My Life in Four Year Terms

1980: Reagan vs Carter

AMHERST, Massachusetts — I’m floating peacefully in a warm sea of amniotic fluid, when the voice of Ronald Reagan penetrates my subdural Shangri-La. It reverberates through the nodes and ventricles of my mother’s body like the voice of Darth Vader, causing me to somersault and burrow deeper into the womb. There I wait, weeks past my due date, growing ever plumper and more powerful off my host.

McGinty, Jo Craven, “Analysis of the Generations isn’t an Exact Science,” The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2016

On November 4th, my parents watch the election returns on our analog TV. I cringe away from the artificial light flickering across my flesh dome. Every few minutes, my father gets up to adjust the antenna, coaxing the signal from Springfield, Massachusetts, 25 miles away. The result is unchanged; Reagan is winning. My mother’s ribs contract, sending waves through my sea of tranquility. She thinks: how could any reasonably intelligent person be taken in by this slick Hollywood salesmen? Surely, we will all be blown to nuclear high heaven before his four years are up. Heeding the warning knell of her heartbeat, I cross my arms and legs and stay put, undeceived by the midwives’ crafty attempts, in the weeks that follow, to trick me into a more favorable presentation.

The voice of Ronald Reagan reverberates through the nodes and ventricles of my mother’s body like the voice of Darth Vader, causing me to somersault and burrow deeper into the womb.

I manage to delay my arrival until November 26th, forcing my parents to spend Thanksgiving at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. My mother plays the part of the turkey, while the nurses attend to my swooning father, and the doctor yanks me, ass-first, kicking and screaming, into the Reagan era.

1980s Child, I belong to the shifting borderlands of Generations X, Y, Z and the Millennials, the crystal ball of my destiny clouded by smoke from coal burning power plants.The particulates drift slowly over the Berkshire hills, falling softly on the tobacco fields of the Connecticut Valley, where they mingle with emissions from Volvo station wagons, Corollas, and Subarus, their bumpers plastered with progressive bumper stickers, and from my parents’ own brown Saab, carrying me home.

Image Credit: HELVETIQ on Flickr

1984: Reagan v. Mondale

My only conscious memory of this election is of Mom explaining the significance of Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for Vice President. It’s never occurred to me that girls couldn’t do anything boys could, except wear blue, and who wanted to do that when you could be fabulous in pink and purple?

Not that I really understand what a President is. I think of Ronald Reagan as our King, like the King in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. I wish Queen Nancy would wear puffy pastel gowns, with ruffles and sequins, instead of red suits and shoulder pads. I also get King Ronald confused with Dan Rather, the evening news anchor. They’re always on TV at the same time and they both have perfect hair and teeth. The only difference is that when King Ronald opens his mouth my parents shake their heads and talk back to the TV. Don’t they worry that he’ll say ‘Off with their heads?’ Aren’t they proud to be American? Mom says America is a good place to live, but sometimes it acts like a bully, pushing the littler countries around.

What four year-old could tell them apart?

I know about bullies, the snot-nosed kids who cut in line for the swing set and run over my My Little Ponies with their Big Wheels. They always get their way, but somewhere, deep in my heart, I believe I am better than them. I believe that someday I will be a Woman of Letters, and they will weigh three-hundred pounds and live vicariously through their favorite football team. No one tells me this. They don’t have to; it’s endemic to my environment, a dormant virus trapped beneath the ivy and white steeples of my college town, which came to be because Lord Geoffrey Amherst gave small-pox infected blankets to the people who lived here before.

1988: Dukakis v. H.W. Bush

It’s a marathon, like the one in Boston, only longer. The candidates race each other across the all fifty states, beginning with Iowa. I picture Mike and George HW, pasty little legs pumping, their jerseys, emblazoned with the logos of their corporate sponsors, sticking to their sweaty skin. And every evening, a breathless nation tunes in to Dan Rather/Reagan for the latest standings:

Dukakis has the momentum crossing the prairies, but hold on, Bush is gaining in coal country! Now they’re neck and neck coming out of Appalachia! Does the Vice President have the stamina? Will they have to substitute him with Dan Quail, who doesn’t even know how to spell potato? How can can we trust the nuclear codes to someone who writes potato with an ‘e’ on the end?

