When my parents took up the cause of American history, it was after the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The Kennedys had been martyred, and nothing had felt right since, like an unfinished promise. Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel. My mom served history by working for Geraldine Ferraro’s 1984 vice presidential campaign. My dad became a monk in his office, studying the prophets: Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Green Peace, the millenarian movements that preceded the political rupture brought in by Ronald Reagan like a Roman emperor, obsessed with completing that City on a Hill by any means necessary.
So maybe there is a reason that FDR, the closest thing to a socialist we have had in the White House, hung in my dad’s office. I think now of the hope for which my grandparents are wistful when they talk about FDR, a four-term oracle of good times to come, an oppositional force against fascism, a leader whose life is so easily reduced to the conflict he did not live to end. Or there’s something about the way my parents talk about the New Deal, like a covenant within the old American Left full of wide-eyed star-gazers who gather every May Day awaiting the End Times. The New Deal, like a second chance or a second coming.
I suppose it makes sense for my family to talk about the New Deal with such respect. The Great Depression was a period of Lent for the nation, stuck in a wilderness without bread and water, and FDR offered salvation. For my parents, The New Deal was a promise to the future from the past, a promise that we can change history’s mind if we keep the faith, if we keep petitioning. My mom was born seven years after FDR died, my dad ten years. The New Deal was still fresh in the nation’s mind, but times had changed, and Joseph McCarthy began a new round of public crucifixions. My parents were born into a world fresh with nuclear weapons and a newborn suspicion for the policies of FDR, whose legacy went into hibernation until the Kennedys promised to restore a pre-war vision of American perfectibility. Or so the story goes.
This was the perception I had of the United States growing up. US political history was my doctrine, and liberal democracy my fundamentalism. I absorbed my parents’ earnestness in this way, and whatever bitterness or cynicism they possess after watching the ascent of the New Right transform into the violent, ugly, self-proclaimed alt-right, they did a good job hiding it from me. They have remained firm in their patience for a great leader to restore the promise of the New Deal. They are adamant about the holiness of their nation’s history, adamant that a new leader will come along and usher in a Great Society. For a while, I was too, but I have become a skeptic.
A few months after I turned 18 in the fall of 2010, while a senior in high school, my parents took me to vote for the first time, like a first communion. Partaking in this civil duty, my first genuine petition to the cavernous locomotion of history, was more anticlimactic than I expected.
It wasn’t like the Great Disappointment, when the preacher William Miller and his congregation made sweeping preparations for the Second Coming of Christ on October 22, 1844. I wasn’t expecting my vote to be anything big like the Millerites expected of their prayers. I knew I wouldn’t be moved to tears, but I was disappointed that I felt nothing at all. It was early on a Tuesday in November, and I had school, plus marching band practice that night. Election day came and went as easily as any other day.
Voting is like prayer but with an immediate answer. In Sunday School many years before, the priest told us that there are only three answers to our prayers that God can ever give: yes, no, or not yet, and the challenge is interpreting the difference. I had faith that by voting, when I relinquished my voice to the masses, the communion of citizens would give me an answer.
But in voting, every no is a part of the process, not a matter of personal deific rejection but communal decisiveness or indecisiveness. We move like flocks of birds taking our cues from one another. The god of history is an ecosystem of impulses tethered to the dancing fingers of the powerful. But politically I was a Protestant, so I believed I needed to do more good works for my vote to count.
For me, climate change had become a source of immense dread, so I turned to my religion for guidance, and the fundamentalist in me knew that the only solution was to become not just a voter, but an evangelist. I’m sure a lot of people felt the same way when, like me, they joined the Bernie Sanders campaign in early 2016. We were not driven by passion, but existential dread about the stillbirth future previous generations promised us, and Sanders was an obvious figure through whom we could translate our fears into action.
He had energy, but he wasn’t exactly charismatic. He was no Jim Jones, no L. Ron Hubbard. The campaign wasn’t about Sanders at all, though many people I worked with that spring joked a little too seriously that maybe he was sacred when a bird landed on his podium and stared at him mid-speech like the Angel of Bethesda, a spring emerging where her foot touched the ground in Jerusalem. Some people worshipped him, or the idea of him, mostly in kitschy ways, but most saw in him a chance to organize their grievances. Converts always bring their past to a new doctrine.
