Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Making History

I voted Tuesday for the first time as an American.

Elections in my home country traditionally took place in the fall, after the harvest.

In the decades after Romania became a nation, before it was swallowed into the communist bloc, the political elite counted on landowners and peasants, the backbone of an agrarian society, to be in high spirits once the barns were full.

But the tactic didn't always work.

At the end of World War II, when machine guns finally fell silent and people began to return to quasi-normalcy, Romania organized its first post-war parliamentary elections. A political class thrown together from the shreds of two historical parties and a slew of communist newcomers fought to control the new legislature, after almost a decade of emergency decrees and haphazard changes of course.

Romania had a weak king with authoritarian aspirations, a fascist-turned-communist government, and no legislature.

But the after-harvest tactic this time proved ineffective. Barely out of the war, the country was battling one of the worst droughts in its history, poverty and starvation.

The communist factions won the November 1946 election by a large margin, after running campaigns of intimidation, fraud and electoral abuse. The historical parties - Liberal and Agrarian - were relegated to symbolic roles in government, and began their slow disintegration.

As I made my way to the polls Tuesday, to elect the president of the United States, I wondered if what we call "historical" elections are those where people cast their vote hoping it will put an end to war, or recession, or some other dramatic event that shaped their recent past.

I entered my polling place and looked around, high on the rush of voting for the first time in my new country. People waited in lines, showed IDs and asked questions and voted, unaware that I was taking the pulse of the crowd. Some looked hopeful, others enthusiastic, and others matter-of-fact. An older gentleman who had just voted turned away the girl who tried to hand him the I Voted sticker, with a grumpy, "I don't need that."

These may not be the best times for America.

Years of recession, unemployment, mounting national debt and a budget that threatens to fall off a fiscal cliff split the popular vote down the middle, a symptom of disorientation, or, perhaps loss of faith in our government.

But I was raised in a country that is still struggling to define democracy.

I have seen worse.

More than two decades after a revolution that today is perceived as a farce of the neo-communist faction that took hold of the country for another 10 years, Romania has a president that no one wants, but that the majority elected, twice. A president who was ousted, only to return to his palace after people failed to vote him away.

Romania's president and its governments that change faster than seasons are proof that democracy is, as H.L. Mencken put it, "the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage".

Teachers, government workers and retired people whom the government sees as burdens, or worse, as enemies, knock year after year on the doors of a deaf administration.

Voter turnout has declined from more than 80 percent post-communism, to barely 50 percent in the 2009 election.

Thousands of young people with advanced college degrees have so little faith in the political system that they leave the country for almost anywhere else.

Romanians are convinced there is nothing they can do. That initiative is an abstract concept they heard on TV. That the president they voted for is an accident that happened while they were looking the other way.

I voted for the president of the United States without expecting him to pull out a magic wand and make the "bad guys" go away. Or make them give back the jobs. Or end the recession.

The president does not control as many things as we think he does. And when Congress and the executive hold each other hostage, that power is diluted even more.

But despite all the challenges facing this administration, I believe America will bounce back.

Not because of perfect unity, or lack of debate, or lack of vitriolic campaigns that waste billions of dollars.

But because America understands that democracy, with all its quirks and flaws, cannot function without rules and without people.

That is why it has survived a civil war, the Great Depression, terrorist attacks, and more.

The world has its eyes set on the United States, waiting for it to pull it out of the global crisis, or set the tone for recovery.

So I touched the VOTE button on the screen feeling hopeful.

Not because I expected a miracle, but because I understood that big machines need little parts to keep them going. And that this may be the closest I will ever get to making history.

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