Now this is how to lose an election
The most damaging rift of the 21st century has not been the political chasm between right and left; rather, it is the battle between those who profit from anxiety in one way or another, and the larger but quieter group that values a sense of normalcy. The ease of mass communication in the digital age has given the anxiety-mongers and doom merchants the commanding heights in recent years. But the rest of us have been learning, little by little, what they are up to and how they do it, and we are at last growing wise to their ways.
So it was that ordinary Americans cast ballots against madness, and optimists made an internet star of Brittany VanderWall, a candidate for town council in tiny Rogers City, Mich., whom we can all be proud of.
VanderWall, 31, is proof that life is happier in real communities than it appears to be on-screen. Her enthusiasm for Rogers City is infectious even by telephone. “We joke that everything in Rogers City is two blocks away,” she said in an interview, “but that’s how close I am to a downtown that we are making vibrant and exciting, a place where people want to shop and eat and spend time.”
Lured after college to this hamlet on the shore of Lake Huron (at the tip of the index finger of the Michigan mitten), VanderWall came to work as a forester and found she loved the town as much as the woods. She threw herself into a grass-roots effort to win Main Street
America designation for Rogers City, which comes with five years of expert coaching on time-tested redevelopment strategies.
Naturally, the experience led to her decision to run for a seat on the town council this year. When the votes were counted, VanderWall had 616 – exactly the same number cast for her opponent, Timeen Adair.
When the two women met at city hall to select a winner, the clerk was waiting with two virtually identical slips of paper folded in a bowl. The candidates could not see that one was marked “elected,” while on the other was written “not elected.” VanderWall was first to reach into the bowl.
She was not elected.
What charmed the internet was the way she reacted – with a hug for Adair! And encouraging words: “Congrats! Do good work – I’ll see you in two years.” VanderWall did not claim the election was stolen or call on her voters to storm the council chambers. Instead, she praised Adair as “a very kind person who will do her best for this town.”
“I won’t tell you it wasn’t sad” to come up short, she said to me a few days later. During the campaign, she said, she thought a lot about the things she could accomplish as the youngest member of the town council, and about the excitement she would experience helping to lead “a new era for Rogers City.”
I ventured that she might have done more to boost the reputation of Rogers City by losing gracefully than she could have done by beating Adair. “I know!” she replied. “Isn’t that bizarre?” In every election year, more candidates fall short than come out on top; doing so with dignity and decency “shouldn’t be news,” she said.
And it’s not news, really – though it is a needed reminder. The United States is full of Brittany VanderWalls and Timeen Adairs whose only real point of conflict is a mutual desire to be of use, to make things better, to have a voice. Their story struck a chord because they represent the large pro-normalcy caucus in its season of victory. We needed a win and we got one, thanks to people like them.
Did the world change in a day? Hardly. But the health of a society pulses from the center, much as any soldier will tell you it’s better to be wounded in the arm than in the gut. America’s heart is beating calmly.
Sadly, we know what history will take away from the 2020 election. Americans have rioted at the U.S. Capitol only once, smashing their way inside, roaming the halls, chanting about murdering the vice president. That would command the notice of future historians even if the president had not egged them on.
But after two years of anxiety that things might get worse, they got a bit better. The nation voted again. Things were just as close, if not closer. A few states still have some work to do on collecting and counting ballots in a timely manner.
Instead of toxic shock, though, the fever broke. We looked up and there stood Brittany VanderWall, doing the right thing – a winner in my book.