People I worked with were disaffected libertarians, a few dedicated democratic socialists, emphatic political science students, desperate environmental activists. Though I never personally met him, I think Sanders was overwhelmed but pleased with the movement that gathered around him. In many ways, he was a perfect prophet for us because he was so easily made into a blank canvas for us to paint our grievances onto. We wrote on his visage all the things that kept us awake at night, even things he had no interest in.
In one of the debates, Sanders said that he admired FDR as a great political figure, and in that moment I realized that he was no different than the rest of us volunteering on his behalf. He too was disaffected; he too believed in the second coming of the New Deal. What we saw and chose not to see in Sanders were precisely the things he saw and chose not to see in FDR. He wasn’t actually a socialist the way Eugene Debs had been in the election of 1912, running on a platform of social welfare. But he was close, and that closeness mattered.
It was, at least, refreshing to identify a leader who was as easily earnest as we could be. In any religious movement, everyone envisions their own version of paradise, even if they subscribe to the most rigid method for reaching that paradise. The stitched-together campaign was full of earnest believers in one form or another of their own idea of paradise: an eco-utopia, a Great Society, a lifetime without military intervention, a democracy uninfluenced by super-PAC donations, or, like Sanders himself, a New Deal.
When I canvassed for the campaign, it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit in February in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I went to graduate school. It should have been snowy and just above freezing. I had jeans and a blue beanie and my canvassing buddy had a suit and tie and one large earring. He was a young political science student and I was the son of professors of rhetoric. We swooped into the suburbs with a list of names and addresses of Lincolnites who had at one point listed themselves as Democrats. We asked them, if they opened their doors in the first place, in the following order: Are you planning and able to vote in the caucus? Do you know where your caucus location is? It’s at such-and-such address, you know where to turn. Do you know which candidate you might vote for? If you’re not certain, can we make a recommendation?
I couldn’t help but think of the Mormon missionaries who used to knock on my family’s front door every summer, those bony 21-year-old men in pairs like well-dressed scarecrows, sweating through their white shirts, the grease in their perfect haircuts beginning to lose strength while they smiled their friendliest. While canvassing I knocked on doors expecting the same reaction that I and my brother gave to the knocking missionaries while we were growing up: hiding from the view of the windows until they went away.
At times while canvasing, we made genuine connections with other people across their property lines. We were making preparations for a big event, first the Nebraska caucus, then the general election in November. It felt like Advent used to feel leading up to Christmas, electric, ecstatic. When he won the caucus, I felt the kind of euphoric communion with the world that I had expected to feel from voting for the first time.
A lot of people are always already waiting for the end of the world because they hope for something better to take its place, evident in the popular socialist slogan, “Another World is Possible.” But a merely different world hardly sounds like paradise. The Millerites gathered in October to greet the Second Coming of Christ. When that didn’t happen, when Christ did not lead the Millerites to the afterlife Miller had promised them, most of them joined other millenarian religions, many of them becoming Seventh-Day Adventists, directing their apocalyptic energy to another movement, probably with the same unique versions of heaven in their minds, looking for the next place to foster their hope. And when that didn’t pan out, they sought another place. And another.
Politically a protestant, I believed that all saints are sinners. Now, I am a backslider. I am skeptical of electoralism as a solution to climate change and inequality, too complex and urgent for the slow pace of the election cycle. Unlike my parents, who responded to the New Right by doubling down on their beliefs, I’ve instead become an apostate of the Republic, whose most sacred institution is neither liberty nor democracy but property. John Adams went so far as to argue that the “moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence,” saying the quiet part loud. Or, as the historian John Beard would later put it in 1913, the “Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.” The answer that history gave me for my all my praying and good works was no, and I doubt there’s enough time for not yet. A lot of us shied away from politics after Sanders lost the nomination, and even more so after the Republican won the general. If history is indeed a force like God, I want to become like Jacob, who not only came face to face with God, but literally wrestled God until God changed his name to Israel, making him no longer an individual but a multitude.
