We were somewhere around Madbury, New Hampshire, never far enough from Vermont, when the Prozac began to take hold. Eight weeks of severe depression ate my dust as we turned onto Redemption Rd. to hear Gov. John Kasich talk about how he was “still considering his options" to lead the "free world." Death knells for the American Dream echoed loudly over my rock-music-induced tinnitus. Nothing comes easy anymore.
Still, this was my first New Hampshire town hall meeting, and I was mildly optimistic. New Hampshire has only four electoral votes at the finish line of our presidential horse races, but it hosts, by state law, the very first primary. This is why Kasich, Governor of Ohio (18 electoral votes), had flown in to show off his pre-beauty-pageant wardrobe. I, conversely, hoped to see American democracy in its purist, earliest vestiges: interactive local politics.
But first, meeting organizers entertained us with the who-traveled-farthest game. Each of us raised a hand. Our leader then told us to leave our hand up if we traveled farther than 10 miles. Most of the 200 people attending kept their hands up, so then the limit became 20 miles. 30? 40? At 90 miles, several of us still had our hands up when a woman in the VIP seats ($50 a pop) ruined our fleeting anticipation by announcing she was from California (55 electoral votes). Still, even though I was in the general admission seats (free), I won an oval LFOD bumper sticker for traveling over 900 miles to see New Hampshire politics in action. Secretly, I hoped the CNN videographer caught me accepting my second place award.
There were five videographers, each hoping someone would say something stupid. At least six photographers panned the room for some emotion, while roughly 10 reporters sat on the floor typing on their laptops or stood to one side scribbling notes. As if to further entertain us, we were led in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the recognition of veterans, and an acknowledgement of state dignitaries. I’ve often noticed that our republic appears safest when chaos is checked by the charade of protocol.
With the informalities complete, New Hampshire’s John Sununu proceeded to introduce Kasich and to tell us why we should vote for him—should he actually run. A press conference had already been set for such an announcement eight days later, but their secret was safe with us.
When Kasich finally took the floor, he was pressed and polished, appropriately humble, well-spoken, mild-mannered, and showed the proper degree of nervousness. I heard the CNN videographer yawn. Kasich told his personal story, invoking his sweet mother on several occasions, and he stuck to the typical talking points: fiscal and personal responsibility, strong global leadership, ISIS, jobs, education, and so on. Remarkably, he made no promises about how to fix any of these things, but preferred to call himself a problem-solver who’d look at various options with other leaders to find acceptable solutions. I actually liked this way of thinking, but it’s no way to win an election. Kasich also spoke of caring for the poor, mentally ill, autistic children, and the elderly in terms that evoked George W. Bush’s call for “compassionate conservatism.” I admit, Kasich at least had my respect—for a while.
Through it all, I observed a woman who was clearly infatuated with Kasich. She was the grandmotherly type: white hair, sweetly plump, and wearing a summer sweater and skirt one might see in a Norman Rockwell painting. Wire framed glasses showcased her sparking eyes, and the entire time he spoke, she wore a tight-lipped smile. She beamed, and it scared the hell out of me.
This lady will vote for Kasich for one reason: somehow he fits her vision of the American Dream. Which is a fair reason I suppose, except that millions of other Americans are doing the same thing, and we all have a different idea of what that dream should be. We do not vote for leaders. We vote for soulmates, celebrity icons, and personal gain. Apparently, judging from recent polls, nearly 40 percent of Republicans believe that if they work a little harder, scheme a little harder, and show a little more arrogance, they, too, will be as rich and powerful as Donald Trump.
I was contemplating this notion of vicarious representation, when our town hall meeting finally moved to the Q & A session. Here, I thought, we’d see a dialog emerge. Conversation would break out; issues would be examined in greater detail. I was wrong, of course. Most people asked questions to see how closely Kasich’s ideology matched their individual dreams—any broad concept of an “American Dream” having died with the economy in 2008.
One daring young woman asked Kasich about global warming. Kasich did a little shuffle and then waltzed into song about how God had created the environment and that we should be good stewards of that creation. Then my hair stood on end when he added that it’s fine to care for the planet, but “don’t worship it!”
“Well,” I quipped to a friend, “there went the Native-American vote.”
I went home disillusioned, and on July 21, Kasich became the 16th, but not last, person to enter the Republican race. Still, I suspect Kasich will win the GOP nomination… for vice-president.
I was somewhere in Huntington, WV, near the edge of the Ohio River, when the Aleve began to take hold. Having parked some distance away and lame in my foot, I hobbled up John Marshall Dr. on the campus of Marshall University. I paused in front of a statue of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. The sculptor had given him the visage of post-Revolutionary hope. History swung through the humid July air just like the spider I saw dangling from the bottom of his Honor’s bronze robe.
