WASHINGTON—Citing decades of repeated indignities and post-electoral trauma, Americans from across the political spectrum reported Wednesday that they were terrified at the prospect of making their voices heard in another nationwide vote.
The U.S. electorate, whose choices on Nov. 4 will determine who occupies 36 spots in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, expressed a looming sense of dread that no matter what the outcome of their actions, it would be a cruel and degrading experience with painful repercussions—just as it’s been year after year after year.
“When Americans go to the polls on Election Day, they will once again be in a state of abject fear, knowing exactly what kind of excruciating ordeal they’re in for,” said Paula McDermott, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, adding that voters were not so much willing participants in the electoral process as they were victims trapped in an endless cycle of abuse. “Nevertheless, they will elect a new set of lawmakers and brace themselves for the agony that awaits them, because this is what they’ve learned to do.”
“These are extremely damaged individuals,” she continued. “You can see it on their faces as they cast their ballots.”
McDermott pointed out that signs of past suffering are obvious among the voting public, ranging from their generalized anxiety while waiting in line at polling places to a tendency to sweat uncontrollably as they enter the booth. Moreover, she said, many are so overwhelmed by a flood of unbearable memories as they cast their ballots that they appear in a daze, as if attempting to numb themselves to the pain they know is coming.
According to McDermott, many voters have become so beaten down by the recurring torment that they arrive early to their polling location, shut the voting booth curtain behind them, and mark their selections as quickly as they can just to get the horrific process over with as soon as possible.
“When I think back to past years—whether it’s ’86, ’88, ’94, ’02, ’04, 2010, or 2012—I realize that pretty much every time I’ve spoken up, I’ve been badly hurt,” said Dayton, OH resident Kellan Avery, adding that the mere thought of scanning a list of candidates and selecting one filled him with a profound sense of terror. “You want to voice your opinion, you really do, but as soon as you say your piece—wham!—they slap you right back down again. And these people are supposed to be there for us. It just…it breaks you down.”
“And the thing is, it never ends,” he added. “The cycle just keeps going on and on. Do you have any idea how deeply that can devastate a person?”
Voters said they understood their obligation to further the democratic process, but observed that their efforts to stand up for themselves inevitably come back to haunt them. For some, even seeing campaign ads on television or hearing the words “I approve this message” reportedly triggers a wave of pain and guilt they are not prepared to deal with and had hoped never to experience again.
“Despite their fear and mistrust, most citizens still go through the motions of speaking up, even though they know they will be harmed,” said McDermott, describing the ingrained behavior as a kind of coping mechanism that is “almost like a reflex” by now. “After all these years, they’ve learned to just put themselves through the paces no matter how brutal it is, deal with the consequences, and simply try to move on with their lives.”
“This is all they know,” she added.