A year later in the summer of 2017, the same summer my father moved offices, my mother and I drove from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Hamilton, Montana to visit my grandparents before moving to Idaho. It was August, and the air along the way was powdery with ash from the increasingly violent seasonal forest fires. My mom joined me, to visit her parents as well. We missed storms by driving through the desert and climbing into the mountains, but the smoke couldn’t be avoided.
Shortly after we arrived at my grandparents’ house in Montana, the sky a milky tangerine as the sun set behind a veil of smoke, my grandfather asked us about our attitudes regarding John McCain, who had just voted against a bill to repeal the ACA in Congress shortly after being diagnosed with brain cancer, temporarily preventing the measure with his vote. My grandfather always asks my mom about John McCain, one of his favorites, simply because she lives in Arizona. Politics is a tableside commodity in my grandparents’ house.
My grandfather also encouraged me, as he often does, to try to work for the government as a diplomat or in some intelligence agency. He said that having majored in History would come in useful in the intelligence community, or in politics or in government. Born in 1928, he too was a New Deal believer, having come of age during the Great Depression and World War II, the entirety of FDR’s tenure.
While he told me what I should do with my life, my grandmother told me that there are berries that need to be picked in the garden out back. The berries always get picked from the garden with a twentieth century irrigation system so they can be canned using a twenty-first century pressure cooker. There is a dual aesthetic in my grandparents’ house. It is always either 1937 or 2010, in the perpetual wake of two economic crises. They use gardening tools from over half a century ago to produce fruits and vegetables for recipes that are just as old, and then play solitaire on the computer and chat on a wireless phone about the news of the day.
During dinner, we were interrupted at least five times by campaign robocalls or political survey calls. I could easily imagine the people making these calls at some phone banking office in Missoula, because a year earlier I had done the same thing during a very different electoral season. That night, the phone was off the hook. “These random political calls are starting to be a problem for us,” my grandmother said, shortly before my grandfather asked my mom what she thought about McCain.
This was also a few months after Greg Gianforte won a special election in Montana the day after he assaulted a journalist for asking him a question. This, too, was a topic of conversation. My grandfather chuckled as he told us that, in his opinion, if Gianforte was a true Montanan, he would have punched the journalist in the jaw instead of merely body-slamming him. Gianforte was convicted of assault and given 40 hours of community service with an additional 20 hours of anger management a few weeks before he was sworn into office. I didn’t ask my grandfather how many hours of anger management a true Montanan would have received.
I wondered if he was serious. For some reason it reminded me of a story a friend had told me in high school about watching his father open the door to a pair of Mormon missionaries while holding a butcher knife in clear view and not saying anything, just staring and dangling the knife. The men of FDR’s tenure were no saints, not to others and certainly not to one another. Sitting in front of me, criticizing a politician whose assault of a reporter was not violent enough, was not just a New Deal believer, but a witness. I don’t think my grandparents were evangelists, though. Like the Millerites, when the New Deal came and went, they moved onto another doctrine, the kind of rugged individualism that romanticizes American history as a justification for the property they have in Montana, exhibiting a kind of localized nationalism, or as William Kittredge puts it, “they conspired all their lives to fashion a society that suited them.” Or, for those who grew up in the Great Depression, a tiny slice of heaven.
Days later, while I drove from Hamilton to my new home in Idaho, I passed a stretch of railroad between Hamilton and Missoula that was out of commission and lined with freight car after freight car filled with coal. My grandfather had explained earlier that they were sitting there because of a drop in demand for coal during the previous year, as more solar and wind energy came to Montana. Gigantic inert metal boxes of coal lined the highway, their long square shadows like tombstones. Where the coal was piled high, a thin black streak appeared at the top of each red or yellow car. They seemed to go on forever, lining the road for miles and miles, the metal getting hot in the sun, so open and exposed. They finally disappeared shortly before I reached Missoula, where the wildfire smoke was so thick it obscured the ring of deep green mountains around the valley, the plumes huge and expansive, the smell of the burning forest seeping into my car as I drove closer to the burn.
 Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 8-9.
Keene Short is a writer in northern Idaho. His recent work has appeared in High Desert Journal, Bodega, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Find more at keeneshort.com.