The Gift by Jamie Kirkpatrick


By the time I go to bed tonight, I’ll know who the next President of the United States will be. At least I think I will. It has been a long and grueling campaign full of taunts and threats, charges and countercharges, venom and vulgarity. I feel like I need a long, hot shower before I go to sleep.

But then there’s this: about ten days ago, I walked up to the Kent County Library to vote early. The people overseeing the polling place could not have been more polite or more efficient. When I took my ballot to be scanned, the official handed me my “I Voted” sticker and said (as we watched my ballot run through the scanner), “Your vote has been counted. Thank you.” And that was when I had to choke back tears.

In times like these, we may loose sight of the gift of democracy. With all the strident noise of this particular campaign, one might—MIGHT—be tempted to opt out by staying home and not voting. That is, of course, one’s right, but it seems to me that it would be tantamount (in the words of my grandmother) to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and no matter who wins or loses this election, that would be the saddest of all possible outcomes.

Since Revolutionary times, good men and women have sacrificed their lives and their sacred honor to ensure that our democracy will endure. That democracy, rooted in the soil that is the will of the people, is based on two very simple notions: that all of us are created equal and that each of us has a say in how we will be governed. Simple as that now sounds, it was once a very radical notion, i.e. that rulers would govern not by divine right or with absolute power but by the consent of those they governed. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Arbroath, and all the subsequent social and civil contracts of the Enlightenment that pointed the way to our own founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—were steps in the long march of history that has led us to today, each one a gift to be treasured and exercised responsibly.

I know the system is not perfect. I know there are things in need of overhaul or repair. I believe we deserve better candidates who possess the ability to unite us, to model civil behavior, to keep us secure, to make keepable promises, and to safeguard the American dream. But I also know that the government we have created was ours to create and if we have failed to create an honest, fair, and functioning system, then we only have ourselves to blame. Turning a collective back on the current system or refusing to acknowledge the rightful will of the people would be steps in a dangerous retreat that leads who-knows-where. If, in fact, we think we deserve better, then we must demand better of ourselves. We all have to vote and to respect the outcome.

By tomorrow morning, it is axiomatic that almost half of us will be disappointed or angry (or both), will feel robbed and cheated, or will want to opt out of a political system that we deem is simply too corrupt to function, let alone govern. But that will also be the precise moment to remember the gift we have been given—you know: the one handed down through the centuries, the one that is ours to keep and treasure and pass on to our children and grandchildren.

The gift of democracy.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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