On Wednesday, at sunset, I hiked up the side of a locally famous rock face here in Manchester. It’s called Rimmon Rock, and apparently its legend is woven into local myth. It’s a pretty typical story in American folklore. A Native American girl had her heart broken, and so she leaped from the cliff to her death. Whether or not the story is true, what is entrancing is that one can hike up to the top of Rimmon Rock, look out to the southeast, observe a city speckled by houses of all types and ages, see the Merrimack River shimmer as the sun sets, and contemplate something quite remarkable: “Though time has passed, and this town I see is completely different, I still stand on something timeless-- this rock, this town, and its stories that bind it together.”
Likewise, as Americans, we stand on two bedrock, somewhat folklorish documents: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I say folklorish not out of skepticism of their existence, nor in questioning that they were drafted in fervor by a group of people devoted to a truly radical idea-- for these things I believe. I say folklorish because with ardent hearts we as Americans reference these documents, nostalgically so, as the indisputable fabric of our society. Should this surprise us? The one gives the middle-finger to the English crown. The other lays out a plan for government in the vacuum of disposed monarchical control. This sounds American enough. But that’s because it is America.
The Declaration talks about “one people” in which “all men are created equal.” The Constitution begins with the words “We the people of the United States.” Looking back, we realize these documents had some major faults. What people were we speaking of? To be sure, these documents conveniently left out slaves, free women, and in many cases, non-landholding males. What equality were we speaking of? Incidents that led up to the drafting of the Constitution, such as Shays’ Rebellion, seemed to prove that not all “men” were, in fact, created equal. Over the course of American history, challenges to the status-quo became the hallmark of American progressivism. From wrinkled parchment we were founded as a political entity, but from social movements we have given deep meaning to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even when our government has abandoned, unrightfully so, people of color and women and the LGBTQ community; even when we haven’t defended the lowly, those in poverty, and treated them as second-class citizens; even when we have turned our backs on, as we are witnessing today, our Muslim brothers and sisters, we still look to the idealism of our founding documents. We still look to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And we look to our politics to protect these freedoms enshrined in our political and social consciousness.
That’s why we are in New Hampshire. Most of us here want to bring this idealism to light. We want to make our country a better place for all.
Yet those of us working on campaigns experience many people hanging up on our phone calls, shutting the door in our face, and not willing to engage in political discussion. Should those that don’t care much have a role in the process? In our class, we have discussed whether or not party bosses should control more of the nomination process, or if the vote should go completely to the people. We wonder whether or not our nomination system is as best as it could be. We are sometimes cynical, other times optimistic. We are sometimes complacent to let voters off the hook, other times we are unrelentless on those telephones.
In it all, for better or worse, we sometimes forget that these are supposed to be the “We the people” the Constitution represents. But who are these people? The fact of the matter (despite the myth that all New Hampshire residents are dedicated politicos) is that most of them aren’t really politically-minded folks. As is usual, they spend a lot of their time at work. They worry about their family and kids. They don’t want to spend their weekend off reading the latest issue of Foreign Affairs; they want to go skiing or fishing or just take an outright break and watch some Sports Center. I can say for certain that when they get a break, they sure as hell don’t want a kid like me calling to ask, “Excuse me, ma’am, but will you be supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary February 9th?”
But then again, this is the essence of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Do I want everyone in this country to be politically engaged? You bet your ass I do. Do I expect that everyone will put forward the effort to do so after a fifty hour work week? Of course not. They’re supposed to have a certain amount of freedom, and they don’t have to choose to act. The problem there, of course, is that they might get swept up in the tide of something they failed to oppose-- precisely because they failed to act. Still, that is their choice.
If there exists such cynicism as to lead people to inaction, I can’t say I am surprised. Sadly, in many ways, I think there lacks a true and deep solemn trust between the electorate and its leaders. A lot of people consider politicians as two-timing and corrupt. Worse, they feel like there is little difference between who gets elected. How often we hear people remark, “They’re all the same.”
However, politicians are not “We the people.”
Only we the people are “We the people,” and as I was looking out upon house after house after house from my perch on Rimmon Rock, remembering that these people will help decide who will become this country’s next president, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ambivalent: about the future, about our nominating system, about who might be the next president. That’s the reality of electoral politics. There exists uncertainty and mixed emotions.
But what I’m not ambivalent about, even for all of our failures and shortcomings, are the people; the “We the people.” Because even though we have been sidelined and sidetracked and side-kicked throughout American history, we are still here standing. We have fought for our rights, and are still fighting. And even though we get things wrong sometimes, we all aspire towards the same goal: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
-- Alex Betley is a junior from O'Fallon, MO studying Politics, Economics, and Social Thought. He is in New Hampshire as part of a St. Olaf political science class studying the nominating process of presidential candidates.