Jessica Leibe shares how it was that she came late to grasping politics and being an informed voter and, as the next election rapidly approaches, it’s never too late to learn.
The education I received in school about politics was garbage. With all due respect to my school and teachers—which I’ll leave anonymous to protect their privacy—it was.
There were two essential things I learned about our government. One was, what I’m certain all of us learned, that the government has three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. I also learned how voting is my civic duty. The phrase was on constant repeat. Drilled into us. And not only by teachers, but also by my parents and other adults. My American History class covered how important a presidential election is. How we the people have the final say with our silent voices. But, when it came to what our Senators and Congressional Representatives do? That lesson lasted less than twenty minutes. Don’t worry about that election. It was barely an afterthought. Midterm elections? You don’t need to know about them.
Before I go any further, let me throw out this disclaimer. My northern New Jersey school system, though not the best, was the type of education where you get out what you put in. We had great teachers and we had so-so teachers. Our small town sent a whopping 500 students to the sand-colored brick building five days a week. Available electives outside the mandatory classes were slim pickings. We made do with what we had.
I can’t put all the blame on my public-school education. Growing up, I witnessed many conversations between adults on the subject of politics. What I heard were raised voices. I saw wide-set crazy eyes. The sharp intake of breath when people didn’t agree. Turns out, talking about politics guaranteed a headache for all of the participants. Despite not wanting to grow up too fast, children and young adults look up to adults. They notice what causes stress, what elevates happiness, and what sparks anger. It was clear to me early on that politics was a conversation no-no. Yet, we’re unable to avoid it. How many times have we got sucked into a political conversation? How did you feel after? Depending on the people and their viewpoints involved, either exhausted or ecstatic. There’s no middle ground feeling with politics.
I turned eighteen in April 2005. A year late to vote in 2004 when George W. Bush ran against John Kerry. My first presidential election was in 2008. Barack Obama vs. John McCain. Here’s what I knew: I was a registered Democrat. My mom is a Democrat. My dad is a Republican. Let’s face it, my mom had the upper hand in my decision. Obama was a Democrat. If Obama won, he’d be the first African-American president. I wanted to be a part of history. I believed in his vision. I should vote for my party. Most people did.
Uncertain, I asked my mom the night before, “I’m voting for Obama, right?”
“Yes,” she replied.
So, I did.
Two years later, Republicans won the House and Senate in the midterm elections. You know, those elections that I knew nothing about.
“I have to vote again?” I asked when our mock ballots arrived in the mail.
My mom brings the paper closer to her on our Amish-built dining room table. She runs her finger down the paper, pausing on certain names.
“Vote for these people,” she said.
So, I did.
Midterms were a foreign concept to me. I recognized names like Cory Booker, Bob Menendez, and Josh Gottheimer. But what I was electing them for was something I never cared to look into. This didn’t bother me. Not back then. Why bother when I never saw myself going into politics? Why would anyone? All I knew about politicians was how many skeletons they seemed to have in their closets. It was rare to find one unblemished. A lot of my teachers didn’t have the greatest things to say about certain politicians, giving me no further cause to research what they stood for. All they continually preached was vote. Vote! Vote! Vote!
All I knew about politicians was how many skeletons they seemed to have in their closets. It was rare to find one unblemished.
My aversion to politics was influenced by all of this. The perfect storm. Here’s what I determined: Don’t talk about it, but vote. Get to the polls and vote. Which I did, though every time I pushed the “Cast Vote” button, there was no sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. I did my civic duty. Why didn’t I feel proud that I did?
Then, in 2016, the craziest election of our time happened, and Donald Trump was the result.
I don’t need to remind you how heavy the air weighed during the days, and the weeks, and the months that followed. It’s certainly not a time we want to relive. The country is divided worse than any time in recent memory. Celebrities took to social media and expressed the importance of voting. Particularly in the upcoming midterm elections.
Following Trump’s election, my interest in politics transitioned from “I don’t give an F” to “How do we fix this? How do we make this country better? What can I do?”
Actress America Ferrera became a beacon of hope for me. She took to her Instagram and provided the long-overdue education on midterm elections. She spoke about what Congress and the Senate do. The bills and rights they create, debate, and sign. She mentioned how this was also the time we vote for local governors, sheriffs, and more. This was the push I needed. The moment when I stopped relying on my mom’s guidance. Though we share a lot of similar political beliefs, I started deciding for myself as there were some things we disagreed on.
I did my research. I read news from several sources. I watched The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth every Sunday night. This Showtime series became the staple of my refreshed political education. John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Alex Wagner became my teachers. I entered the 2018 midterms with a renewed sense of self. I now fully understood why voting is one of the most important things we can do as citizens.
Democrats regained the House but fell short of the Senate in 2018. The silver lining was the blue wave of diverse candidates. Candidates that looked more like America. More women and people of color ran in 2018 and won. Among them was Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American women to be elected to Congress. Tennessee voted in their first female Senator and South Dakota voted in their first female governor. Ayanna Pressley, Kyrsten Sinema, Rashida Tlaib; the list went on. And then there was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman elected to Congress at twenty-nine. Her inspiring story and impressive fight to victory can be seen in the Netflix documentary film, Knock Down the House. It follows her as well as three other pioneering women who ran against established Democrats in 2018.
Politics is still a touchy subject for people. A good political conversation is needed every now and then. It reinvigorates your passion for wanting to live in a fair country. They’re important to have. It’s vital to take the future of our country seriously. Read up on the candidates. We’re giving them a lot of power with the push of a button. Take pride in who you vote for. Don’t rely on another’s opinion. Make the decision for yourself. Ask your history teachers more questions. It’s never too late to brush up on politics.
Once, in my early twenties, I had a political conversation with an older manager who told me my thoughts on politics would change as I aged.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I replied.
Well, the joke’s on me. He was right.
Taking an interest in politics and the leaders of our country in your thirties, forties, and so on is nothing to be ashamed of. There’s no time limit on when you can take part in something that impacts your rights. But we need to do a better job of educating the younger generation. They are our future leaders after all. We need to teach them that the most important person to have a political argument with is yourself.