In Election Season, Americans Choose Their Own Adventure

Trump, Clinton & Clinton, in what feels like an alternate timeline

I couldn’t vote in the 2008 primaries. I wouldn’t turn 18 until mid-September, so the November general election was going be my first time voting ever. At the time I wasn’t very political. I was fresh out of high school and, quite frankly, I thought that the political activity on my university’s campus — the protests, the campaigning, etc. — was ostentatious and fueled more by youthful bandwagoning more than it was a product of genuine, well-informed political opinion. Then again, I’ve always been something of a curmudgeon-before-her-time.

Eight years later, I find that I am still not palpably political. Though I am more aware than ever that perhaps almost everything is political and that politics is practically unavoidable, I still try not to throw myself unto the fray. It’s exhausting, circular and often feels unproductive. But despite my general policy of non-interference, however, I recognize that participation in elections and the act of voting are not only important civic responsibilities, they are also deliberate acts of creating a national narrative.

Who writes our national narrative? Voters.

National narratives are elusive, dynamic, deeply political things. Almost always the product of historical hindsight, our national narrative — the way we imagine and construct our nation’s identity, mood and sense of progress — is a product of the present. Perhaps on many levels this is an obvious observation. Media outlets are a perpetual motion machine of information and spin, often as much the creators of news stories as they are the shapers. Our elected officials, and more broadly, our political candidates, vie to dominate news cycles, hopefully in positive ways. But who “writes” these national narratives? And most importantly, perhaps, how do we write national narratives and why are they important?

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National narratives matter because they package and present historical legacy and the recent past in an the image of ourselves. Like any author worth his or her salt, we are vain creatures, and, each election season, we dig out our national narrative like an old photo album, piecing bits of seemingly unrelated details into a story that aligns with what we have become — or at least what we think we have become — in the current historical moment.

By voting for a candidate in November, then, we are only partly voting for the person we believe most capable of occupying the Oval Office. We are also voting for the political narrative we want to believe in the most, or at least what we want to be true. We’re gambling on America’s sequel.

National narratives are always divisive and complex. They shape our identities and direct the flow of progress. There is also no single national narrative just as there is no single American experience. I think we can all probably agree, however, that America has become increasingly complicated since 9/11. There is something about near-cataclysmic events that makes us aware that even though we are writers of our national story, we are equally its unwitting characters. It is that paradox that comes to the fore during elections. In voting, we inhabit the roles of writer and creator, editors and characters simultaneously. It’s disorienting, and why election season — and arguably the government in general — is a bit of a circus.

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Elections are acts of creation and self-identification.

In this way, elections are compelling not just because of the political drama that seems to affect the same pleasure center as reality TV, but also because we get to actively participate in an act of national storytelling and historical narrative. Elections are acts of creation and self-identification. They are about incorporating larger narratives into our own, without letting others write that narrative for us. And in the long run, these narratives really only exist in the first place because we create them. The narrative we create that supports our view of the position and temperature of America is a construction made by the arbitrary connections between separate events.

We will never stop creating these narratives. It is within us to create and participate in patterns and systems. When we vote, we vote not only for the America we think we are, but for the America we want to be. Politics may be the art of manipulating and promoting a particular American narrative, but in the end, though, the voters write the story.