It's Not a Competition

When I went to vote on November 4th, I brought my 3 year old daughter with me.  As 3 year olds are likely to do, she asked a lot of questions, “What is voting?  Why do you have to vote?  Can I vote?  Are you voting no?  What’s that marker for?  Can I draw on the paper?”  I really try to answer her questions.  And, I don’t know if this is good or bad, when it is a complex topic or something that I can’t think of a 3 year old way of saying, I just explain it as if I’m talking to an adult.  So, “Voting is how we choose the people who make up our governments.  I don’t have to vote, but I feel it is important to have a say in my government.  You’re not old enough.  You need to be 18.  There’s only one yes/no question, but I’m going to vote yes.  The marker is so I can fill in the bubbles on my ballot.  No, you can’t draw on the paper.”  As we were leaving, she asked, “Did we win?”  That one caught me off guard.  I said, “They have to let everyone vote before we know,” but I didn’t like the answer.
I was having trouble putting my finger on why I didn’t like my answer.  My daughter is going through a phase where everything is a race.  If she gets to the door before I do, she wins.  If she finishes her breakfast before I do, she wins.  I wanted to explain to her that elections are not the same.  It’s not about winning or losing the vote.  It is about what the people do once in office.  We rely on the wisdom of crowds to get us the best representatives, and hope they succeed, whether we voted for them or not.  But, watching the coverage that evening helped me realize why I didn’t like my answer.  As more and more candidates proclaimed “victory” or conceded “defeat” I kept thinking of my daughter’s little competitions.  I realized that for most of the candidates, press, and people on social media, elections are exactly the same as a 3 year old running to get to the door first so she can “win.”
I don’t want to get into a critique of the language used in politics.  It is the language of sports and the language of warfare.  Everything is presented competitively.  I’m OK with that because I have always understood it metaphorically.  I always imagined that the politically aware also understood it metaphorically.  That’s why I find Mitch McConnell so distasteful.  His claim that the most important thing is to defeat Obama is so cynical that anyone who understands the metaphor in political language ought to be insulted.  The most important thing is the good of the people.  It is to get people jobs and health care and education.  It is to make sure people live together in safe communities.  Ensuring Obama’s (or anyone else’s) defeat or victory is among the most unimportant things imaginable.  I know there are people who are not politically aware, who root for their party like they root for a sports team, who don’t realize that the language is metaphorical.  But, for the Senate Minority Leader (who will now be the Senate Majority Leader – excuse me while I go vomit) to play to the politically unaware because he wants to win shows that he also doesn’t understand the metaphor.
As I just said, the point of politics, of government, is the good of the people.  Lincoln called it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  That is why this talk of winning and losing has to be metaphorical.  We are all on the same team.  We are all “the people.”  It would be ridiculous to say that Michael Jordan won and Scottie Pippin lost because they were on the same team.  They won or lost together.  It is impossible for Mitch McConnell to win and Harry Reid to lose.  They either both win or both lose because they are on the same team.  I vote for the candidates and policies that I believe will create the most good for the people.  If the candidate I voted for “loses,” however, I sincerely hope I was wrong and the “winner” creates the most good for the people.  Given that we all win or lose together, there is no other justified way to look at it.
The election coverage makes me think I am in the minority in understanding that the language of winning and losing is metaphorical.  None of the talk is about how the new Senate will benefit the country.  It is all about how this “victory” (or “defeat” depending on your view) sets up the next race.  I read more about Hilary Clinton than about what the new Senate will do about immigration or Iraq.  The thing that I can’t figure is whether the politicians, reporters and pundits don’t understand or if they do understand but are being selfish and using the inherent drama of competition to make money.  Unfortunately, that means I’m wondering if they are honest, but stupid or smart, but evil.  I’m not comfortable with either.
If my daughter asks who won again, I’m not sure what I’m going to tell her.  3 year olds aren’t very good with metaphors.  I want to be honest, but I also want to shield her from cynicism.  I’ll probably tell her what I really believe, that there’s no way to judge until at least 20 years have passed.  I’m sure she’ll complain that 20 years is a really long time, but that’s OK.  When she’s 23, I’m sure I’ll be able to explain it to her.  Mostly, though, I’m hoping she forgets all about it until next November when I take her to vote again.

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