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The Politics Of Our Great-Grandparents: What We Can (And Should) Learn From The Past

Monday, November 7, 2016 19:06
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The Politics Of Our Great-Grandparents: What We Can (And Should) Learn From The Past

“The votes were written on slips of paper brought from home—no sense in wasting the tax-payers’ money on printed ballots—and a straggling procession started for the ballot box, over which the moderator and clerk stood to insure an honest vote. The town half-wit cast his ballot with the rest, and as soon as his back was turned the clerk fished it out and pocketed it, a flagrantly illegal act condoned by everyone present on the premise that there warn’t no need to hurt his feelings.”

The above quote was taken from Louise Dickinson Rich’s memoir entitled “We Took to the Woods” (pp 303-304). Published in 1946, the book describes the author’s life in the remote mountains of western Maine around the time of the Great Depression.

The ballot event took place at the annual Town Meeting, a democratic process by which citizens of small municipalities dealt with matters of the town’s elections, budget, ordinances and other business. Town Meetings still take place today across much of New England, and much remains the same.

The Politics Of Our Great-Grandparents: What We Can (And Should) Learn From The PastA board of selectmen, best described as something like a town or city council, is still elected to be more or less in charge of the town’s overall operations. Warrants are still voted upon to determine such things as how much will be spent on road repair and how generous the town’s donations to various non-profits will be. Reports from various officials are given.

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There was no shortage of hotly contested issues back then, just like now. Rich describes the one that would inevitably crop up every year as “The Fighting Warrant,” about which people get all hot under the collars and sometimes even hurl personal attacks at people they would otherwise treat cordially.

Some of the similarities between then and now can be applied to a lot of other governing bodies of the 21st century, as well, from that of the tiniest hamlet right on up those in our nation’s capital.

But what of dismissing the ballot cast by a man with intellectual disabilities? And of referring to him by a term considered offensive and inappropriate by today’s standards? The rest of the section about the Town Meeting describes other interactions that would never fly in today’s world, too. Women sat apart from the men and largely ignored the proceedings, and were expected to slip out of the room before lunchtime to prepare and set out the food.

While we might be off put by the behavior and terminology that was considered acceptable back in the days of our great-grandparents, they may feel the same about some of the goings-on now if they could somehow transport into the present-day world. While it is true that some of what we now consider to be politically or socially taboo was acceptable in their world, it is probably also true that much of what is now acceptable would have been off-limits to them.

Like humanity of every era and every setting, our great-grandparents were imperfect beings.  Like people in politics before and since, they likely harbored prejudices, broke rules, acted irresponsibly, and embarrassed their loved ones from time to time. Just like folks of every generation do, they made disastrous laws and fell for the false promises of ill-intentioned public figures.

However, as a person who grew up immersed in conservative rural culture, my memory of yesteryear’s people and politics is an overall positive one. Despite inherent flaws, people in my past held political views which were often uncomplicated and gently moderate.

The Politics Of Our Great-Grandparents: What We Can (And Should) Learn From The PastOur great-grandparents could not even have imagined the concept of plastering memes to an electronic timeline touting the virtues of compassion, but they existed in a time when compassion was something people lived every day. I cannot picture anyone talking about it, but I remember plenty of people doing it.

They practiced inclusiveness, too. It looked different on the outside back then than it does today. It might have been better or worse than we do it now, but it was probably more peaceful.

People of that generation often aimed for being reasonable. They met in the middle when they could, instead of demanding to have things their way, giving the impression that they were interested in making things as many things right as possible for as wide a cross-section of people as they could.

Most people I knew kept a clear head about their political views, even if all of the subsequent actions were not always tranquil. They were often practical, accepting what had to be done and believing what made the most sense.

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It was important to folks in those days to be both respectful of others and respected by others. They acted in a manner which allowed them to hold their heads high, and allowed sufficient latitude to others that they might do likewise.

Genuine service to others was held in high esteem. It was not about grandstanding or making an appearance; it was about making a difference in one’s community and government.

Perhaps most importantly was the way our great-grandparents’ penchant for independence spilled over into their political views. They read the newspapers, they attended political speeches of substance, they mulled over the pros and cons, and they made their decisions on their own.

Nowadays, every ballot counts, women are a vital piece of the decision-making landscape, and gender does not dictate seating arrangements or work responsibilities. Those are all great things. But I cannot help but wonder if we might do well to take a page from the political book of our great-grandparents and use it to wipe away some of the ugliness of the current government scene. An old-fashioned blend of simplicity, balance, levelheadedness and individuality might be just the ticket for today’s politics.

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