February 20, 2008

Stumbling Into Democracy

A year ago, no one thought we would be here today – in a place where our democracy is being invigorated on a weekly basis by a still undecided presidential primary between two incredible, barrier-shattering candidates. For people of my generation, this is our first real glimpse of national democracy in America.

Beginning in 2000, it has been clear that only the votes of a handful of voters in a handful of states really matter in determining the president of all of the United States. In 2000 and 2004, we had a presumptive nominee for both parties after no more than five states had voted. The rest of the country would get to choose between those nominees at least.

Not exactly. In both 2000 and 2004, the election was not fought in California or Alabama or Massachusetts or Texas. It was fought in a handful of “battleground” or “swing” states. Ninety percent of the election was decided before the campaign even started.

Faced with these realities, it was perfectly reasonable for a citizen to become cynical about the value of voting and the likelihood that there voice could make any difference. In Texas in 2004, what was the point of a vote for John Kerry when all of that state’s electoral votes had already been tallied in permanent ink for George Bush?

Which brings us to the beauty of the primaries this year. Our democracy has been given a shot of Red Bull by a combination of three unexpected characteristics of the campaign that we ought to try to replicate in the future.

First, margins matter. The most intriguing thing about the Democratic delegate dash is that it does not just matter who wins a state, but by how much. The idea, solidified by the electoral college system, that a state that is decided 51% to 49% ought to apportion its influence (winner takes all) the same way that a state decided 80% to 20% is ridiculous and makes a mockery of the very concept of democracy.

Second, politics is local. The delegate rush has also forced the candidates to look not too closely at statewide numbers, but instead to focus on district-by-district results. Because there may be delegates to gain even in a state that is certain to be lost (and even more so because the number of delegates may depend upon margin of victory), candidates are wise to campaign everywhere. Sure, battleground states (or districts) will get more attention, but a system where a Republican candidate has no reason to campaign in California is surely a broken one. I witnessed this first hand in Memphis – although Barack Obama trailed significantly in statewide polls, he opened a Memphis campaign office, carried the county with 70% of the vote and picked up delegates.

Finally, democracy requires participation. The system we all know and loathe discourages participation. Because only votes in early primary and battleground states truly matter, what is the incentive for citizens to invest their votes and more importantly, their mental energy in a campaign? What is the point of even following politics or considering different positions on important issues when the direction of our leadership will be determined primarily by Iowans and Floridians? What the surprising length of the nominating contests has shown is that people will participate and will invest their minds in the political process when they perceive that their votes matter.

There is nothing more troubling to democracy than voter impotence because the (often correct) belief that a vote is meaningless encourages voter apathy and disengagement from governance. Our Constitution is clear that the government serves only at the pleasure of we, the people. Too often that seems to not be the case, but in the last eight weeks, we have gotten a glimpse of several characteristics that can improve our democratic process. Of course, all is not quite perfect – there remains the specter of superdelegates undoing all of the democratic enthusiasm generated by these primaries.

This year, we have stumbled upon a system of national democracy that is maintaining voter engagement across the country and for an extended period of time. As we look beyond November, the country would be well served by building upon this stumbled-upon blueprint to reimagine American democracy for the 21st century.

February 04, 2008

What Is Possible

Four years ago, I slumbered through election season. In one party was the incumbent president, with whom I disagreed about nearly everything. In the other party was a campaign among a group of flawed candidates, the winner of which was apparently going to be among the least inspiring (if well qualified) candidates I could imagine. Regardless of John Kerry’s platform and ideas, he had a profound mobilization problem. I desperately wanted a change in the White House, yet I felt no inspiration to donate or volunteer to the Kerry campaign.

This time around, I am feeling plenty of inspiration. I was inspired first by the choice among three candidates I could get excited about (including the candidate I had supported in the 2004 primaries, John Edwards). I was inspired by the prospects for barriers to be broken. I was inspired by a sense that a real opportunity for a change in our national direction had arrived. But most of all, I was inspired by Barack Obama.

By now, we all know the biography, which is remarkable on its own. But it is the vision in our country born by Obama’s biography that really quickens my pulse. Obama is a walking example of the opportunity our country affords its citizens – as he has said, “in no other country is my story even possible.” Perhaps because of the long odds he has already overcome, Obama is inspiring many others to rethink what is possible. It is this ability to re-imagine what our country is and can be that draws me to Sen. Obama and inspires me to begin re-imagining these things for myself. He seems to have awakened a brand new universe of what is possible.

Ultimately, our president has two important and often contradictory duties. The first is to craft an agenda that can be enacted by public policy. This involves negotiation with parties of divergent values and views and can involve fighting to ensure that your own values and views are not compromised into oblivion. To perform this duty, it is conventional wisdom that you need a fighter who can withstand intense criticism to carry the day, but Barack Obama seems to be imagining a different way of doing business. He is imagining negotiation that is not of attrition, but of coalition.

Obama’s first instinct when confronted with an obstacle is not to fight, but to convert. His experience as a community organizer, concerned with tangible progress rather than loyalty to principle, only sharpened that instinct. History does not look kindly upon those who intentionally stand in the way of progress (George Wallace comes to mind) and Obama’s way of building movements rather than fighting battles has the effect of transforming his fiercest critics into mere impediments in the way of a better community. What Obama has imagined is a kind of nonviolent politics that he hopes will transform the nation’s psyche in the same way that the nonviolence of Martin Luther King once did.

The second duty of our president is to connect with citizens and provide a vision for what our nation can be. Under the fighting model of politics, this duty conflicts with the first. In a world where a policy that attracts support of fifty percent plus one is a success, it is inevitable that large segments of the population will be alienated. It is not possible to inspire a nation when you are fighting with half of it.

Performing this duty is where Barack Obama excels. I have had the opportunity to hear him speak in person on one occasion when he came to Memphis on behalf of a candidate for the Senate in 2006. I expected to be disappointed because there was no way he could be as good as I imagined. The candidate he was appearing on behalf of was about as well-liked as a politician could be in Memphis and is a formidable speaker in his own right. Obama was in another league. In an effortless way, he fed and fed off of the electricity in the room to create a belief that anything really was possible. But rhetorical talent is not enough – the vision that Obama tells us is possible is one that is true to our deepest ideals. It is a vision that rises above difference, whether they be racial, geographic, ideological, or otherwise. It is a vision that appeals to the better angels of our nature. But most of all, it is a vision that refuses to limit what is possible.

Barack Obama imagines the type of country I want to live in even if that country does not yet exist. That is the kind of president I can be inspired by.

(Click here to see what I had to say about Barack Obama this time last year)