Op/Ed: The Reckoning of the Uninvited
(BALTIMORE - November 20, 2008) - n Election Day, I found myself at my polling place in a line that snaked out the building, around the corner and down the street. It was the first time in some 26 years that voting at this site had more in common with the wait at Space Mountain than the usual gathering of the duty bound. And this was in a State where the outcome was never in doubt on a day that was cloudy and threatening.
Yet, still they came. I watched the young, the old, the Black, and the hopeful come out to participate in this election. I listened to the story the lady in front of me told about the 93-year-old woman who had never before voted registered to cast her first ballot this election. Whether or not the story was true, it was nonetheless emblematic of something. This was the day the uninvited crashed the party.
Where had these people been before? Looking at those now around me, I thought how much past voting had been a closed affair. How much had we come to expect that certain people would just not show up on Election Day – to the point that some politicians even counted on it? Had our democracy really offered an “open” invitation some people simply weren’t supposed to accept?
Considering that the turnout this election among certain segments of the electorate was so dramatically different, we might reflect how truly uninviting prior elections had been for so many of the people who showed up to vote for the first time or since a long while. Something happened this time that somehow pulled in people who before had so consistently passed up the invitation generally offered to everyone else that it’s hard to consider them truly invited at all.
In looking at the people who joined me at the polls, I saw not just a humbling tableau of American democracy. I saw our way out of the economic mess that experts now tell us will tie the hands of the President-elect.
We have watched how the mathematics of voter turnout accomplished an apparent political realignment to elect the first American President of African descent – an outcome that had just challenged belief for so many for so long.
Imagine a comparable economic realignment brought about by the mathematics of engaging in our economy countless new producers who, like these first time or long ago voters, have overcome their past reluctance to participate, feeling the urge now to crash the party.
In many cities, voter turnout in past elections had been disappointing. In some neighborhoods in Baltimore City, participation in the economy, measured in terms of the percentage of people age 16 and over with work, is stunningly low. In some neighborhoods, working Black males represent just 20% their demographic.
What if we could dramatically expand our economic participation rate in the manner we eclipsed past political expectations this election? That would mean tens of millions of new producers added to the American economy at a time when we truly need to “spread the wealth” – if only to spread our debt burden. Imagine expanding the tax base while at the same time shrinking government expenditures to help people who now won’t need helping.
The next President’s first job may not be answering the call of a broken Wall Street. Rather, it may be providing due economic welcoming for these party crashers who just as easily could tomorrow return to their prior state of disengagement. The last campaign has shown us that we can politically engage people who before had been happy to sit out past elections.
Can we figure out how to apply the lessons of the moment to engage people economically alienated to new and unprecedented levels of production to bring about yet a different miraculous outcome – the economic revitalization of a nation? Such is the reckoning of the uninvited and our uncertain capacity to move them.