Note: The author of this article is Emily Matthews. Emily has worked in a vast array of jobs in the political arena and strives to find common ground across party lines.
As the one year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election passes into history, an election people will continue to analyze, critique, and study for generations to come, I, a responsible voter, reflect on what was one of the most exhausting yet meaningful years of my life.
My journey certainly wasn’t an easy one, nor one I would’ve expected, but it brought me to a place of hopeful optimism as I focus on the growing possibilities for change in America.
I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Atlanta and attended a private Christian school most of my life. My parents, having worked their way up from much less, ingrained in me the importance of hard work and persistence. They taught me no one is entitled to anything, but that in America you have the chance to succeed, and that God created all equally, with a right to dignity and life. We, as a family, identified as Republicans.
My own political ideology, more specifically, could be summed up in a quote by fictional character Will McAvoy, who plays a quixotic intellectual on a “mission to civilize” in the HBO series, The Newsroom. His definition of conservatism is as follows:
“I’m what the leaders of the Tea Party would call a RINO: Republican In Name Only. And that’s ironic because that’s exactly what I think about the leaders of the Tea Party. Because the most conservative Republicans today aren’t Republicans. Republicans believe in a prohibitive military. We believe in a common sense government. And that there are social programs enacted in the last half century that work but that there are way too many costing way too much, that don’t. We believe in the rule of law and order and free market capitalism.”
I never could’ve imagined a scenario in which I’d be angrily throwing my phone at a television screen as a “Republican” won the general election. But 2016 happened, and I stand guilty as charged.
I decided to do something that some may, and some justifiably did, call a bit crazy.
Studying government and politics had always been a passion of mine, so I decided to reach out to anyone I knew in D.C. to explore the possibility of a career shift toward that field. I wanted to get involved and find a way to fight for these basic principles of liberty, equality, and justice, but could not have imagined the political landscape I would be stepping into as I began to cast my net.
A “fish” eventually turned up and an unexpected one at that. A position had opened up to be special assistant to the Director of Transportation for the 2016 Democratic National Convention Committee and the director was considering me. I was conflicted, yet instantaneously felt this overwhelming compulsion to say yes.
I knew it would be an incredible experience that could open various doors for me in Washington. Upon discovering my future boss had worked for both parties and that this was a mostly logistical role, I took the plunge. I managed to justify it to myself with the argument that I was simply providing service to an event, rather than supporting a cause or a campaign.
My liberal friends were thrilled -- my mother less exuberant.
I went on to experience one of the most memorable summers of my life, climaxing with the final night of the convention. Witnessing the first female of a major party accept the presidential nomination was thrilling; it was historic.
As tears streamed down, I reflected on the friendships I forged, the historic moments I witnessed, and the exciting opportunities that lay ahead of me. I grew up watching political conventions on television, but never could have imagined the possibility of being there, much less playing a role in it.
It was an honor. In a way, it encapsulated much of what I believed to be the American dream in which, despite political differences, my parents had paved the way over the years for their daughter to be able to stand on the floor of a presidential convention on a night that will go down in history.
That summer of 2016, I was surrounded by some of the most genuine and hard-working people I have ever met, many of whom had been high level officials in the Obama Administration. I remained a “McAvoy conservative,” but my heart softened towards the democratic establishment in a way that I hadn’t expected.
After all, establishments are made up of people, and I loved these people dearly. Working with them gave me a broader perspective on the experiences driving many of their political philosophies. Many of them perceived the Republican Party differently than I did, but I don’t judge them for it. After the year we’ve had, maybe they were on to something.
With November 8 quickly approaching and my DNC friends leaving to work on Hillary’s campaign, I wrestled with how to reconcile my belief that free markets and limited government were still the least-worst way to ensure American prosperity with the conviction I was not going to vote for Trump.
It eventually became clear the senior leaders of the GOP, whom I had highly esteemed over the years, would usher in an era of deafening silence, but I was still holding out hope they had something up their sleeve to block Trump’s nomination.
And then, something remarkable happened. I received word there was a small group of principled individuals who decided to take a stand and run against Trump in the final stretch. Their hope was to give voters like me the option to “vote their conscience” and make a statement to the GOP that we would not stand for this form of “conservatism.” If they wouldn’t lead, we would.
The strategy of Evan McMullin’s presidential campaign was to win enough Electoral College votes to throw the decision to the House of Representatives resulting in a potentially historic result. It was gutsy.
I immediately jumped on board and dedicated myself to their grassroots efforts in Atlanta. I was encouraged, inspired, and ready once more to fight for something well worth the cause.
We all know how things ended on that November day with the unexpected triumph of Trump. I grieved. I grieved for my DNC friends who had poured their hearts into the campaign, for my former directors who were now out of jobs, and for my country. I learned it isn’t necessary to completely agree with someone in order to grieve with them.
On a more personal note, I was counting on a role on the Presidential Inauguration Logistics Team pending Hillary’s win, so I was also out of a job. Regardless, three weeks later I moved up to D.C. After four not-so-short months of couch crashing, door knocking, and Ramen noodle eating,
I somehow managed to land a position handling correspondence for a former President George W. Bush cabinet member who, in spite of my previous DNC affiliation, hired me. If that doesn’t speak to a different era of politics, I don’t know what does.
In a 2017 Atlantic article titled, “How Trump is Ending the American Era,” Elliott Cohen shares an important story from a political climate much different than our current one:
“In July 2005, I published in The Washington Post a searing critique of the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq War. The besieged defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, did not fire me from the Defense Policy Board, a senior advisory committee to the Department of Defense, on which I served. Within months I was advising the National Security Council staff, and eventually Secretary Condoleezza Rice asked me to serve in one of the most senior positions in the Department of State without a murmur of disapproval from the White House. This reflected less my value to the administration than the large-spiritedness of President George W. Bush and those who worked for him, and their awareness that expressing criticism or dissent was an act of patriotism, not personal betrayal.”
Free speech and press was recognized as essential to a functioning democracy — not a threat.
Some may say I left the GOP in 2016, but in reality, it was the GOP that left me. Whichever way the coin falls, I found that I do not stand alone in my dissatisfaction. The two party system, while theoretically achievable, is not functioning properly and the actual issues are being left behind. George Washington once said,
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
It’s easy to forget the original intent of the Framers was to prevent the current crisis we are in. Washington was onto something and the time has come for new leadership and strategies to ensure our democratic norms remain intact.
The beauty in the tumult of this past year is that the dysfunctions of both parties rose to the surface. We became so comfortable over the years filtering our own opinions through the lens of how each party tells us to think that we lost the ability to think for ourselves; luckily, times are changing.
A time of reckoning has arrived and we’re faced with an opportunity to shape the future in a way that promotes civil discourse and calls out establishments that break our democratic norms.
Over the past year, I’ve been encouraged to see so many organizations partnering in an effort to form a new centrist movement and find the common ground we all share.
To do my part, I became a chapter leader for the Centrist Project, now known as Unite America, an organization dedicated to raising up independent leadership in U.S. government. This growing group is dedicated to finding bipartisan and pragmatic solutions so our government can function properly once more.
The more involved I became, the more I realized that those on the fringes of each party make up the minority, while the majority remains the sensible middle. In fact, a recent NBC News/GenForward poll shows most millennials are unsatisfied with the political climate and 71% claim a desire to see a stronger third party emerge.
This developing market of individuals seeking pragmatic solutions gives me hope for the future of our country.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” To my fellow patriots out there, let’s come together and be the change we wish to see in the world.