Margaret O'Mara, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington, specializes in the political, economic, and urban history of modern America. She is the author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2005). She teaches, writes, and speaks on subjects such as the modern presidency, high-tech innovation, urbanism, and the global knowledge economy. From 1993 to 1997 she was a staff member to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, working on urban economic development, health care, and welfare reform. The recipient of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, she is currently exploring the globalization of the technology industry since the 1970s.
Serious and silly, unifying and polarizing, presidential elections have become events that Americans love and hate. Today's elections cost billions of dollars and consume the nation's attention for months, filling television airwaves and online media with endless advertising and political punditry, often heated, vitriolic, and petty. Yet presidential elections also provoke and inspire mass engagement of ordinary citizens in the political system. No matter how frustrated or disinterested voters might be about politics and government, every four years the attention of the nation—and the world—focuses on the candidates, the contest, and the issues. The partisan election process has been a way for a messy, jumbled, raucous nation to come together as a slightly-more-perfect union.