it, that every four years we face The Choice of the Century?
But the confluence of Superstorm Sandy and the tight presidential race got me thinking: Maybe we have to think of big elections as being like so-called 100-year storms, which seem to be coming every year or so now. Perhaps just as the earth’s population load and humans’ disregard for their own impact on the environment have skewed nature’s clock, the growth of complex issues confronting governments and our refusal to meet those challenges with nuanced and thoughtful policies have re-ordered the political clock.
Maybe this really is the big one, then. The stakes in Tuesday’s voting might be higher than ever, and maybe four years from now they will be higher still. Just as we have to get used to more regular pounding of our shores by angry seas and annual pummeling of inland cities by blizzards and ice and prairies by drought and dust, maybe we should expect that the normal way of things will be shrill campaigning at unbelievable expense and the kind of political paralysis that characterized the last Congress.
It’s a depressing thought. Fortunately, I’m one of those people blessed with a handy antidote to such cynicism: I have a kid at home. Nothing can rekindle your hope quite as readily as the presence in your life of a young person full of energy and dreams, reminding you that maybe planet Earth’s next team of managers will handle the job better than our current crew.
Last week my teenager was preparing for the future by studying the past. Her U.S. history class was deep into the stories of what was going on in late autumn 225 years ago, a time of angry debate in America, with two sides equally certain that losing the argument would doom the young experiment in democracy. (And it was quite an experiment, remember. Half the earth is now governed by democracy, but in the late 1700s what was happening on these shores was seen as rare and risky.)
In that fall of 1787, the fight was fully joined over the new Constitution that had been drafted during the hot summer in Philadelphia — a task that was so acrimonious that two of New York’s three delegates to the constitutional convention, including Albany lawyer Robert Yates, had gone home in anger and refused to sign the final document.
Yates and other Anti-Federalists were convinced that the new government would sap the liberty Americans had fought England to win. Federalists, including New York’s Alexander Hamilton, argued among other points that without the taxing power the new Constitution granted a central government, the former colonies would collapse into chaos.
The convention’s key decision, now remembered as the Great Compromise, gave each state equal representation in the Senate, which smaller states wanted, but proportional representation, as big states demanded, in the House. Even so, there was so much opposition to the Constitution that New York ratified it months later only after supporters relented to Anti-Federalist demands and agreed to amend the Constitution to include the Bill of Rights. Tellingly, once the Federalists had carried the day and the Constitution had been ratified, the Anti-Federalists went to work on those essential first 10 Amendments.
Citizens of that day believed the survival of their young country was at stake. If that is true, demise was avoided only by thoughtful compromise, both in the convention hall and in the debate that led to ratification. Compromise not only kept alive the vital work of the loyal opposition, but also sowed the seeds of the unending American debate over the role of government. And it made America better: Imagine our loss if the Federalists had simply overpowered their foes and refused to include the Bill of Rights in our nation’s charter.
Now we’re witness to the last hours of a hard-fought election campaign in a nation narrowly divided. Nobody will emerge from Tuesday’s voting with a mandate. Our future, then, will once again depend upon people of good will working together to reach decisions that will likely be viewed as imperfect by all but acceptable to most.
So is this an all-important election? It could indeed be the political storm of the century, leaving destruction in its wake, but only if this happens: if its winners and losers alike forget the lessons of 225 years ago, when Americans argued, reached accord, argued some more and then came together to grow as one.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.