A Father's Wishes for a First-Time Voter

A Father's Wishes for a First-Time Voter

By Mark Salter - November 6, 2012

My daughter, who turned 18 in September, voted in her first election this morning. Whom she voted for is her business; one of a very few decisions in her young life I preferred to leave to her and not to me.

Her parents are Republicans -- her father worked in the last GOP presidential campaign -- and political discussions at our Sunday dinner table tend to emphasize the shortcomings of Democratic policies and a preference for Republican ones. Our home isn’t, however, what would be considered these days a hotbed of conservative partisanship. Both parents have on occasion cast votes for Democratic candidates for offices other than the presidency, and neither of us considers a more liberal political orientation to be a moral failing.

No doubt my daughter’s politics have been shaped to some extent by her parents’ politics. But she has expressed views contrary to mine on more than one occasion, and if she canceled my vote for Mitt Romney this morning, I’d be a little surprised but not a lot. Neither would I be disappointed. I’m not really concerned about whom she voted for. I do care, however, about why she voted and what, as distinguished from whom, she believed she was voting for.

That’s not an easy question for a new voter to answer given how masterfully the campaigns, along with their most ardent partisans and the media, have conspired to obscure important truths about American politics. The first truth cast to the wind in our raucous and seemingly interminable campaign seasons is how small our political disagreements are compared to those in the rest of the world.

Even in European democracies, where fascism and communism enjoyed popular support as recently as the late 20th century, political differences have been much more extreme than ours. America hasn’t had an existential disagreement since the end of the Civil War, when we proved that government of the people, by the people, and for the people could long endure; that all men were created equal; and that human nature wasn’t too corrupt to manage the responsibility of self-government.

What are we really fighting about in this election -- whether the top marginal income tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent? Whether government spending should constitute 20 percent or 23 percent of GDP?

Don’t get me wrong, there are important differences over the direction of our country implicit in those arguments -- and some of them will affect my daughter’s generation more than mine. But the ferocity of each side’s attacks on the other might cause my daughter to worry that the nation won’t survive the election of the wrong candidate, whoever she determined that is.

Like others residing in swing states, she has been deluged with round-the-clock negative campaign ads, overheated television talking heads and opinion columnists warning of a return to the gilded age or a brisk march down the road to serfdom, and the ravings of conspiracy-minded partisans of both sides who darkly warn of the cruel tyranny on offer from one candidate or the other.

And the media in the main, with a minority of honorable exceptions, tried to persuade her that all this election was about was whose polls were more accurate, whose gaffes were more injurious, and which campaign called the other a liar more convincingly.

What is this election about? For me, I suppose it’s what every election in my lifetime has been about: how to best solve our problems and leave our children an improved country, where they will have better opportunities to pursue happiness than their parents did. For my daughter, I hope it’s about accepting that America is her responsibility as much as it is the president’s.

I hope she made her decision based on a reasonable understanding of the challenges that confront us and with a rational, respectful regard for the different solutions offered by the two candidates. I hope she is better informed about those differences and the abilities and character qualities of the candidates than I was at her age (or that our hyperbolic political culture and frivolous media appear to be). I hope she voted because she believes human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and make society and the world more prosperous, just and peaceful.

If she voted for the candidate she believed would best advance that proposition; if she voted because she believes America is her responsibility; and, no matter which candidate prevails, if she prays tonight for God to give the winner the wisdom and humility to govern well, then I will be as proud of her as I’ve always been.

Congratulations, darling girl, this extraordinary country is yours. May you help make it a better place more than I did. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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