The Present Danger

By Tinka Topping

When I was a little girl in the 1920s, I wasn’t interested in politics or even who was president. (Unless, later, it was Roosevelt, who my parents told me was a good president.)

Then, when I was in middle school, I began to have nightmares about Hitler, hearing about his message of violence and hate that was spreading throughout Europe — how powerful and contagious it was, how successful the spread of Fascism was in reducing whole populations to submitting to the rule of evil. Eventually we supported and then entered into World War II — to save us, but not just us, to save the world from Fascism, to save the world for democracy. 

We all took part. Immediately after college, I joined the Red Cross (at 20, the youngest ever accepted), my brother joined the Navy, friends joined the Navy, or the Office of War Information, the Army, the Air Force. Some never came back; some came back burned, crippled, permanently diminished. The shock, the immediacy of what war, hate, violence did to relatives, friends, neighbors, never left me.

Voting, of course, was an obligation — an imperative and exciting one. But only for a president. I was uninterested in politics. I more or less felt as I had as a child, that everything trickled down from the decisions a good leader would make; everything followed from voting for a good president. During my young adulthood, all I did politically was vote every four years for someone who I thought would be the one who respected the democratic process, was learned, articulate in promoting (my) good values, who was a strong and (if possible) charismatic leader. Oh, would that it was that simple.

As the years wore on, the pendulum swung back and forth between what I considered to be a president with good values (I was always a registered Democrat) and the ones who systematically dismantled (or tried to) some good programs, appointments, and subsequently laws. I became discouraged. I still disliked politics, still voted only in presidential elections, sometimes for a senator, and rarely for a representative. 

Until that wonderful day when I was an octogenarian and Obama emerged as a candidate to become the very good president. The excitement was such that it took me to Florida, to Pennsylvania, to Massachusetts to campaign. This had to happen for me — for all of us — for the whole world. I had to act, we all did, to make it happen. And it did.

There followed eight years when I was in my 80s, filled with hope and pride for our country, for the people who had elected Obama, for his presidency. But at the same time there were increasing concerns for the whole world, the complications of climate change, health care for all, and so forth. How much could the United States, even with a very good president, do about it?

Now, well into my 90s, I realize that we are again in great danger, the same kind of danger that Fascism had posed when I was a teenager. Reverberations from the rhetoric and promotion of exclusion and white supremacy, hate and violence symbolic of Germany and Italy in the ’30s, are bubbling up here and now. I am frightened enough to feel that I have to be more involved, to act — again. But how? 

I realize today it no longer means merely voting for a president every four years. It means voting at every level, locally for the school board, for the First Congressional District candidate who might replace the incumbent, for a New York senator, for anyone and everyone who represents true democratic values that mean well-being for all, in any election at any time.

Others who agree about our precarious times have stepped up to run for office and are now candidates trying to replace incumbents who do not represent our values. We now have five reasonable candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to run against Lee Zeldin in November. We are at the pivotal moment when we must choose one of them. But which one?

I’ve been wrestling with this question since the first panel I attended back in January at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. All six answered questions on the main issues, and one has since dropped out. I found two to be reasonable candidates, but how to pick one to back? I went to meet-and-greet parties, I read everything I could about them in the newspapers and in position papers sent out by the campaigns, talked to candidates or their representatives, talked to people I respected about the process of deciding whom to choose.

Should I choose the one who seems to have had the most experience as a legislator, or the one who is most appealing personally? Should I weigh the money each has raised to pay for a strong campaign, or pick based on which is best at delivering her or his message? Should I pick according to what my friends say? Should I pick the one who might be most capable of beating Zeldin (according to the “experts”)? Or should I pick the one who shares my particular values?

Deciding, or even figuring out how to decide, isn’t easy. A knowledgeable friend who has been part of the local political scene for many years said to me, “It doesn’t matter. They all pretty much say the same thing — not the same as what they will do in office. So just tell me whom you would like me to vote for and I’ll do it.” Not comforting. 

So I am still thinking and trying to become better informed on the candidates’ past performances, to gauge where idealism and pragmatism meet for each of them, and to figure out how much ego is involved for each of them in winning. 

What I really would love to see is the five candidates sitting down together, this week or next, to decide that at least three of them would withdraw, so that each vote can go to only one of two candidates, since many say that a larger number of votes for a single challenger in a primary makes it more possible to unseat an incumbent.

Who am I going to vote for on June 26? How am I going to decide? I’m still thinking. What about you? 

Tinka Topping founded the Hampton Day School in Bridgehampton in the late 1960s and is one of the founders of the Hayground School. She lives in Sagaponack.