Monday, July 25, 2022

Existential Dread and the Democratic Party

I’ve always lived in Pennsylvania. Until 2016, my life in the commonwealth was ordinary as far as following local government and politics. I voted in every election, even the municipal ones in odd-numbered years, but I didn’t pay much attention. A township supervisor lives a couple of doors down from me. Her son lives next door and the house I live in used to belong to her daughter. For years, I voted for this woman to represent me on a board of supervisors I thought didn’t have much power beyond keeping my short cul-de-sac street oddly well treated in the winter. One election year, my neighbor supervisor stood in front of the polling place when I went to cast my ballot. I smiled and said hi to her and some other candidate. “Do the right thing,” she said to me in a gruff, ominous tone. I went in and voted for her, the only Republican I’d select in any race for decades.

The thing that jolted me into political awareness was the 2016 election. After that shock that we really all should have expected, I reached out to the local den of political power, the West Deer Democratic Committee (WDDC), and said I wanted to help. I wanted to do “more than listen to Pod Save America,” I told the guy that replied to my email. He thought I was a perfect fit and I was soon appointed to represent my voting precinct.

WDDC was tiny and scrabbling for traction in West Deer, a place where the majority of people were registered democrats that voted republican. Trump won the majority of votes in 2016 and 2020. A large number of homes displayed Make America Great Again gear and when their re-election campaign was unsuccessful, the MAGA stuff gradually receded to give way to giant “Biden Sucks” flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” merch. 

Our little fledgling committee tried to do the work of political organizing without advertising our “liberal” ideas. It was a righteous campaign led from the shadows, foredoomed to fail. We did get a few Biden signs in yards for the 2020 election. Huzzah!

Outside of the dismal political landscape, West Deer is an average representation of exurban southwestern Pennsylvania. At the northern edge of Allegheny County, most people aren’t eager to be included in county business. “We don’t really want to be advertising that, do we?” the Chairman of the West Deer Planning Commission once asked laughing as the header for the township’s website was projected onscreen. West Deer Township is printed on one end with Allegheny County PA on the other, the two separated by only a silhouette of a non-native deer. Allegheny County imposes things like a ban on open burning that’s viewed as a nuisance to people that still view their community as a rural place even as the population grows with each sprawling housing plan.

2010 census information listed on the township website identifies the racial makeup of the municipality as 98.8% white. By 2020, West Deer demographics reported by the census bureau found the township to be 98.2% white and 97.7% white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.

It took many years in this environment, which is notably nearly identical to the extremely rural part of southern Washington County where I spent my youth, to realize that I had little idea what my neighbors thought about anything. That is to say, before the Trump signs showed up, I figured we were all moving through life, doing our best, wishing each other well. And it occurred to me during the fierce disagreements of 2016, that I was able to believe this because we never talked about anything of substance.

I was very involved in the community, a Girl Scout troop leader and a Sunday School teacher and the person that spent all year organizing Vacation Bible School. It’s been my life experience that once I notice something, I can’t stop seeing it. A stain on a shirt or a cobweb in the corner or white silence. These are all things that I’ve never been able to ignore again after they’ve caught my eye even if I don’t do anything to clean them up. I still keep seeing it.

And I noticed amid all my community volunteer busyness that we carefully observed polite conversation. It was known that I had a history of mental illness, but I wasn’t one of those “weird” people, so I got to cosplay as a good white woman. This made me uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until the church, a pillar of West Deer community, tackled the mental health crisis caused by two high school student deaths by suicide with rubber bracelet handouts emblazoned with the phrase “You Matter” that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I found the nearest exit and never went back. Metaphorically. As it happens, you can’t actually get very far away from the crushing assimilation of this place while still living in it.

After finishing my standing volunteer obligations, I pulled back to just WDDC. I thought I might find the courage to use the committee to achieve some change or have hard conversations. We weren’t courageous in the least though and our conversations were only nominally more substantive. We mostly existed in an echo chamber, swallowing the moderate Democrat policy platform as though it wasn’t quickly killing us all.

This is where I was in early 2020, not thinking about fracking and feeling inadequately equipped to fight something I’d only recently noticed. I was disappointed in the place I’d chosen to call home and hard at work emotionally disconnecting myself from it. Perhaps, I thought, I can sleep here and make a stand for social justice with like-minded people in Pittsburgh. That was before the call that would send me and my husband, Tim, in a new direction for the next several years.

We were called to fight fracking and we did that almost exclusively for two years. Now, after the Dionysus decision, there's a lull. We're no longer in the throes of constant activity and research. We can take time to reflect and rest before the next well pad. Here in this time, I'm not even on the democratic committee anymore. I used the May 2022 election cycle as a natural stopping point and if I had more energy I might get involved with DSA or the Allegheny Green Party. Even though that doesn't seem right quite yet, I do feel less apt to swallow the moderate Democrat policies that are quickly killing our planet. I want to rebel against the moderacy, even knowing as I do that I'll have to cast votes for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman in November to avoid hastening our collective demise.

Maybe that's part of the dread or just a necessary stop on the way to the next thing. Either way, before too long, there will be another well pad hearing. That will be enough.