This will sound odd coming from someone who teaches journalism and is a self-confessed news junkie, who rushes to a television when a major event happens and whose personal video library includes a lot of historic moments of breaking news.
I didn't watch the election coverage Tuesday night.
I had my reasons. For one, there was no suspense in it, not when the thing had been polled to death and not when I live in one of the reddest red states there is. (The only race I really had an interest in following was the Senate race in the state I consider my second home, and that had as much to do with the novelty of this year's situation as with my emotional bond with the place.)
But there was really no election night coverage in our house, except for a couple quick flips over every now and again just for giggles. Nope, instead I watched the much-anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, 30 For 30 installment about Marion Jones. And I worked on a couple things that needed work. Before bedtime, I gave the non-Alaska results a quick look, and they were as predicted. No real suspense there, so bedtime for me. (The polls in the 49th State closed after I went to bed, so I checked those when I got to work the next morning. Very interesting they were.)
So why did I consider this year's election coverage only slightly more favorable than listening to nails on a chalkboard? Well, because I can only take so much gas and only so many Beltway-insider talking heads before I start to scream. But there's one more reason why: The pundits may go on about tsunamis and tidal waves and mandates and superlatives and all that, but I believe that's over-dramatizing it. It was over-dramatizing in 2006, it was in 2008, and it was again this year. Once again, all I can think as I look at the election results is, "Folks, what you're sayin' ain't necessarily so. There's more, and less, to it than your pithy remarks indicate." And I end up wishing I could call the networks and tell them to pot down the chattering Beltway sportswriters and play some Mantovani tunes over the pictures instead. (There'd be more content that way. Or, even better, they could dub in other voices, like the old Hercules movies. That would be worth watching, and probably more true to reality anyway.)
When I was in high school, I took two years of Latin (which, among other things, accounts for my familiarity with the Hercules movies). It helped me in more ways than I can count, but something our teacher was fond of saying has remained with me. She'd talk about how much Latin influenced our modern language, of the contributions of the Romans to modern civilization, and how we could draw parallels between then and now. And she'd almost always punctuate these little lessons by reminding us, "There's nothing new under the sun." As long as I live, I'll remember her saying that.
Now, I've always had that in the back of my mind -- I'm a historian, remember -- but I'm reaching an age where I know this because I'm seeing things I've personally witnessed once before coming back around again. Sure, there are new circumstances and new participants, and a couple details that differ, but I see it all as a cycle, as a wheel that turns. Elections swing one way, then the electorate gets fed up and they cycle through the other way. Rinse and repeat.
No matter the names or the parties, it always plays out the same, and the campaign always boils down to a triumph of marketing and spectacle and frustration over anything else. One party prevails with ruthless efficiency and the other party completely trips over its own shoelaces. Victors give some variation of the standard victory speech. Losers give some variation of a standard concession speech, vowing to keep fighting for what they believe in (though it's more likely they'll fall back on a law firm job or a cushy lobbying gig or something like that). The commentary by the pundits is always the same: a couple of left-wing mouthpieces, a couple of right-wing mouthpieces, a photogenic anchor trying to moderate the proceedings, and precious little content worth remembering.
Then after the election, you know how it works: the new people come in, develop a taste for power, become what they ran against, and put aside solving problems in favor of getting re-elected and/or adhering to ideology. Or they see higher office and position themselves for that run. Or some of them start believing their own press and fall victim to hubris. Meanwhile, the party that was vanquished licks its wounds, regroups, appeals to its base, pulls out the stops, spends all the money it has to, pulls more than a few ethically-questionable moves, and vows a comeback. Meanwhile, for you and me, the same problems remain unsolved, and we remain frustrated and disgusted because of it while this strange theatre, seemingly disconnected from reality, goes on inside the Beltway.
And, sure, the politicians may appeal to our emotions and fears and frustrations, but at the end of the day it may as well be the Colts and the Ravens going at it. We may root for one team over the other, we may identify with certain players, but what do we get out of it in return? Win or lose, those guys on the field are pretty much set; they go home to fat paydays and luxury cars and nice homes. We turn off the game in the same shape we were in when it started, if not worse, going to low-paying jobs (if we have them) and driving decade-old cars and cutting back on things to make the rent or mortgage payment. And the longer politics looks less like governance and more like a football game between two multibillionaire franchises, that's how I feel. They work your emotions up, play on your hopes and fears, but ultimately give you nothing in return for your allegiance...but, hey, the players are set, win or lose. They really don't have to care about you as long as they say the right words and vote the right way on a few certain issues.
If it sounds like I'm jaded, I am. There's some knowledge of it I have from research and observation, and even from some personal experience. In my teenage years I was enraptured by politics and certain politicians, and even volunteered on behalf of a candidate. He got elected, and I was beside myself with joy, taking his victory as part of me and taking his setbacks as my own. He got a lot done, but when he retired, he wasn't the candidate I had fallen in love with. I forgot that, at the end of it all, he was a politician. (It's like the story about the lady who took in the half-frozen snake: she took pity on him, nursed him back to health, and then the snake bit her. "Why?" she asked with her dying breaths. "Silly woman," he hissed, "you knew I was a snake when you took me in.")
So although there's a lot of temptation to read a lot into Tuesday night's results and treat it like some sort of seismic event, I'm not buying it. The inside-the-Beltway talking heads on television won't tell you this (because they'd be out of a job, remember?), but it's all part of the cycle of American politics. I guarantee that in a few years, you'll see it in reverse, and then a few years later it'll come full circle once again. I know this because I've seen it before. It's just the way the cookie crumbles. And five will get you ten that within six months, if that long, the shine will be off and the narrative will begin devouring itself again.
And all this has to do with why I didn't waste my time with the coverage Tuesday night. I've seen it before, and it's nothing to get worked up about. I had sleep to get, an early wake-up call the next morning, and a raft of work waiting on me at the office. There was too much for me to get done, and too many students waiting for me to help them. Despite the hype, life goes on. And so it goes.
(Now, if we ever get a viable moderate third party in the mix, with some candidates willing to treat the electorate as adults, and willing to toss aside ideology and rhetoric, roll up its sleeves and make some real thoughtful fixes, wake me up. That'll make it interesting.)