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The Alison Effect

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For all the talk about the potential Bradley effect and how underlying racism might rear its ugly head today, there is a stronger undercurrent that will more likely prevail. I call it the "The Alison Effect," named for my sister. (Feel free to adapt this phenomenon and name it for one of your friends in a red or swing state.)

My sister lives in Jacksonville, Florida, one of the more conservative cities in the state. Like most of her friends and family, Alison is a registered Republican and has voted that way every four years in every election since she was 18 (she's now 32). She's also a fairly devout, pro-life Catholic. She's a part time teacher, happily married, mother to a beautiful daughter and has a vast network of friends, most of whom she's known since grammar school. Alison's life is filled with backyard barbecues, family functions, trips to the beach, play dates, church and football, the enduring images of the American dream. Beyond voting, politics was never a big part of Alison's life. Everyone in her life (besides me) voted Republican, so she naturally followed suit. It's easy to understand why: "This is the life we lead. This is what we believe. This is the way we vote." There can be a real comfort in that otherwise dangerous mindset -- regardless of what side of the aisle or what coast you reside on.

For the past eight years, I have been the blue sheep of our family. I live in Los Angeles with a wife, two kids, and all of our liberal, pro-choice, hippie-dippie, eco-friendly, anti-war, and married gay friends. Like Alison, my life is filled with family functions, trips to the beach, play dates and football.

Our father, whom we love and admire dearly, is a Sean Hannity-loving conservative, and after Obama wins, my mother will need to keep all sharp objects away from him for at least three months. Dad and I have engaged in a few ugly shouting matches over the past eight years. He hated that I protested the war. I hated that he for voted for a Bush second term. And so it went. Alison was always there to mediate and remind us of all the things we still had in common.

On an otherwise routine call the other day, in between gushing over what our kids wore for Halloween and discussing the struggles and joys of parenthood, Alison told me she decided to vote for Obama. I didn't make too much out of it at first, I just listened as she discussed the anxieties she was feeling regarding the economic crisis. There was a maturity and gravity in her voice I had never heard before as she launched into a story that is too familiar to so many of us:

Alison's husband works for a bank that was recently taken over by another bank. He sells investments. He works really hard but the market is in shambles. She worries about the life she'll be able to provide for her daughter. She wonders how long she'll have to live in what was to be her starter home, or God forbid, if she will be able to continue to afford her home at all. My sister and her husband have seen friends and colleagues lose their jobs. The sub-division where they live has a lot of homes for sale, although you wouldn't know it by driving by. The sub-division doesn't allow you to post "for sale" signs, because there would be too many of them. You can tell which homes are for sale only by the combination locks attached to the front door. In other words, like most of us, Alison understands her American dream is under attack. And this time, it's not by terrorists.

"John, I never really paid too much attention to what my vote meant before. It really didn't matter to me. I didn't see much difference between the two parties. But now, too much is at stake. While I disagree with Obama on many things, something's got to change," my sister said in her newfound voice of clarity.

"I get it. My 401K is in the gutter too," I say.

The distance between my sister and I narrowed with each similar anxiety. We bond over something beyond babies; we bond over the fear of going broke.

When I got off the phone with her and for several days after, I felt a love, a respect, and an admiration for my sister that I had never experienced before. And it wasn't because she was voting for my team or my guy. The feeling arose because I felt I really understood my sister's life, perhaps for the first time. It was also because she was voting in direct opposition to many of her friends, her family, her church, and probably most of the city she loves. I know it may seem silly to call a decision that 60+ million people have already come to courageous, but all politics is local, and to openly vote for a Democrat in red state territory is still kind of a brave thing -- grave economic crisis or not. Imagine if an intern at The Huffington Post came into work today wearing a McCain-Palin hat (and not in an ironic way)? I am guessing he or she would get a few puzzled stares. Don't you think?

With all the polls pointing to an Obama victory, I have to believe there are a lot of Republicans like Alison. These are not just "swing voters." These are moderate, rational, nice Republicans, the kind you would like to have a beer with. They may not be as open as my sister, but I think they will be out in droves today, and not because of the folksy lady with the Kawasaki glasses.

Call it the Bob effect. The Sheila effect. The Richard effect. The Jane effect. And so forth and so on. From the rust belt to the Deep South to the Southwest, in red states and swing states, white middle-class citizens will enter their neighborhood polling stations. They will get in the booth, make sure no one is watching, and then secretly pull the Obama lever. Resisting peer pressure, their palms will sweat because they think Obama may be too liberal, because the color of his skin is different, because his name is weird, because he likes arugula, because he bowls like a girl, or some other superficial reason. But in the end, they will vote for their families and their houses, their future and their sliver of the American dream or what is left of it. Like my sister, they will vote for Obama.

And over the next few weeks, when we progressives, we liberals, we Democrats, encounter a Republican like my sister who openly states that he or she voted for change, it is our job to avoid launching into a long monologue about the egregious abuse of power over the past eight years, to steer clear of listing all the reasons Sarah Palin was grossly unqualified to be Vice President, and to refrain from jumping up and down and shouting "I told you so," "What took you so long" and "Great, now that you're one of us, would you like to donate to Planned Parenthood?" No. We must take a page from Senator Obama, who continuously has risen above the fray and led with a measured and mature tone and simply listen, nod, and say, "I get it. My 401K is in the gutter too."