Five years ago, when my mother was in her late eighties, she volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Most days, she drove twenty minutes to an office park in Virginia Beach and made phone calls for four or five hours at a stretch. Hillary was her candidate—not because she was a woman on track to make history (my mother isn’t sentimental that way) but because years before, when Clinton was considering a run for the Senate, my mother heard her speak at a fund-raising dinner and was impressed by her intelligence, humor, and, yes, warmth. My husband, a 2016 Bernie surrogate, could not persuade her to change her allegiance. She was “all in for Hillary.”
The 2016 campaign marked a turning point for my mother: it was the first in decades in which she did not go door to door, urging strangers to vote for whichever candidate she happened to be supporting. (One year, that candidate was my uncle, a progressive Democrat, who was running a quixotic campaign for Congress in a conservative Republican district in New York. Needless to say, he lost.) She said she was finally too old to be a door knocker, a task that she was very good at because, over the years, she had acquired the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere. Still, her biggest campaign triumph was pulling up at a rally in suburban Connecticut, where we lived at the time, with a huge Jimmy Carter sign atop her Oldsmobile 88, and getting a shout-out from the actor Paul Newman. This was in 1976. It probably kept her campaigning for the next forty years.
Both my parents were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, members of a local activist group pushing for reforms in the Party, but they recognized that American democracy did not work without a loyal opposition, and they sometimes voted for Republicans. The polarization that now characterizes our shared political life had not yet taken hold, and the concept of a moderate Republican was not anathema to either the Republican Party or liberal Democrats. Our corner of Connecticut was represented—and represented well—by two such Republicans, Lowell Weicker, in the Senate, and Stewart McKinney, in the House. They, and their fellow-travellers, had some gravitational pull in their party, and that was a good thing.
When I turned eighteen, I registered to vote as a Democrat. Then I wrote to Representative McKinney and told him I’d done that, and asked for a summer job. He brought me on as an assistant to his press secretary. And, although that experience cured me of any desire to work on the Hill, it was a hands-on education in the political give-and-take necessary to meet the needs of constituents. Today, as we watch Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory and encourage spurious claims of voter fraud; when we hear reports that McConnell, if he retains his leadership position, will block Biden’s Cabinet appointees if he deems them too radical; and when only four sitting Republican…