My mythic American road trip goes from New England, in many ways the birthplace of the Idea of America, to Chicago, once a central stop on the trading routes of the frontier.
When I told Elizabeth I had to drive to Chicago this week because that is where I am registered to vote, she asked me, in her very posh English accent, “Oh? And must you also ride in on a donkey?”
In fact, I was about to undertake a very American ritual: the cross-country, long haul road trip, east to west. Lewis and Clark did it. Thousands of migrants pushing across the continent in covered wagons did it. Jack Kerouac wrote about it. Today, truckers and travelling salesmen do it every day. This trip has even become the archetypal family vacation. And, to be sure, this is not my first such adventure.
I always intended to vote for Hillary, of course. She is solidly behind women’s economic empowerment–if she wins, women all over the world will benefit from her understanding and commitment. And there is also the matter of her qualifications: it keeps getting lost in the press, but she is probably the most qualified person ever to run for the top job.
Yet somehow, between the old New England town I live in and my arrival in America’s “Second City,” my trip became more than a vote for Hillary. Just before I left, I called Jim to let him know my travel and arrival plans. He was spinning with anxiety about Trump, worried that if Hillary loses, his own retirement funds will plummet in value. He expects me to reassure him, as I always do, that Americans are better than that and it will be all right. Because they are and it usually is. But instead, I say, “Oh, yeah, if Trump wins, the stock market is going to tank and the dollar will crash. Brexit will look like a blip by comparison. But that won’t be our biggest problem: a thin-skinned egomaniac with attention deficit will have his finger on the button.” Jim groans. We both intone that “these people just don’t understand what America is.”
As I begin the mythic trip, however, I am reminded that democracy was not handed, wholly made, to America after the Revolution, but has had to be negotiated in high stakes moments like this one throughout the 240 years that we have kept it going. And though I do believe that there is a core consensus among my fellow citizens about “what America is,” there has often been vehement disagreement about the relative priority of its tenets and certainly about who is included.
Thanksgiving, still a very important American holiday, helps to mythologize the Puritans who were actually rather vicious bullies, not only to Native Americans, but to the neighboring colonies. If you were Catholic, they summarily executed you. Hardly an ad for religious tolerance.
For instance, as I pushed the pedal on the highway leaving Providence, I recalled again that my new home state was founded in the first fight over religious freedom in what would become New England. Though the Puritans of Massachusetts have been popularized in American imagery as the founders of the principle of religious freedom, in fact they were outrageously intolerant of other faiths. Indeed their hostility and determination was so great that they pushed their ideas on the more mercantile Dutch settlements to the west–New York and Pennsylvania–and down the Atlantic coast to the more secular British colonies. By the time of the American Revolution, professing Catholicism was punishable by death in every one of the colonies. Thanks to those cute little “pilgrims.” Today, religious freedom is core to “what American means” and we are rightly shocked by Trump’s hostility toward Muslims. Clearly, religious freedom is still hard won in America.
When I crossed over Yankee Doodle Bridge in Connecticut, I chuckled at the name. The song was sung by British soldiers making fun of the disheveled appearance of American revolutionary militias, but was then taken up by those same home-grown soldiers as an ironic gesture of defiance. Today, it is a light-hearted patriotic song. The nation born of that revolution, however, has always held a deep fear of central government control and put its faith in local militias to act as a counterweight to any concentration of power. It is this principle of “what America means” that lies behind the Second Amendment. Today, my own opinion is that the “right to bear arms” has been turned into an inexcusable proliferation of civilian weaponry, usually used against innocents. But other Americans, many of them on the other side of the continent, past Chicago, feel threatened by a spectre of a large government. And, to be completely fair, the right for a local militia to bear arms against an overbearing government is exactly what the founders had in mind.
But the thought is really scary now. These are the folks behind Trump and they may not accept the peaceful transition of power if he loses. So here again is a conflict in the priorities of “what America means”: the right to bear arms against a (perceived to be) oppressive government versus the necessity to allow power to be peacefully transferred. Most people feel that Trump’s whipping folks up to protest the probable outcome of the election, impeding the transfer of power to Hillary through the threat of violence, is irresponsible. It may even be treason. I am in the “it’s treason” camp, but it is important, I think, to try to see the contradictions playing out. It helps me somehow to remember that democracy has never been a given, but has always been something that ordinary citizens had to work hard to maintain. By, for instance, eating at McDonald’s for two days while driving to vote.
I crossed the George Washington Bridge in a sluggish flow of traffic that included a bright red military-style jeep with a sticker on the back that said “Hillary for Prison” in the shape of a gun. I am outraged by the casual way in which accusations of criminal behavior are being thrown about in this election. “Put her in jail” and even “execute her” are becoming chants among the Trumpians (Trumponians? I prefer “Trumplodytes”). Yet there is a very simple and good reason that Hillary Clinton goes free: there has never been any evidence that she has committed a crime. Ken Starr, the lawyer who led the $40 million witch hunt against the Clintons back in the 1990s, has since apologised, has expressed his regret, and is now a Hillary supporter. Yet it is the Starr investigation, now clearly understood to have been a partisan attack that resulted in no findings of improper behavior except Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, that lies behind the constant claims that Hillary is corrupt, should be jailed, and so on. “Innocent until proven guilty,” is basic to the Idea of America. But there seems to be no constraint that can be brought to bear on these unfounded claims.
