I’m a suburban girl, like millions across the land. My early childhood was spent in various (mostly western) suburbs of Chicago. My years were splintered into stints of various town/home/school combos, where we landed for a period of time due to the latest parental job. I don’t remember much about these years in the ‘burbs, but they were formidable enough to make their mark. Somehow, at a young age, I assimilated as an independent suburban kid — enough so that the move to rural country was quite a culture shock at twelve years old.
You see as much as I am a suburban girl, I’m also a small-town girl. After we packed our bags, hit the long highway and left the metropolis, there was a cornfield outside my bedroom window. Though it was like being dumped into a pool of ice water initially, I slowly adjusted to my new ‘country mouse’ life. For fun, occasionally my friends and I would wander into the cornfield next door, split into two teams and play a sort of dodgeball game using the farmer’s corn, thrusting it into the air towards one another. We’d keep at it until the farmer, from a distance, noticed his corn flying through the air and yelled us outta there.
There really wasn’t a point to this game; it was a time killer, just as many of our pastimes were. Others included ‘cruising’ — which simply involved piling our collective teen spirit into cars and traversing the few main drag streets that constituted our downtown; stargazing — laying on the hood of a car on the shoulder of a country road, taking in the wonders of astronomy viewable from earth; bonfires — hightailing it outside of the town limits to this or that person’s multi-acre abode with park-like yards for massive fires; and the venerable cow-tipping — which I never actually took part in myself, but involved sneaking up on dozing cows in the evening, and, well, pushing them over. These were just some of our pastimes.
After college, I spent fourteen years living in the big city. So, as much as I’m a suburban girl and a small town girl, I’m a city girl. This gave me yet another perspective on human habitation, this time with means as a bona fide member of the middle-class, then as a DINK (i.e. ‘Double Income, No Kids’) and eventually with kids. The suburbs were up next, this time to the north. The suburbs are distinct from the city, but with access to city amenities, it lands decidedly on the urban end of the gamut, thus the name.
As a ‘city mouse’ life is full of entertainment options — concerts for every genre under the sun and blues clubs, theater and improv, fancy dinners, casual dining and everything in between, cocktail lounges, underground dance clubs, and piano bars. And then, of course, there are professional sporting events with your choice of ball or puck or star athlete, along with a countless selection of people from which to attend these entertainment options and to draw up a friendship.
There are so many places where we may live our lives: our ultimate desired location, a practical place for proximity to work or close to the helping hands of family, or simply where we land… all of the above affected by the factor of what we can afford.
The geographically schizophrenic ‘nurture’ component (of my nature/nurture upbringing that influences who a person becomes) has exposed me to a full range of the community spectrum strand of life along with the many varying aspects of life that accompany them. And this, amongst other things, has made me into a highly independent person with a deep appreciation for the range of choices available in life, including a love and desire to experience it all. I love the city life where I take the el train from one neighborhood to another … and I love the country life of rolling hills peppered with dilapidated barns where I can take a long bike ride full of the sweet smell of native flora, a hawk following above keeping me company.
My Identity: Me, Myself + Independent
In college, I picked up the term GDI or God Damn Independent. (In college life, this refers to whether you were in a Greek house or not.) I soon realized I was the poster child for this term. I love the freedom to dabble and experience the widest range of life’s offerings. I routinely choose to go it alone rather than reap the many benefits of belonging to this or that group from which people often form a foundational identity. Going it alone is what’s worked best for me, especially considering my eclectic upbringing.
This has left me feeling as an outsider — which may sound negative but hasn’t been — on geographic and many other fronts. And this outsider quality has translated into my politics. I’m an Independent and always have been. I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats in presidential and other elections. My husband thinks I’m highly qualified to identify with him and the Democrats, and though I can see that that’s where many of my views align these days, I just can’t do it. I’m a GDI and it seems that’s more important now than ever.
I think my GDI perspective is an incredibly valuable asset. I think deeply about every decision (for the biggest seats for sure) rather than voting along party lines. People — every last candidate is up for consideration — actually have to win me over, not that there’s always a clear winner. I haven’t often been asked to weigh in at the liberal nonprofits with whom I volunteer, but I do catch them by surprise when I occasionally voice that we’re not all Democrats. I haven’t historically been so vocal about being an independent, so some of my conservative (decidedly or leaning) friends don’t realize I’m not a Democrat. Hear me now: My opinions are my own, not from any outside agenda.
(No) Party Animal
Our political parties expect us to agree to a list of positions on our country’s (and world’s) most important topics. When you get to be old enough and have children in high school, college or beyond, those positions have had plenty of time to mutate. When’s the last time you refreshed your browser on the DNC or RNC websites to find out what their agenda currently states? Our political parties have changed dramatically. Each of our long-standing party choices has packed up and changed location on the liberal-conservative spectrum in dramatic ways. Ideological views have been hijacked by narrow-minded extremists from polarized sides with what amounts to ploys and games to win advantage.