I limped on to the university’s “high-tech library.” There, among a scarcity of books, socialist-Democrat Bernie Sanders of Vermont (3 electoral votes) had important things to tell me—via the Internet. Upon reaching the fourth floor auditorium, we were informed that 1) the air conditioning had gone on strike on the hottest day of the summer thus far, and 2) the room only held 70 people, so organizers were setting up an overflow room elsewhere in the library. I selfishly grabbed a seat and began to sweat.
Our leader for the evening, a graduate student named Chris, cheerfully explained that he’d hoped for 50 people to attend this gathering when he first sent out the call on Facebook. Now it seemed that 200 were on their way. There were no VIP seats, no men in suits, no flags to salute, and no local dignitaries standing off to one side. There was no press corps. And instead of the travel game, Chris asked: “Who here has a full-time job that pays their expenses?” Only two people raised their hands. The silence was palpable.
In that moment, what had originally been announced as a grassroots meet-and-greet turned into a town hall meeting in West-By-God-Virginia (5 electoral votes). For the next 90 minutes, I listened to an airing of grievances against capitalism, the Bushes, the Clintons, the Kochs, and the mainstream media. The encouraging part, however, was the respectful tone of the few disagreements and an honest search for common ground. Climate change and education were hot issues, but the rise of the oligarchy became the trending topic of the run-away session. Income inequality loomed large in this state where one in three children is born into poverty.
Only in their concluding remarks would the participants point to Sanders as their problem-solver of choice. No savior complex existed here. A local businessman said, “People are tired of voting for the lesser of two evils.” A teacher from Florida (29 electoral votes) said, “I want a President who is not owned by corporations.” One retired woman called Sanders the “best presidential candidate since JFK.” Not to be outdone, another woman said, “I was part of the JFK-West Virginia grassroots movement. It was big, but nothing like this!” That was not hyperbole.
According to national news outlets, this was a kick-off event with true grassroots energy. There were over 3500 other such meet-ups across the country at that same time, each doing their own thing. Estimates put the total number of participants at over 100,000. As Chris said, “This is the biggest organized grassroots political meet-up in the history of United States, the first of its kind set up entirely online.”
A man from Texas (38 electoral votes), who’ lost everything in the financial crash of 2008 and moved to West Virginia for a job, replied, “It’s time to build a new political revolution.” He got the first real applause of the night. As I sat there, cynically deflecting as much of the electricity in the room as possible, I got caught up in one fact: I was witnessing a major paradigm shift, if not an actual revolution. The Internet is blowing through campaign traditions like a rocket through a laundry basket. This cross-country collection of cantankerous voters was marginalizing the need for the national media. 100,000+ individuals were about to merge their intellects with live-streaming video in their homes, church basements, and pubs. The concept of a Digital Grassroots Movement (DGM) had come to fruition.
Just then, Chris turned down the auditorium lights, and Bernie Sanders came to life on the large screen up front. Sanders greeted us with his rumpled style from a Washington, DC apartment. Then, in short and passionate order, he hammered away at his basic message, which may easily be boiled down to just four words: I believe in justice.
Sanders, love, loathe, or fear him, you must admit this: there are no cracks in his foundation. He’s been steadfast and unwavering in his convictions throughout his career. Nor are there cracks in his facade, for he has no facade. He’s a genuine person.
This is not to say I plan to campaign or even vote for Sanders. I’m not quick or traditional in my decisions (in the last presidential election I voted for Jill Stein and the Green Party). As a West Virginian (MAAF), I may not even have that opportunity in any concrete way. Unlike New Hampshire, West Virginia primaries are held in early May, and the presidential nominations for each party are usually sewn up by that time.
As I watched Sanders address tens of thousands from an apartment living room, I entertained one of my own favorite revolutionary ideas: abolishing the Electoral College. It’s clear that we no longer need such a relic. This population-based electoral system was created to protect small states like West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Why go to those states to campaign when going to large population states like Ohio will deliver more votes per dollar? In the pre-electronic, pre-mass-media age of John Marshall’s time, the Electoral College protected the interests of all voters on a region-by-region grid. Not only does the digital age make that system unnecessary, but social media and live-streaming are altering elections in a way that transcends geography. Now more than ever, Americans may organize themselves around a wide variety of ideas rather than blend in with their regional peers.
The future of politics in America may depend less upon the Kasich approach of carefully packaged presentations to woo little old ladies, and may increasingly depend upon the expression of ideas and liberties. That is an American Dream we might all share, and in that revelation I found a glimmer of hope.
But to return to the Sanders movement itself: once he was done speaking, the Senator turned the camera over to a young campaign worker. With the energy that only youthful voters can bring, a woman told us to pull out our cell phones and text the word “Work” to a specific number. As I looked around the room, I watched roughly 50 percent of the participants do just that. If that percentage held across the country, over 50,000 people had just volunteered to work for the election of Bernie Sanders as our next president.
Not too shabby for one night’s work. Sanders could just win the DNC nomination.