I was pulled over for speeding in New Jersey. I was mildly proud–in my family, I am the constant target of “slow-driving old lady” jokes. But I found that I did not know what to do once I pulled over. Back in the day, the driving instructors told you to stay in the car and wait for the policemen to come to your window. But in the movies now, American police seem to always start shouting and pulling their guns, yanking the driver out of the car. I am wondering if the rules have changed (it has been a really long time since I last got stopped by the cops) and I am supposed to get out. But I am also afraid he will shoot me if I get out on my own. So I stay put and watch warily as a little man in the most peculiar tin-soldier uniform gets out of the squad car and walks around to my passenger window (which I am pretty sure is not protocol). He tells me I am being pulled over for going 81 in a 55. I shudder inwardly because this is a big deal and will affect my insurance rates–I had been lost in thought and had no idea how fast I was going.
I have my license ready but he wants my registration. I shuffle through the papers in the glove compartment until he gets bored and tells me to stop. He asks me where I am going. I say, “I am driving to Chicago to vote.” He asks me if I split my time between Rhode Island, which is what the license plates on the car say, and Illinois, which is where my driver’s license is registered. I say “I have a new grand baby in Providence,” a non-explanation that he accepts with a smile. I am not sure whether it is the good voter behavior, the grand baby, or the white skin on my face that gets me off, but he lets me go with a warning to drive more carefully. I ease onto the highway, glad as hell to have avoided the spike in insurance premiums, but keenly aware that if I had not been a white woman with grey hair, the story would have ended very differently. America, even now, does not include everybody. It may not include a woman in the Presidency. It still does not include black men anywhere.
I take a pit stop in Pennsylvania, a gas station with aggressively patriotic signage. The bathroom is unisex. It has long since become common for small establishments out on the Great American Road to have unisex bathrooms. But it always galls me: one of the stupidest, but most effective, objections that killed the Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s was the notion that we would be forced to share public bathrooms with men. Now, women still don’t have equal rights in America, but the stations have unisex bathrooms anyway. No one seems to have noticed.
Often, the Idea of America gets rolled up in a militaristic ideology with which I am very uncomfortable. See bumper stickers: America, land of the free because of the brave. But in this election, even the military have been afraid of Trump.
At the traffic light going back to the highway, I sit behind yet another jeep with aggressively militaristic stickers all over it. One of them says “America, land of the free because of the brave.” These are of course a play on the last words of the national anthem, which was itself written while the British bombarded an American fort during the War of 1812. Since then, there has never been a conflict with a foreign power on American soil. So I think it a bit much to be attributing American freedom to an imagined fighting force. Instead, American troops have more often been deployed, wisely or unwisely, to protect the freedoms of people in other nations. This kind of policy was typical of the Cold War and reached its nadir with the Vietnam War, but was significantly expanded and upgraded in the 1990s as a moral obligation to the rest of the world. This notion that America should intervene militarily to protect against festering cruelty in other nations is called The Clinton Doctrine. I wonder if the man behind the wheel knows that.
The round hills and tightly-packed trees of Pennsylvania eventually give way to the flat spaces of the Great Plains. I stop for the night at a Holiday Inn Express, but they tell me at the desk that bookings from a college football game have left them with only a $200 room, which is super-pricey for the middle of nowhere. The nice young people (everyone on the road trip is friendly, like Americans are supposed to be) at the desk tell me if I will just go down the road twenty minutes, I can get the same room for half the price. The operative word here being the same room. Out on the prairie, you can see little commercial oases from miles away. The lights inevitably resolve into the same string of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. As diverse as America truly is, the culture is “homogenized” into a national experience by these little things. I text my children to let them know that I have stopped at a Holiday Inn and am eating at Applebee’s. They write back: “Sounds like a road trip.”
The next day, I make the last push to Chicago. The challenge at this point is to survive the boredom. I listen to Sissy Spacek reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Once again, the dubious and heroic roots of America intrude on my consciousness. Finally, after dark, I round the corner of the Stevenson Expressway onto Chicago’s glorious Lake Shore Drive. I am home.
It is only then that I remember the last time violence really did threaten an American election. I watched the Democratic Convention of 1968 on television, as did the rest of America. But what we saw was a system under siege: young protestors and police battled on the streets of Chicago while, inside the convention, Mayor Richard Daley sat stone-faced. That time, I was on the side of those who protested “the system.” Jim was actually on the streets in Chicago. This time, we are among those trying to hold “the system” up.
I go to the public library to vote. When I arrive, I am astonished and heartened by the length of the queue. Big turnout is good for Hillary. I tuck in behind a lady who smiles conspiratorially and says “I hate to stereotype, but these people look like us.” What she means is: they look like Democrats. Otherwise, the crowd assembled could not be more varied. There are blacks and Hispanics. Mine is an LGBTQ neighborhood, so there are people from that community. There are obvious old liberals like myself and this women in front of me. And there is a remarkable number of disabled people. As people get out of the elevator and see the line, they all blanche. Not one turns and leaves.
It took me 90 minutes to vote, even though there were fourteen machines. I have never in my life had to wait that long to vote. By the time I was done, the line had doubled. Everyone was quietly standing in wait. The volunteers were patiently reading the ballot to elderly and disabled voters. It was a remarkable scene. American motley democracy at its very, very best.
So here we are once gain, my overly religious, gun-toting compatriots and I, coming out with our convictions on our sleeves to try and hold democracy together one more time. We are proud, and rightly so, that we have such a long history of peacefully transferring power under a rubric of participatory government. But we should be under no illusions that this has been easy or even peaceful, behind the scenes. It has not. The way we have come together to hold firm, even when disagreements about the Idea of America have threatened to undermine our institutions and ideals, is part of the national story. This time I admit the threat does feel overwhelming. But I hope that Americans will prove once again that they are better than that.