In the fall of 1959, when I became a naturalized citizen of the United States, I rejoiced in the promise of freedom in our electoral process. I rejoiced as I remembered an election I witnessed in 1939. Stalin’s Russia had staged a referendum in Lithuania to ratify the occupation of our country. To cast their votes, my parents were taken to the polling place by armed Russian soldiers.
My mother asked the official of the communist regime, “What if I don’t agree with the proposition?” She was told, “Vote no if you dare!” I was only 6 years old and did not have the capacity to understand what I observed, but I knew that for my parents, there was no freedom of choice. That memory haunted all my elections.
Over the past five decades since I received my citizenship, the electoral campaigns have become increasingly negative, contentious, slanderous, and defamatory. I’m conflicted and incensed over having our election process tarnished. The ruthless disregard of ethics and civility by candidates of both political parties fuels my outrage. Their disparagement of each other is, in fact, a revelation about themselves, and gives me a rationale for deciding whether I can allow any of them to represent me.
Political combatants are not the only culprits in sleazy electioneering. The news media must be acknowledged as a frequent contributor as well. Craftily timed releases of scandalous materials propagate the editorial views of their own syndicates and mega-corporations. Yes, the news industry is a special interest group with an agenda.
Three months before the recent election, a Frontline documentary revealed the power-hungry ambitions of the presidential candidates. The expose was aired on PBS and disclosed the personal characteristics and psychological movements of the opponents. What was revealed were two similarly-driven individuals vying for the same goals, namely power and personal exaltation.
Ultimately, the vitriolic rhetoric increased the toxicity of the presidential campaigns and emboldened Putin, an external foe, to interject himself into our election. For me, Russian tampering with our election triggered a flashback to that cold November evening of 1939 in Lithuania. The vision of my parents rousted out at gunpoint flashed before me. I recalled the fright on my mother’s face upon hearing, “Vote no if you dare!” I wonder if anyone might have dared to vote no. I doubt if my mother did. I wonder if ever I would. Would you?
Slander and defamation, infused into a difference of opinion, foster bitterness and hate. Irreconcilable differences wound our nation. We dare not allow ourselves to be divided and conquered. Destructive divisiveness must stop. Guidelines for revising campaign conduct could and should be gleaned from the ethical and moral wealth we possess.
Rules are enforced in every game, every sport and every kind of competition. Rules of civility in political electioneering cannot be an exception.
Fred Natkevi is a longtime resident of Oak Park.