We need to look deep, too, and follow along with our choices to see the outcomes after the balloons drop on an election win. Candidates on the campaign trail can be all lip service just to get the votes. When it comes down to outcomes, what are the actual results? Politics is complicated, probably the most complicated profession there is. So, yes, tacks must change at times. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be at times to serve our township/state/country. As citizens, we must stay the course of participatory democracy, letting our elected officials know our stance on issues through the days, weeks and years. Then perhaps we will all realize we’re truly in this together. We’re actually just as much to blame for poor outcomes when we don’t. It’s pretty pathetic how little we take part in our democracy, isn’t it?
In the last election, I heard some organizations that I value call for people to ‘vote for the climate’. This posed an issue for me, as we don’t live in a world of siloed issues with one being the most important and all other topics be damned. As an environmentalist, in a country where climate change was barely mentioned in the most recent presidential debates (or any), that doesn’t seem an appropriate approach to our government. The truth is, climate change is an issue that refuses to be addressed by the vast majority of politicians. It’s the neglected step-child. All politicians (and most of our citizens) have a lot to learn about this new-to-the-scene topic of climate, and we must plan to work with all of them to attain progress. And, anyway, how can we silo any singular issue really?
In politics, now more than ever, I feel that it is crucial for all of us to judge each candidate on who they are, independent of their quoted party*. Who have the best qualities of a leader for our country? Who will make sound decisions on all the critical topics at hand for a diverse citizenship? We need to get to know candidates by hearing their position on various issues — including climate change — so that we can gauge character and place hopefuls on the political spectrum. Beware the wolves in sheep’s clothing, as they come in red and they come in blue. Isn’t that what the debacle of 2016 was about? Picking the lesser of two evils? How did we get here in this polarized two-party system? How about a new official Independents Party — anyone?!
“Though America’s political polarization has become a fact of life, it has never been seen so graphically: as a diseased brain, with few neural pathways between the two hemispheres.”
—The Economist, Dec. 7, 2013
Learning to Talk
It’s critical that we reevaluate our practices and processes to more effectively bring quality candidates to the ticket. In this vast country, we’re often not getting the quality of leaders that our country needs. The leaders that our country needs — in these unprecedented times — certainly must exist amongst the millions of us. Our processes are antiquated and need a massive shake in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But there’s another thing. We are living in a world where it’s not socially polite to discuss politics. We go into our private voting booths and show our true political colors to a piece of paper or computer screen. Our values are locked up tight. How are we going to come together as a nation with shared values if we can’t talk about them? It may avoid ruffling feathers temporarily to shelve discussion of our democracy as we have been over the past decades and beyond. Oh, how our forefathers deliberated! Now, we sit around watching reality TV rather than live our own lives. We aren’t in the practice of having constructive dialogue, so when political topics come up, we’re often not civil. We think it’s owed to us, that the perfect democracy will be delivered on a silver platter. We must consider it our duty once again: compare and contrast, weigh options, and consider other perspectives. For the sake of our long-term beneficial outcome, we must do the work of conversing in order to become a cohesive whole, to rediscover our shared values.
So, we need to get talking.
My husband and I have friends who are Republicans and Democrats. I’ve tried here and there to engage in productive conversations, but it never lasts long. Sure enough, someone will step in to shut the conversation down or change the subject, thinking we’re approaching dangerous terrain. I know that I’m capable of having these conversations, but I’m never quite sure about my companion, so I let it go.
We need to relearn the skills of having a constructive debate. That involves remaining as objective as possible while sharing our personal experiences and bearing witness to others’ experiences. Dialogue, by definition, is an exchange of ideas. We need to catalog the range of (socially acceptable) beliefs, allowing freedom for differences among us while chiseling out the guidelines that will keep things operational and fair. We won’t reach consensus at first — not for a while. That’s what makes these wicked problems — but let’s start by just hearing each other out.
Do you want to understand? I sincerely want to understand your point of view. Let’s talk.
We all have a deep responsibility to know the ins and outs of our government and to take part in our democracy. We need to get out of our microcosms and work to understand the plights of various fellow citizens. We need to know what values we want our country to represent, and to be informed and participate in more than presidential elections. This all begins with a whole lot of conversation. When we first talk, action — quality action — will eventually come. It’s time for a truce in the two-sided game of throwing slurs — or corn — at one another. It’s not a pointless game. This is real life.
I pledge allegiance to…TBD
And let’s all defect to it. At this point in time, I don’t feel that either party deserves our allegiance. But that’s easy for me to say, right? Seriously though, what better way is there to figure out who ‘we’ together are than to reevaluate ourselves individually first? We can strongly stand on our own while these mixed-up parties figure out their identity crisis.
I’m not sure we’re ready for actionable steps, because it takes time to delve into the semantics, complexities, and definitions that weave together our identity. My recommendation? Step back from your allegiance to a political party — at least temporarily — and invest the time to think deeply about what’s best for our country and the world. Get the conversation going with your (hopefully) diverse group of friends, neighbors, and the community-at-large.
Mind your manners, good luck, and let us know how it goes. A healthy democracy starts with us.
*By the way, when I applied, trained and volunteered as an Election Judge for last year’s presidential election I was required to choose either Democrat or Republican as my party.