It was 1984. I doubt very much Big Brother was watching.
I was in the living room viewing the evening news on NBC, which showed a clip of presidential candidate Walter Mondale saying some version of “If I am elected, yes, I am going to raise your taxes.”
I looked to my parents from where I was laying on the carpet with my hands propping up my head.
“Well, he’s not going to win, is he?” I asked, rhetorically. I was 8.
Let me be clear: I was not some young political prodigy, and I was probably only watching the news because we tended to do that as a family back then. Simply put, it was blatantly obvious to an 8-year-old with a short attention span that telling people you were going to raise their taxes was not a good campaign platform.
Here’s another thing I remember distinctly from that time: I had what was, to me, a very real fear that Ronald Reagan might not be our president anymore. That, again, was because I was 8. I don’t know what I thought would happen if he wasn’t, but I still carried that worry. I hardly had any memories of Jimmy Carter. Reagan was the only president I had really known, and my parents certainly seemed to like him, so any uncertainty created a natural, childlike feeling of unease.
Looking back, now, those memories serve as an interesting snapshot of how and why our current system in the U.S. operates the way it does.
Maybe Mondale would’ve been slaughtered in the ‘84 election regardless of his campaign platform. But it’s both amusing and somewhat sad that he buried himself by essentially being honest. I’m sure the “I’m going to raise your taxes” line had some broader context relating to Mondale’s overall agenda for what he wanted to accomplish in office. Do I remember any of that? No. Does anyone?
From my perspective at the time, Reagan was a great president. I felt very safe during his presidency. I felt like America was a pretty wonderful country during his presidency (it’s still a wonderful country, don’t go getting anxious on me just yet).
To a kid, it’s all about what you perceive and how it makes you feel. Honestly, it’s not that different for adults. Whether it’s politics, religion, sports or pop culture, we don’t always want the details. Just tell us that we’re kicking ass and we’re right.
We could get into “both sides” here, and, to an extent, it’s true (especially as it pertains to any sort of honesty). But let’s face it, the GOP and affiliated groups like the NRA have become masters of the emotional play. They figured it out long before anyone else. Take a complicated issue and boil it down to a wildly over-simplified slogan that will fit on a bumper sticker (or today, in a tweet). Make it snarky. Make it angry. Make it easy to memorize and repeat. Make it about emotion.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with letting emotion drive you. If you’re not passionate about something, why are you doing it? That doesn’t mean you disregard nuance, forget about the facts and discard the feelings or rights of others in a complex situation. I’m not saying we are incapable of examining multiple facets of an issue. Most everyone is. But lobbying and campaigning are aimed at energizing a mob of people who otherwise might not even care. To do that, the strategy becomes simplification (typically through outrage) and too much gets lost in that process.
We’re now seeing how relying on feeling and emotion can be dangerous. We’re in a divided country struggling with many major issues. Our president committed a crime on live television the other day. We shoot each other in schools. The health of the planet is in crisis. And the vast majority of us are paralyzed by our rage, our fear, our denial or our apathy. An 8-year-old me who just wants to know that everything is OK, and we’re doing the right things, would look at this and be very unsettled. That makes me wonder what we’re going to do to restore faith to those who are watching us now. There’s an answer, and we can find it. But I guarantee you it doesn’t fit on a ball cap.