I long for another kind of breakthrough: an immunization against the assault of cynicism on our body politic.
I was given partial immunity in my seventh-grade civics class, and in spite of disillusioning wars and political scandals, I have never caught the disease. (Well maybe, I have had a mild episode here and there.)
This immunity came from Miss Swanson, a tall, angular woman with graying red hair. She taught our seventh-grade civics class in Nashville. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 11:10 to noon. While our stomachs gurgled in anticipation of lunch, she taught us to love our country. It was not an easy patriotism she taught, but a love born of knowledge and requiring responsibility.
“Here is Mr. Harvey’s ballot,” she would say, holding up a blank sample ballot for the upcoming election. We knew whom she meant, for Mr. Harvey was the owner of Harvey’s Department Store, the largest store in Nashville, and the first building in town to boast an escalator. “Here is Mr. Harvey’s ballot,” she would say, and, holding aloft the twin of the first: “Here is yours! Or it will be yours when you are 21.” “Your vote is as important as the richest man’s in town, and you must always use it.”
“Now, before any election, you should write down each candidate’s name and his positions on the issues,” Miss Swanson commanded, taking us through the exercise for the current race. “Look at them and see which candidate you agree with the most. Only then are you ready to vote.” She would never have abided sound-bite decision making.
Miss Swanson loved the Bill of Rights. “Because you are an American,” she would say, looking over barely distinguishable degrees of Baptist, Church of Christ, and Methodist of our Bible Belt America, “no one can tell you what church to go to. If you want to go to the Baptist Church on the corner, the government can’t stop you, and the government can’t make you go, either.” The choice of corner church was a serious business in the South then.
She explained that the First Amendment also protected our freedom to speak our minds. “The Constitution allows any of you to complain about your Congressman or the President. That is your right.” Many of us had heard plenty of complaining about Harry Truman at home. Thank goodness he couldn’t put the complainers in jail or issue a death warrant against them.
Miss Swanson’s immunization has kept me a believer. It compels me to read the newspaper every day because it is my responsibility to know what is going on. It puts me out there practicing curbside politics, holding a sign for a favorite cause or candidate. Those who drive by with rude shouts of “get a job,” “get a life,” or worse obviously never met Miss Swanson.
Our political cynicism has reached epidemic proportions. We are in desperate need of both prevention and cure for our loss of political faith.
Let’s build a crackerjack team of junior high civics teachers to spread out across the land. Let them teach that compromise isn’t unethical, but is the art of good politics. Let them admit that power corrupts, but that the best protection for the people is a balance of power, even when both sides are tainted by corruption. Let them teach that a Congressman’s change in position can be a political calculation, but also can be an act of political courage. Let them proclaim that in a democracy we must seek the common good.
Now, more than ever, we need for the pendulum to swing back, to reclaim America’s idealism. Perhaps the best place for these seventh-grade civics teachers to begin is at Capitol Hill and then to head straight down Pennsylvania Avenue to 1600.
Editor’s Note: Meredith McCulloch is a founder of ‘The Bedford Citizen’ and continues to serve on its board of directors.