I hate politics. I never wanted to be in a position where I ever had to follow them, but a nationalized incident in 2002 involving a personal friend of mine being used as war propaganda dragged me kicking and screaming into the Potomac muck, never to return to dry land. I tend to look at them a lot with a very defeatist attitude, and if I were to ever run for a public office, maybe two or three of my friends would vote for me; it’s hard to blame them, since my election campaign would be concentrated more on sensationalism and seeing how much I could upset accepted election protocols than telling everyone my policies. Of course, that’s partly because I would make up my term as I went along. Despite this, though, I do try to keep up with the surrounding world, and I tend to frequently make the common mistake of taking polarized views of a lot of complex policies.
Political books tend to boil my blood, so I’ve been avoiding them lately, but then again, A Voter’s Journey by Bill Lewers can’t quite be classified as a political book. It’s more or less an autobiography told through the thoughts of someone who enjoys following national politics and is fascinated by them. Lewers is a registered pro-life Republican, which puts him at very direct odds with nearly all of my own viewpoints, but A Voter’s Journey doesn’t go into the depths of the policies he believes in. He merely writes about the road that led him in his directions, the politicians that he liked and was fascinated by during his lifetime, and some very brief thoughts on them. A Voter’s Journey is completely devoid of propaganda, and at a certain point Lewers almost completely stops writing about politics as politics and starts concentrating on his involvement with the system as an election officer.
If there’s a theme to A Voter’s Journey, it’s politics through the eyes of someone whose direct involvement in the system begins and ends at the polls. We’re not dealing with an author who goes on TV to scream at the top of his lungs every night or into a fancy Capitol office every day. We’re dealing with someone who just hasn’t yet gotten jaded about his right to have a say in who represents him in the government. Lewers does write a little bit about why he voted for some of the candidates he did; I would imagine that’s unavoidable given the subject material. Usually, though, his arguments relegate themselves to a sentence or two before going on. The most political chapters in the book are where he gives his generalizations for the decade – a short paragraph or two of where he was himself in the political sense, and a quick list of his favorite and least favorite politicians, both Democrat and Republican. The balance is probably helped a little bit by the fact that Lewers has been formally registered to both parties during his lifetime.
Probably at least half the book doesn’t contain the author’s political viewpoints at all. To understand just how little about politics it can be, understand that in the penultimate chapter, he works as an election officer called a “rover” – a special election officer who circulates out around about a dozen precincts, providing supplies and occasional assistance where it’s needed – on the day of the 2012 presidential election. The whole chapter is about how his day doing his job went. Barack Obama is only mentioned once, and not even by name but by title – Lewers tunes into a broadcast to find out what’s happening in the BIG election that year, and writes that it “sounds like the president is doing well.” Mitt Romney isn’t mentioned at all.
“Growing up a political geek” is a good way to describe A Voter’s Journey. Lewers begins the narrative when he’s a small boy, writing about his family and neighborhood politics on Long Island and how the Republicans had a solid grip in the area. During the 70’s and 80’s, he writes about his personal conflicts between his democratic and republican ideals. A lot of the millennium is centered around his actions as an elections official – not a person running for any kind of office, mind you, but one of the desk sitters who greets the people who are going in to vote on Election Day, taking their names, and showing them how the voting machines work. The personal stories about his election experiences start to outnumber his watching of politics. There’s a page-long chapter about Sarah Palin, and it’s not so much about Palin herself as it is the author’s thoughts about who she was and what she was doing when she was thrust into the spotlight during John McCain’s presidential campaign. (Chapter can be summed up as follows: Palin had the makings of a great governor in Alaska, but was badly unprepared for the scrutiny of a presidential campaign, although that hasn’t stopped her from finding a new career as a media celebrity.)
We can call A Voter’s Journey a real outsider book, primarily because Bill Lewers has no feet in the proverbial political door. But that’s what makes everyman books like these important. Sure, it’s nice to have your favorite pundit reinforcing everything you think you know about the people, but this is a book from an honest to god regular hardworking (well, retired) American. We need occasional reminders that the American people are more than simply us against them because the news media exists for a macabre form of entertainment which gives us things in a narrative that’s been working for a long time. It takes communication with people from the proverbial other side sometimes to dislodge us of the us against them mentality. This book is a good start.
Communicating with regular people of other viewpoints can also yield some interesting and unexpected views. The infamous Joseph McCarthy is mentioned in A Voter’s Journey briefly, and we’re told McCarthy didn’t have any real significant meaning in the Lewers household, and that’s that. The Republican the author’s folks really loved was Theodore Roosevelt. (A favorite historical character of mine.) Lewers also has thoughts about the oddballs (Lyndon LaRouche), the doggedly determined (former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer), and politicians unknown to all but the biggest politics buffs (Marshall Coleman). The views are written in a manner of not so much “I liked” or “I hated” as they are “this was something that was interesting to me, and here’s why.” Lewers knows exactly what he’s writing about, too. He knows his politics quite well and appears to be an avid political book reader. One of the chapters is a list of his favorite books about politics, and other chapters in which he really gets to flex his political knowledge are a brief summary of the vice presidents; and a March Madness-like contest between the presidents (it falls to a showdown between Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham “Showtime” Lincoln; it also inspired my own video game character bracket).
Lewers seems most at home writing about his election day work, which makes sense – he clearly takes pride in being a part of the democratic process and he makes that clear from the first page, being the kind of person who has written to his congressmen pretty frequently. Reading over the later chapters, it’s hard to not gain an appreciation for just how big and complex an election can be. Lewers writes about what the wrap-ups are like and why voting areas can be so precise, and even gives us the pros and cons of certain voting machines. (I have to make a note here for his shout-out to the old-fashioned lever machines, which were what I was taught to vote on. I remember walking into my first Illinois election, seeing what they used there, and asking for assistance. Apparently the Buffalo area finally made the switch when I was away. I miss the lever machines.) Tiring work, I would conclude, for for Lewers, it’s all part of a process which he considers a duty to perform. Therefore, the chapters tend to be a bit more personal. One is about an Election Day earthquake his area experienced, a few are about memorable voters who came in while he was on duty. It made the biggest impression on me because he came off as truly able and willing to throw any partisanship away to let everyone have a say in a democracy.
While I try to pay attention to politics, I’m always looking with a grain of salt, having been jaded since my activism with a Chicago group in 2006-2007. (I had a REALLY good reason for walking away, which I’ll try to write about in the future.) It’s nice to have occasional reminders of just what it means to be able to vote, and having a word.