The first general election in which I was able to vote was the British election of 1997 – held after four consecutive terms of Conservative government.
Following 13 years of Margaret Thatcher, who was thrown out in a very English coup, the Conservative party was in that year led by John Major, under whom it became rotten with hypocrisy – or “sleaze”, as it was called in almost every issue of every newspaper at the time.
I’d been brought up in a largely Conservative household, with a father who’d talk of how it was in the “bad old days of Labor” – the party that was responsible for the conditions that led to a bankrupt Britain in the ‘70s, the “Winter of Discontent” in ’78 to ’79, and the “three-day working week”, which saw trash pile up on the streets and bodies lie unburied by graves, as workers in all sectors went on paralyzing strikes.
Twenty-or-so years later, as I watched the campaigning for my first general election as a voter, a new kid on the block, Tony Blair, was leading the “New Labour” party, as he’d branded it. Since I didn’t know him from Adam, I wasn’t going to vote for him – and since I realized that the sitting Conservative administration was no Thatcher government, (and knew cowardly political wriggling when I saw it), I wasn’t going to vote for them either. Accordingly, I sat out the election, and didn’t vote.
Without having a horse in the race, I watched the results come in on the TV from a friend’s room in Cambridge. One by one, safe Conservative seats fell. A true “landslide” was indeed underway.
It was strangely exciting – not the excitement of having one’s team win, but more like that of landing for the first time in a new country.
And just like landing in a new country and getting the cab straight to the hotel immediately to sleep off the jet-lag, only the next morning can you walk the street and get any idea of what the new country feels like.
So it was, the morning after the election, with a new Labour government elect –not one I voted for – I walked the main street of Cambridge with an excited smile. I felt good but it took me a few minutes to work out why.
I’d just watched unwittingly, an entire country redefine itself – 60 million people collectively saying, “We’re not that any more; now we’re this”. Of course, no one knew exactly what “this” was going to be. But therein was an act of faith, of drawing a line, of self-confidence. In a loud clear voice, or perhaps choice, a nation said, “Today, the British choose what Britain is – and politicians do not”.
Such an act of self-assertion along is itself of great political power – not because of what it chooses, but because of what it is. Its value – quite independently of the party elected –is in reaffirming to everyone at the same that real power lies with the people. Especially when it sets a new direction, such collective decision-making inevitably jolts the political establishment more humbly back to the heel of the nation. And in so doing, an electorate not only chooses its preferred path but it also helps shapes the path taken by the new administration.
In the U.K., 11 or so years ago, walking around after the general election, all I knew was that I felt good – a little hopeful and a little proud, wondering the how exactly a collective decision could directly affect the feelings of an individual who had no direct involvement in it.
As in Britain in 1998, there will be a strong “feeling in the air” in the United States on 5 November 2008 – not least because of what has come before, in terms of leadership (or its absence), integrity (or its compromise) and political reactivity (rather than pro-activity).
How does America want to feel?
A country, like a person, acts out of the feeling it has about itself. Some say one should vote for the party whose policies one would like to see shape society; some say to vote for the character of the leader; both are reasonable. But a voter will also serve himself well by performing a little thought experiment – of imagining the feeling in the stomach when he first finds out the identity of the new President elect.
Feeling, after all, is the language of the soul. In an age of noise, of ideologies’ talking past each other and through each other, of obfuscation and a general factual inadequacy of corporate media, a gut feeling can tell more of one’s truth than any argument, ideological position, or extrapolation from history.