Why Midterms Matter (The Elections, That Is)

For many of us in the academic world—and especially students—the word “midterm” inevitably means exams. But there is another kind of midterm approaching—one that is terribly important, and yet one I fear that many of us might just miss. It is, of course, the national midterm election—that period between presidential elections when many congressional and local seats are on the line. Historically, these elections seem to put the nation to sleep.

This year certainly doesn’t bode well. Polls tell us that the country is thoroughly disgusted with Washington, and our distaste for a dysfunctional congress has spilled over into our attitudes toward local races. Governor? Judges? Local council or school board members? Few seem to care.

The other day, there was an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by the writer Ann Patchett in which she mulled over her close call with apathy as the primaries for the midterm elections approached. This is a woman who takes pride in voting in all elections. But this time out, she didn’t seem to much care and decided that it would be enough to vote in the midterms. However, at the last minute, she realized that some state Supreme Court justices whom she admired just might lose their seats. It was her “eureka” moment. “Just when I thought it was safe to nap through a little local primary election, I was reminded that enjoying democracy meant getting off the sofa,” she wrote.

It is a bit frightening to me that so well-informed and ardent a voter as Ann Patchett almost gave it up. Our country is not especially well-informed—I think we know that from endless surveys conducted over the years. (One survey of 1000 Americans found that 44 percent could not define the Bill of Rights, 73 percent did not know why we had engaged in the Cold War, and more than a third couldn’t identify in which century the American Revolution took place.) Yet as we know, a well-functioning democracy requires a well-informed population.

I’d like to think that because FIT is an academic community that this particular population is better informed—and will show up at the voting booth. I recognize that politics are not high on the agenda for students across the nation this year—including those at FIT. Yet every day, when I walk into the Marvin Feldman lobby and see the almost empty newspaper stand near the elevator—the one that dispenses free copies of The New York Times—I am encouraged. Maybe I’m looking at it with rose-colored glasses, but I take that almost-empty stand to mean that our students are engaging in some kind of conversation about the world around them.

Surely, the problems we face today could not be more disturbing or compelling. Climate change? Terrorism? Immigration reform? Abortion? The fate of Guantanamo or Jerusalem? Minimum wages? Teacher evaluations? What books your child reads in school? Whoever occupies a particular congressional seat or a state assembly seat or a local judgeship can, and likely will, vote on issues like these—issues that will affect you— indeed, all of us directly. So…yes…these tiresome, boring midterm elections are important. Critically important. As Ann Patchett wrote: “Voting is like brickwork—the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick…if you miss one, the whole thing starts to slide.” It is also both the quid pro quo and the privilege of democracy.

Midterms fall this year on Tuesday, November 4th. Vote!

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