From President Obama’s sweeping federal policies to ground-swelling tea parties, the 2010 midterm elections have been about many things. They’ve seen a new pledge to America propped up by pollsters’ predictions of power change in Congress. They’ve also heard the unusual—even the paranormal—through a senate candidate’s denial of witchcraft followed by broomstick comedy on late-night TV.
But when all is said and done—after the last voters punch their paper cards or push “vote” on their electronic ballots—this election is primarily about patriotism.
First and foremost, voting is an act of patriotism. Elections are the epitome of patriotic expression. You can't have a republic or a democracy without participants who can freely speak through voting. This election is no exception.
Our nation’s Founders designed it this way. Their objective was to replace royalty with representation. They created accountability by building three branches of government within federal and state divisions under the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution. The glue holding it all together is the union—the voting—of “We, the People.”
Our Founders believed that voters were patriots of the ballot while elected officials were “patriots by action” as future president John Quincy Adams put it in 1804 while serving in the U.S. Senate. Adams had witnessed the birth of our nation. To him elected officials were “merely the proxies of the people.” He was right. They should be. And that idea is a driving force behind this election.
Adams also dished a little advice. “Fellow citizens, in choosing your representatives, be sure to choose men who will support your own interests.” If he were alive today, he would say the same thing, rightly adding “women” to the candidate equation. Regardless of your beliefs, politics, gender, race, ethnicity, home state or town, your vote reflects your interests and priorities. Your vote makes a difference.
Second, voting is patriotic because it’s the vehicle that drives the course of our nation’s future. When you vote, you are having a say in the direction of our nation. You are plotting the next stop on the roadmap of history. You are showing your love for your country and doing your part to shape it. That’s why failing to vote—voter apathy—is the opposite of patriotism.
“The instrument of all reform in America is the ballot,” President Woodrow Wilson acknowledged to Congress after his party lost big in the 1918 midterms.
A dominant force sparking this election is the possibility of a power surge in Congress. In most midterms the president’s party loses seats, but rarely do those losses change the party controlling Congress. That’s what makes the 2010 midterm different.
This year the Republicans are poised to capture the U.S. House of Representatives and close the gap in the U.S. Senate, likely making this election a rare realignment midterm that will change the nation’s future and set the dynamics of the 2012 presidential race.
Third, voting is patriotic because it can lead to more power in the hands of the people. This is especially true when there is a high turn-out in a midterm election.
Presidential campaigns are like listening to two different bands, each featuring a charismatic solo performer while the other races play in the background. But a midterm flips the focus. It’s like watching a band or symphony where each instrument takes center stage at different times throughout the song. Midterms spotlight dozens of local and state races where hundreds of candidates take turns singing or playing their own tune. The voting results are often more eclectic and diverse than the outcome of a presidential election.
The buzz and excitement of such sweeping change in so many different races attracts more people to the polls than a typical hum-drum midterm. This force was so strong in the 1894 midterms that Republicans gained an unprecedented 130 seats—the largest pickup in history. Putting aside party politics, The Washington Post printed a patriotic assessment of the strong voter turnout:
“The result…throughout the country yesterday showed that government was never more in the hands of the people than it is in America now…. The people are in power, and they have shown it. That is what it means.”
The same could be said today. This year’s elections are about patriotism because government will be more in the hands of the people at all levels than before. The people will be more in power. And in America, what’s could be more patriotic than that!
Benjamin Franklin described liberty this way: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”
Voting is the peak of patriotism because it is a way for men and women to speak and think freely. It’s a way for you to express your views. At heart that’s what this election—and all American elections—are all about.
Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian and author of "Battlefields and Blessings," "B is for Baylor," "What Does the President Look Like?" and "The Faith of America’s First Ladies." Visit her site at janecook.com.