by Jason Peters
Is it permissible on a website devoted to the legacy of President Gerald R. Ford to admit a strong revulsion to presidential elections? They strike me as undignified; they are shadowy and shady national diversions—that is, things to do, spectacles that mitigate the dull everydayness of our otherwise uneventful lives. They’re like the Super bowl, except we stage them less frequently.
Which is to say they don’t divert our attention from things at hand quite as frequently as do sporting events, though both politics and professional sports feature a lot of people whose personal compensation far exceeds their public contributions.
I say this as an unreconstructed sports freak. But I also say it as a loather of national politics, especially presidential elections. And I also note, if I may, that Mr. Ford enjoys the distinction of not having been elected to the presidency of the United States. It might even be fair to say that, notwithstanding his distinguished bid for the office in 1976, he may have been too good a man to have gone the ordinary route on his way to the presidency.
This somewhat petulant opening salvo, this tiny dissent from the hoopla of national conventions and rituals, has one purpose, at least at the moment, and that is to draw attention to what in my second paragraph I called the “things at hand.” I’m not saying presidential elections are meaningless, because obviously they aren’t. Ask the Interventionists. Ask the Inflation-Watchers. It’s just that national elections are never “at hand.”
Now if it is my inclination to tune out the national news, or if I claim that being obsessed with it is a sign not of engagement in the world but of a pathological boredom with it, I do so because I believe that, by comparison, what’s “at hand” is far more important. And I leave aside asking whether there are no Shakespeare plays or sonnets or Melville novels we haven’t read yet that we could go and read instead of glutting our boredom on Fox and CNN. Are we really going to surrender our attention to what the precious twenty-somethings on NPR believe we should care about when we ourselves can take charge of our own attention and attending?
The “things at hand,” it seems to me, are what we should be giving our attention to, and the reason is this: none of us lives in a “nation” or a “globe.” We live, each of us (if we are not self-fancied “global citizens” sitting in airports and calling those hellish places “home”), in a specific place with specific neighbors. “Neighbor” means someone who is nearby, and the etymology of that word pretty much answers the question posed in the gospels: “and who is my neighbor?” The “global citizen,” by contrast, has no neighbors and therefore no responsibilities—except maybe studiously to avoid the strangers killing time (and injuring eternity) with him at Gate 28.
The “things at hand” are the things—unlike national politics—that we can and should influence or exercise some control over. Permit me a brief example. My wife and son were at an intersection once, and our son, who was then driving on a learner’s permit, was at the wheel. He could not see the oncoming traffic because the weeds at the intersection, being too high, obstructed his sight. My wife called the Township Hall and asked for the supervisor, whom we know by name and sight, and my wife simply pointed out—without the rancor of partisan discourse—that if someone didn’t mow the weeds at that intersection, someone else was going to end up in the hospital.
The next day the weeds were cut down, and visibility was back to normal.
This is what we should mean by “citizenship.” No end of people will tell you that it is your “duty” to vote in a national election. But what is voting in a national election compared to the “things at hand”—the duties of a local citizen who might have just saved the life of a teen driver—especially if that person’s kid is the one who could get T-boned?
I am not suggesting that anyone abstain from voting in presidential elections, though I confess to having abstained on grounds that seem perfectly reasonable to me: I didn’t want to be implicated in the shenanigans of either of the clowns on offer. But what I am saying is that there are duties of citizenship confronting us not once every four years but every day. And those who account themselves citizens because they vote in abstract elections but cannot be bothered by the “things at hand” are, in my view, not citizens in any sense of the word. They are people sitting on their couches watching the Super Bowl or the Election News, elbow deep in Cheeze Doodles, too busy being consumers of far-away news or sports to be citizens of the near-at-hand—citizens performing, at scale, the offices of neighbor.
It’s all gearing up now, the next presidential spectacle. What real demands will it make on us? Hardly any by comparison to those at hand, some of which might be the difference between the life and death of a teenager. In comparison to being attuned to the needs of our specific places, voting in a presidential election is not the first but the last act of citizenship. The stickers we’re given to wear after casting our votes shouldn’t read “I voted.” They should read “I just did the least I could do.” Wear it while you and your children replace the collapsed culvert at the end of the widow’s driveway next door.
- Do Americans put too much stake in presidential elections? How can we lower the stakes?
- What does the author mean by the real demands of citizenship?
- What is the relationship between citizenship and neighborliness?