My Dear Daughter,
There are moments in the life of a parent that bring a glimpse, however fleeting, that your kid just might be picking up values.
Such a moment came for your dad and me when you bounded in the door and declared triumphantly that you could participate in our precinct’s Democratic presidential caucus. Sure, you’d be only 17 in March—but since you’d be 18 for the general election in November, Washington state would let you participate. “I learned that in Gov!” you beamed.
I nearly wept.
When you were little, we made sure to schlep you down to the school gym with us when we voted. You’d romp with the neighbor kids, thinking voting day was a party. That was our aim. We may have even called it a democracy party. Don’t judge.
As you grew older the democracy party got appreciably lonelier, looking a lot more like parents at the dining table consulting laptops. Voting had lost its sense of civic moment. That’s a shame, especially for you as a woman, because voting for our sex has been so hard won. Before it even became a state, Washington actually got the women’s vote and rescinded it—twice. In 1910, when women’s suffrage was finally written into the state’s constitution, the first thing local women did with their new power was yank the mayor of Seattle, Hiram Gill—a guy overly devoted to vice who, history agrees, was untouchable without the women’s vote.
So we’re not just being your usual nagging parents when we ask you to treat voting as civic sacrament and go to the caucus.
Talk about a democracy party! The raucous love child of one of your Gov class lectures and snake-handling day at the tent revival, a precinct caucus is undoubtedly the most theatrical display of representative government you’ll ever see. Eight years ago, your dad and I once again schlepped down to the public forum—not a school gym this time, but a community center—and amassed with the Barack Obama group, which packed the center’s industrial kitchen.
I remember sitting on the stainless counter, wedged beneath an overhead shelf, hard against the burners of a stove top I could only pray wouldn’t get accidentally switched on by the butt of some overzealous speechifier—marveling at the passion in the room. Sure, there were blowhards and mansplainers, but their lengthy speeches existed in direct proportion to their investment in the outcome. These people cared. One memorable woman, who seemed to care uncontrollably, flung out her arms a lot.
The guy next to her suggested we find a bigger space.
We trooped outside to the tennis court, across the net from the Hillary Clinton group. (You get good grades in English so surely this metaphor is not lost on you.) As we inched closer to the net we could hear the finer points of her platform weaving in and out of the finer points of Obama’s; a sort of debate duet. Things got chaotic, occasionally heated, sometimes illuminating.
Former Washington secretary of state Ralph Munro was no fan of caucuses, saying they required people to argue with their neighbors about politics. I say that’s what makes them so extraordinary. The caucus is the one place in our contemporary lives ordinary citizens can taste what the founders must have had in mind when they invented the modern republic. Nowhere else is the democratic experiment writ so large, requiring citizens to form opinions, expose them to air, and sharpen them against disagreement. Yes, they attract the hardest-core partisans—but that ensures the best arguments.
And nothing will better help you figure out what you believe, which is, after all, your primary job this election season. Oh I can hear you now, declaring you already have your candidate, having long ago decided that the one who shares your gender must also best represent your beliefs. You’re not alone: Millions of women have waited decades to see a woman in the White House—and none more passionately than your mother.
So heed my final caution when I say: Look beyond gender when making your choice. As I write this I sincerely don’t know which side of the tennis net I’ll be on this time. I have lived long enough to learn that the woman-in-the–White House argument isn’t worth much if the man running against her better represents justice for women. When I look at Bernie Sanders and his lifelong battle against income inequality, I see a candidate working to advance our prospects in the area that disproportionately limits women. Call him myopic, but if it’s a myopia that addresses the gender gap—bring it.
Of course it doesn’t matter what I’m thinking, as your job is to follow your own compass. Second only to your sacrosanct obligation to vote is the time-honored American tradition of challenging your parents’ political agenda.
Why? Because if you don’t vote your conscience, you forfeit the right to insist that our generation had it all wrong. And that, my dear, is your biggest job of all.