Elections in the U.S. never excited me much – partly because I don’t get to vote, but mostly due to the general lethargy of American voters. The brutal and breathtaking Democratic race for the nomination between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the rise and fall and re-rise of Senator John McCain in the Republican field changed that, however. And not just for me.
While following the race to the presidency, I could not stop thinking about Thomas Geoghegan’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life. What had inspired this politically apathetic, almost bored citizenry to turn out in record numbers and pitch for their candidates? Another book review two to five years down the road may try to answer that question. In the meantime, Geoghegan’s book might hold a candle on what may be going through the minds of this newly excited, interested cadre of voters.
The Secret Lives of Citizens chronicles the politically, bureaucratically disgruntled author’s move from Washington, D.C., to Chicago in search of a participatory civic life. Geoghegan (pronounced gay-gan) in 1979 is working at the Carter Administration’s Energy Department and is a firm believer in the New Deal and unions. He is a self-declared “national Democrat” and an unabashed political idealist – the way teenagers are in their first relationship: madly in love with everything about the affair and deeply disappointed at the end.
Tiring from all the hoops he has to jump through to push for energy policies, Geoghegan decides to go after smaller fish. He considers cities where civic participation is a relished norm, a place where people know their representatives and turn out to vote, an urban setting that breathes politics. Chicago quickly climbs to the top of his list.
But Chicago is a political animal. There is nothing civic about politics in the Windy City. It does not take Geoghegan long to this find out, but he makes his peace and uses the opportunity to delve into the Founding Fathers, the constitution, the federal structure, causes of voter apathy and the New Deal, among other issues. He muses about the failures of the electoral college and the inequality of equal representation of each state in the U.S. Senate. And all in good, light fun.
Geoghegan cannot help himself, however. Eventually he joins the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington – the first of two black Chicago mayors. (The second is Eugene Sawyer, who was elected by the city council to complete Washington’s term after he died in office.) Geoghegan’s campaign war stories and reverence for the occasion is telling of the 2008 elections.
Washington’s effort was historic and unparalleled. His staff brought out all the disenfranchised black votes to beat the Democratic machine. Washington clinched the nomination from two white establishment figures: current mayor and son of legendary ex-mayor and party boss Richard J. Daley, Richard M., and incumbent Jane Byrne. Then, Washington beat his own party in the elections, which rallied behind the white Republican candidate. His achievements were not only due to the South Side, but also because the white “elites” of Lincoln Park, who came out to support him.
North Chicagoans like Geoghegan were giddy with excitement. They knocked on doors, led rallies, manned telephones. This was a democratic revolution.
Now, it seems, the U.S. is on the cusp of yet another revolution. This election is historic in many aspects. The Democrats were down to a woman and a black man until the last primaries. The Republicans might shed Karl Rove politics and redefine their party around McCain. With a slumping economy, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, record oil prices, climate change, renewable energy and the next round of Supreme Court appointments hanging in the balance, the outcome of November elections has the potential to set the agenda for generations. All of this, it seems, has triggered an awakening in the electorate.
Geoghegan must be giddy, again. If you too are excited, check out The Secret Lives of Citizens for one politico’s take on what motivates people – and why it really, really, truly, seriously matters. Geoghegan’s quick, 251-page stream of consciousness will grab you and paint a solid picture of America that is at once different, yet eerily similar. If you believe in, or at least hope for, change through politics, you will find an agreeable guide in The Secret Lives of Citizens, which succeeds in not taking itself too seriously while making a strong case for political participation.