In Which Our Heroine Ponders Shining Cities

22 July 2004

I've been thinking a lot about political expectations lately. In the comments on an entry of John Scalzi's Whatever, Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor and Electrolite said, "What I ask of Presidents and Presidential candidates isn't that they give meaning to my life, but that they be basically good eggs who'll keep the system from running completely aground and maybe manage some incremental improvements along the way. That's what politics is for: the management of disagreement in a pluralistic society, not the building of shining cities on fucking hills."

Yes. This is what I ask, too. No running the government into the ground. No total breakdown of society. Incremental improvement would be appreciated, though I think every time I spot a candidate who would like to incrementally improve one thing (in my opinion), he/she would like to incrementally break down something else.

I watched "Evita" the other night, and I thought, this is what happens when people vote on the shining city theory. This is the kind of candidate who gives meaning to people's lives: the kind who mismanages funds and is more concerned with appearance than with actual progress. Because giving meaning to lives is much harder to pin down than administrating smoothly, and much easier to sell.

But there's a part of me that thinks, y'know, I'm 25. (Almost 26, in case you'd forgotten....) Maybe there should have been some part of my life, some year, some political season, when I could believe in someone's shining city. When I could watch a politician and think, "That person will make things so much better," rather than, "That person won't make things quite so much worse," or "That person won't interfere as much with me and my friends and family making things better as much as we can." It would have been nice to look back on my early twenties with a sadder, wiser smile and say, "Well, we were pretty idealistic then, and we believed in him."

(Or her. I might not believe in the candidates themselves, but I would feel better about the system if there had been a reasonable her for this.)

My mom is a classic fiscal conservative. She's the sort of person who believes that private efforts do a better job of helping the poor, hungry, and homeless than government programs -- and then gets both her checkbook and her own butt out there to hang drywall and pound shingles for Habitat for Humanity and other similar charities. Whenever people claim that Republicans as a group don't care about the poor, I think of my mom's blisters. Some of them care very concretely. Some Democrats don't. It's not nearly as simple as some of us would like to make it. It's not divided neatly by who cares. The people who care are divided in their choice of methods.

When Mom and I were having lunch just the two of us last Friday, she talked about how she had believed in the Republican Party before Nixon, how she had felt personally betrayed by his actions. I almost envied her. I never had that chance. I was born after Watergate. Once I got past the little kid phase of "president as generic authority figure," there was never a single November where I thought, yes, I believe in this guy, I'm excited about this guy, this guy can do it. I have always watched election results with trepidation ("Which jerk are we stuck with now?"), never with anticipation or excitement.

I don't even have a sense of whether my idea that all sixteen-year-olds are cynical is true or the result of being born (or coming into political awareness) after Watergate, after Vietnam, after a dozen other things. But I do wish that Snotty Politically Cynical Teenager had had some intermediate phase before Resigned Politically Cynical Adult. I feel like I missed something exciting and wonderful. Ultimately hollow, maybe, but good while it lasted.

But the management of disagreement in a pluralistic society is nothing to be sneered at. It is not an unworthy goal. It is a good thing to keep in mind.

Ah well. Yesterday, C.J. and I attempted to enjoy the American Iron Metal Sculpture contest, which gave people the chance to get scrap metal and use it in their sculptures. It was...better in concept than in execution. It was part of Aquatennial, though, and I wanted to do something with Aquatennial. We also went to Pumphouse Creamery, which was muchly nice.

Timprov is taking me to a baseball game today. Like going to Minnehaha Falls Sunday, it's a good "home summer thing." That's where I'll be for the middle part of the day. I haven't been to the Dome in at least a decade. I'm looking forward to it.

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