Ronald Reagan plays a starring role in my political awakening.
Believe me, I take no pride in these words.
My first memory of Reagan dates back to seventh-grade sewing class. A voice breaks across the loudspeaker, over the clacking of 30 machines, to announce an attempt has been made on the president’s life. He has been shot and injured, taken to a hospital in Washington, D.C. To this day, I can recall my crushing sense of disappointment.
Fast forward two years. Now it’s ninth grade and I’m sitting at the back of the Los Angeles city bus with my friends, a group of smart but cocky misfits. We are scheming how to defeat Ronald Reagan. We whisper possible ideas and plots. Every one of us wants to do this service to the country.
By the time I’m in high school, college, the Reagan Era is entrenched. Tax money is being spent on defense to pummel the USSR. Conservatives have unleashed an anti-abortion campaign that seems nothing less than an attack on women. A generation of kids are scarred by the post-nuclear TV movie “The Day After” (my school is near an air force base and though jets were forbidden to break the speed of sound, they did so with regularity, jolting me awake straight into fear that a nuclear bomb was about to drop). As governor of California in the 1960s, Reagan took one of the best-performing public school systems and turned into one of the worst. Now he is doing the same with the country.
Like him or not, as the president of my generation’s youth, Ronald Reagan defined many of us who came into political awareness at an impressionable age. To this day, when I think back on that period, I recall how it seemed that no matter what we did, we had no impact. Republicans continued cutting taxes for the wealthy, depleting the treasury on machines of war, attacking the poor, and lying to Congress. My friends and I became cynical, apathetic, and disaffected, a state that did not lift even when Reagan was out of office.
Under these circumstances, by rights I should have given up, become one of those people I knew who paid little attention to anything beyond their immediate concerns. But that never happened. I have phone banked and canvassed for many candidates, in red states and red districts, even though I am a hardcore introvert. I have attended rallies and marches from New York to Hawaii, even though I hate crowds. I binge watch MSNBC. I argue politics even when it may ruin the social vibe — don’t even get me started about those men, newly interested in politics since Trump’s election, who felt they could explain Hillary Clinton and 2016 to me.
You could say I was destined — some might say doomed — to become a civically engaged person. I was raised by a single mom in the 1970s. My mom was a quiet feminist; she wasn’t vocal about her views, but they were apparent in everything, from taking me to defend an abortion clinic when I was 16 to the cardboard mobile hanging in her office with red letters stacked like a pyramid stating “I AM WOMAN,” plastered with pictures of Helen Reddy.
So should I thank my mom for my civic engagement? But maybe it was connected to growing up in Los Angeles, which was full of one-parent families, artists, actors, gays, pot smokers, and people who in some way lived outside the norm.
Or maybe it was just a quality of something in myself, some part of me that cared about learning about and challenging the world that existed around me. I have never liked being told what to do.
Or maybe the reason that I give a damn doesn’t matter at all.
Jump forward. It’s August 2020, less than three months remain before the next presidential election. Since Reagan, because of Reagan, I still fill out every ballot with a sense of despair, imagining the future loss. Every single election seems to be more important than the one before it, but this time, that sentiment is actually true.
I’m still delving into my political past, trying to answer the question of what citizenship means to me.
There’s the simple answer: Being informed, being active, voting.
Since I was a pre-teen, I’ve vacillated between thinking we could change the world and feeling profound disgust for my own country. Bill Clinton, who was supposed to represent a new dynamic in politics, ended up following the old playbook cherished by too many men in power. Barack Obama, by far the best president I have ever known, could have pushed Mitch McConnell harder over revealing the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Every silver lining has its cloud, as it turns out.
Now we have lived through almost four years of Trump. After the election, I didn’t really want to be here. I tried to persuade my husband, who is Australian, to move back. But when my family shot me down, I faced the decision of keeping my head down and trying to get through it — like many people I know chose to do — or fighting back.
Fighting for a better country is what true citizens do. Remaking our country into a far more perfect union is what true citizens do.
Years of Trump’s cruel policies and corrupt acts and attacks on the Constitution have reawakened countless Americans to their civic and moral duty. This is, of course, a good thing. But while I see more engagement than I have ever seen, there are still people who “don’t do politics,” a sentiment I can’t understand. Not doing politics means refusing to be part of your community and your country. Not doing politics means ignoring who your leaders are and who sets your values. Not doing politics means making do and giving up.
So maybe it does matter what inspires Americans to become engaged citizens. Nature or nurture? If we knew, we could instill in our children and young people a desire for activism, involvement, and making their world a better place. But unfortunately, and despite the many hours I have devoted to solving the question of why am I a person who cares about what’s going on around me, I still am no closer to finding an answer. My biggest hope now: that my own kids — only 12 years old — will pick up the torch one day and, of course, that well before that, we resoundingly vote Trump out of office.
Recently I heard this quote from Dan Pfeiffer of “Pod Save America”: “Citizenship is a full-time job.” Imagine if everyone took these words — and this duty — seriously. If everyone respected citizenship, our country would have leaders who all considered it their jobs to build a better country, not just their own bank account or political capital. We would be in a position to continue making progress to that city upon a hill, one that has a home for every American. And we could all take a little time off.
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