I’m frustrated that Mom has put off voting until November. Wasn’t she listening to the news? Dukakis needs her vote right now. I’m aghast when she explains that as of yet, not one single vote has been cast.

“Then how come Dan Rather already knows who’s winning?” That, she says was exactly why they shouldn’t do polls. It influences the results. If people think Bush is already winning, they might not bother to go out and vote for Dukakis (and sure enough they didn’t).

1992: Clinton v. H.W. Bush.

I look forward to the elections every four year the way normal people anticipate the Olympics. On election eve, I sit beside Dad on the sofa, watching an over-produced docudrama called The Man from Hope. By now my parents, conforming to demographic trends, have amicably divorced, and I spend Sunday and Monday nights at Dad’s house. As Clinton’s pink, puppy-dog-eyed face floats across the screen, Dad pumps his fist and shouts “GO Bill!”

Dad can relate to Bill, because Bill is a Boomer too, and protested the War in Vietnam. Mom can relate to Hillary because she has a job and her own opinions. I can relate to Chelsea because she has a cat and braces.

Dad can relate to Bill, because Bill is a Boomer too, and protested the War in Vietnam. Mom can relate to Hillary because she has a job and her own opinions. I can relate to Chelsea because she has a cat and braces.

All my friends parents are voting for Clinton too, except maybe Morgan’s dad, who owns a gun and a Rottweiler. Hampshire County, Massachusetts, is a political anomaly: white, rural, Democratic.

1996: Clinton v. Dole

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — During the school year, I live with Mom in Scottsdale. Here we are surrounded Republicans, who it turns out, look just like everyone else, except they drive bigger cars. My high school paper, The Saguaro Sabercat, of which I am Opinion Editor, is the lone voice of liberal dissent in the howling conservative wilderness of my suburban high school. Unfortunately, no one reads it except the Editors, and a handful of students who make a game of finding the typos. I cultivate my image as an East Coast Intellectual by growing my hair long, and wearing peasant skirts and hemp jewelry that can’t be found at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall but are readily available in Amherst, where I spend summers with my dad and stepmom.

At fifteen, I can recite the all the presidents forward and backward in, but for some reason I can’t get a date to the prom.

I’m still not old enough to vote, which is too bad, because thanks to my AP History teacher, Mrs. Perl, never in my life will I be better informed about American politics. Mrs Perl, a New York transplant with a nasal accent and big blond hair, is a woman ahead of her time. She teaches us that Alexander Hamilton is the most underrated Founding Father, and that America has a fatal weakness for populist bad boys like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. At fifteen, I can recite the all the presidents forward and backward in chronological order, and produce a cogent, five-paragraph explanation of the electoral college system. For some reason I still can’t get a date to the prom.

2000: Bush v. Gore

MADISON, Wisconsin — I spent the first two months of my freshman year standing outside the Wisconsin Student Union with a clipboard, urging fellow students to vote for the lesser of two evils — Al Gore — instead of Ralph Nader. Once, I even get to shake Al Gore’s daughter’s hand at a campaign event.

The first Tuesday in November dawns dark and ominous. I’m buffeted by frigid winds as I make my way from my dorm to my polling place, the UW Student Health Center. There I am congratulated on casting my first ballot by the blue-haired volunteers from the Wisconsin League of Women’s Voters.

The next morning we still don’t know who won. The cold, grey weather adds to the apocalyptic atmosphere. I walk to class along the lakeshore path, and I can’t make out the separation of water and sky. The middle of America feels like the edge.

But for the next five weeks, as we await the final result, life goes on pretty much as normal, so normal that I laugh out loud at this Onion article, which now requires a trigger warning: Nation Plunges into Chaos.

2004: Bush v. Kerry

The first Tuesday in November falls on the Day of the Dead

OAXACA, Mexico Election Day falls on November 2nd, which happens to be the Day of the Dead. Me and my expats friends are the only ones in the bar, a tourist trap we normally wouldn’t be caught dead in. The waiters wear black waistcoats and the menu is badly translated into English, but they get CNN. Children in grotesque masks stream by the window, but the cold and rain are keeping most people indoors. The wet pavement is plastered with orange petals from windblown marigolds, known here as cempazuchitl, the flower of the dead. We all have sore throats. My friend instructs the waiter on how to make a hot toddy with mescal, the local choice for drowning sorrows. We tell the him to turn up the TV so we can hear, but we don’t like what we hear so we tell him to turn it back down. By 9 p.m. the TV is on mute, but we can see the red hemorrhaging across the map of the states.

