By Genevieve Long
It has always been drilled into my head that voting is a civic duty. As Americans, we are told it is our privilege to walk into a booth and choose a candidate. But until November 4, 2008, I never really believed it.
I think my enthusiasm started with unusual cab rides I started having six months ago. As soon as I shut the door and gave my destination, the drivers would start chattering at me enthusiastically.
“So what do you think?” my driver from Egypt or Eritrea or India would ask, nearly yelling. “You think Obama can do it? Who do you like?” I would sit in the back of the cab, caught halfway between speechless and thrilled, seeing my country take a personal interest in who should run our government.
My favorite was a Muslim driver wearing an Islamic cap, who hailed from somewhere in the Middle East.
“Do you know the meaning of the word democracy?” he screamed conversationally as he careened down 10th Avenue, barely minding the treacherous street construction and oncoming traffic. He explained his definition in minute detail, replete with obscure historical references and personal philosophical nuances.
I was shocked to learn that his understanding of the word democracy had nothing to do with a government of the people. It was all about power and justification of acts of power—extremely complicated and far removed from the American ideal of the word and the concept. But maybe we were to blame for the distortion. After all, we have seen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a devastated economy, a mortgage crisis, and on and on. And all the while, so many struggling to have some control that is held by so few. Over the last few years, it has started to seem like our form of democracy is more about power, and less about people.
Today when I finally went to vote after two years of campaigns and promises, I thought about that cab driver and his definition of democracy. All day I had been excited about casting my ballot in what many Americans feel is an historic election. It is something I want to tell my children and grandchildren about. Not simply for the sake of the story, but to hand down to future generations a genuine love of freedom. My parents passed it to me, as their parents to them. That belief in the ability to make things better is the heart of my American dream. It has given me hope over some of the dark moments of the last eight years.
Most of my friends, colleagues, and family members asked and reminded and cajoled me to vote. Immigrants I know who cannot cast a ballot yet because of their status expressed regret that they cannot participate. Overall, it has been quite a buildup.
As I strode toward my polling place in New York City with a smile, I felt genuinely excited for the first time in my life about voting. Out of the blue, I thought about Iraq and a passage from Dexter Filkins’ book, “The Forever War”. In the book, Filkins describes an Iraqi man at the polling station in Iraq who said, “Get out of my way—I want to vote.” I suddenly understood how that man must have felt. If given the chance, human beings naturally want a say in their fate. On voting day, that manifests as using our one voice to state who we want to lead us.
But at the end of the day when the voices have been counted, the newly elected leader is still just a leader. They are one person and the civic duty of the citizens has just begun. If we have learned anything from the past eight years, it is that an engaged, questioning, and probing citizenry is core to the health of a democracy—regardless of who is elected to lead. The change we seek will not be found in one person, it will ultimately be found in ourselves.
As I approached the polling station and saw the sign stating, “Vote Here/Vota Aqui”, the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address came to mind: “This nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”