“Don’t worry teacher. The election was definitely rigged. Not all the gringos are that stupid.”

I’d paid 200 hundred pesos — about $20 — to DHL my absentee ballot to Wisconsin. That’s almost what I earn in a week, teaching English at a private language school, not a bad income by Mexican standards. Technically speaking, I am an illegal worker. I entered the country in August on a 90-day tourist visa, of which I’m now on the first of three extensions. This is common practice. An an FM3 work visa costs about three months wages, but the biggest obstacle is having to negotiate the byzantine bureaucracy that is the Instituto Nacional de Migración.

The morning after the election, my students try to be comforting. “Don’t worry teacher,” they say. “The election was definitely rigged. Not all the gringos are that stupid.”

2008: Obama v. McCain

BOSTON, Massachusetts — Five days a week I take the Orange Line train from my home in Charlestown, twelve stops to its terminus in Forest Hills. All the suites get off by Back Bay and by the time I get to Forest Hills I’m in the racial minority. I’m usually the only white person on the Number 30 bus to Mattapan, where I work at an after school program. Sometimes a pair of Mormon Missionaries or City Year volunteers get on, looking tentative and lost. They always turn to me, the safe pasty person, to ask if they’re on the right bus and what stop to get off at.

Precinct 6, Charlesetown, Boston, 2008

On November 4th, we hold an election for our scholars, as we call the children in our program. As Admin Assistant, I design the the ballots, which have giant check box beneath a photo of each candidate, so even the 5-year-olds can participate. We set up a cardboard trifold in each classroom, and snap each scholar’s picture as they deposit their ballot in a repurposed Amazon box covered in red white and blue construction paper. Never has there been a more enthusiastic electorate. Many of our scholars have rarely seen a doll or an action figures that look like them, much less a president. Obama wins about 70 out of 75 votes.

Like every day, I leave work early so I can make to class by 6 o’clock, emerging from the subway onto the tree-lined, gas-lit paths of Boston Common. In class I am back in the racial majority. My program has few students of color, which is too bad, according to one professor, because “ethnic lit” is hot right now.

2012: Obama v. Romney

SOMERVILLE, Massachusetts — I livestream the returns on my laptop because I do not own a television. I also do not own a car or a home. But I’m super privileged.

I attended the December, 2014 National March Against Police Violence with my colleagues from the Smart from the Start program

As a single, white, professional woman in a major east coast city, I make just enough (47K!) at my non-profit job to pay for a shitty one-bedroom apartment, and keep up with my student loan payments.

Inequality is not an academic abstraction, it’s part of the landscape. My morning commute takes me up and over the hill, past the Bunker Hill Monument and million dollar condos, to the brick low rises of the Boston Housing Authority. I am one of two white people at the educational non-profit where I work. The kids have trouble telling the two of us apart, even though I’m ten years older and have darker hair.

On election night I’m so nervous I can’t sit still. The polls are close. I brace myself for the possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency: tax cuts for the rich, military spending, MassHealth for all.

The horror, the horror.

2016: Clinton vs. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named

LEVERETT, Massachusetts — I‘m 35 and living in my parents’ basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Apparently all the Millennials are doing it. Except I didn’t default on my student loans or run up my credit cards. The city just became too expensive, especially with my writing habit. It doesn’t hurt that the parental basement is twice the size of my old apartment in Sommerville.

On election night Dad mixes blue cocktails, which we drink from tumblers made from “%100 shattered glass ceiling” and engraved with Hillary’s signature — a thank you gift for my parents’ generous campaign contribution. Millennial that I (barely) am, I would rather have voted for Bernie Sanders, but I’m happy to raise my glass to the first female president.

I am now 35 and living in my parents’ basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Apparently all the Millennials are doing it.

By 2 a.m., I am curled up in the fetal position on the sofa. I can’t tell how much of the pain in my stomach is just a hangover or the feeling of impending doom as state after state is called for He Who Shall Not Be Named. How I’d laughed at his small hands and smaller vocabulary, which only served to reassure me of a Democratic win. It’s one thing for me to laugh at his hair, an educated white woman whose ancestors fought in the Revolution, I’m among the last he’ll come for. With my thirty-five years and a thirty-four B’s, I’m probably deemed unworthy even of sexual assault) but what about the others?

The childhood bully, the same one who pushed me in line for the swing set, has finally seen himself reflected, in High Def, on the big screen before him. Decades of frustration — lost jobs, lost dreams, lost football games-burn in his gut and inflame his arteries. He rises up, heaving his corn-subsidized bulk from the recliner, and cheers like its the Super Bowl. But he’s just a fair weather fan. I’ve been a fan of the game since I was seven, since Mikey D. read George H.W.’s lily-white lips. I can’t pinpoint when it became a blood sport; was it in ’92, when Hillary refused to stay home and bake cookies? in ’94, when Bill redefined what ‘is’ is? or when George W. proclaimed that the world either with us, or against us? How did we get from Potatoe-gate to Pussy-gate in a single generation? Who should we blame: the Boomers for selling out? Generation X, for their apathy? or the Millennials for being too distracted by their smart phones?

Prince Obama could not wake Snow White. It took a slimy, forced smooch from the Orange Ogre for Cinderella to breach the Castle of Complicity.

Don’t look at me, I want to say. I wasn’t born until 1980, and the according to The United States Social Security Administration the cut off for Gen X was 1979. The Millennials didn’t come along until 1982, if you believe Harvard researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss.

Prince Obama could not wake Snow White. It took a slimy, forced smooch from the Orange Ogre to breach the Castle of Complicity. I hope we’re not too late to aid our black, brown and queer sisters. Even here, in the Connecticut Valley, the bully is never far; he’s the one who cuts off my Prius in his 4×4 with the confederate flag sticker; he’s ahead of me in the express line with 50 items, getting his news from the National Enquirer.

First annual Women’s March, Boston, 2017

2020: Biden vs He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named

PESKEOMSKUT, Pocumtuc Homelands— I’m grateful to be alive, and grateful my family is alive. I recognize this has more to do with privilege than luck.

Election night I gather with my pod. We stare into the abyss as the day-of votes roll in, the long dark pandemic winter pressing on the windows.

I confess I wanted to cancel Joe Biden many times

For four days we huddle around the campfire of cable news, afraid to hope. It’s just like 2000, and nothing at all like 2000. Remember when we thought George W. Bush was the worst thing that could happen to America? Remember when Al Gore conceded for the good of the country? I watch my old home states hang in the balance, Wisconsin and more incredibly, Arizona. The Saguaro Sabercat was twenty years ahead of its time.

A finger wagging from Bernie Sanders at Keene State University, February 2020

Four days later, when the call comes, I burst into unironic tears. It happens again when my friend texts me she has renewed hope for her baby daughter’s future, and again during Biden’s predictable, coherent, acceptance speech.

I confess I wanted to cancel Joe Biden many times over the last year. I saw him leading as a white liberal retreat, back to the safe (for us) status quo of the Obama era, painting over the the cracks in the system with a fresh coat of policy. It’s still up to us and the ’18 Squad to keep this from happening, but in this moment at least, there’s no one better to lead us.

Our better angels are here too. Screaming and jumping up and down on the new Pottery Barn sofa. Pulling our hair. Drawing on the walls with crayons. Anything to get us to look away from the screen and into the eyes of the Other

No matter how much we lost— 400,000 lives, 22 million jobs (and counting), the respect of the international community — the ex-President bragged about winning. Losing was incompatible with his world-view.

Only a man who knows what it’s like to lose— a wife, a child (twice), multiple presidential campaigns — can transform this American carnage.

The fear is still here. It’s like Google, watching and waiting in the background, anticipating our every weakness and exploiting them to drain our wallets and our spirits. Our better angels are here too. Jumping up and down on the new Pottery Barn sofa and screaming. Pulling our hair. Drawing on the walls with crayons. Anything to get us to look away from the screen and into the eyes of the Other.

Chambers Park, Annapolis, Maryland, January 1st, 2021

Anna Laird Barto is a writer, activist and family support worker in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared publications such as Entropy, Juked, Gulfstream, and The Boiler Review. She received an MFA from Emerson College. She is working on a novel set in a fictional Mexican city loosely based on Oaxaca. Visit her at https://annalairdbarto.com/

A previous version of this piece was published at https://entropymag.org on February 12, 2020.

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