Friday, February 22, 2008

Obama and My Hope for True Democracy

I am voting for Barack Obama to be the Democratic presidential nominee and rooting for him to be the next president, and here is why: in my mind he brings me hope that as a nation we can experience true democracy. As much as President Bush and leaders in both major political parties talk about how they love democracy, it’s not true. What they like is game they call democracy where they get to write the rules and determine who gets to play, and what the outcome will be. True democracy places its trust in the power and wisdom of the people to decide, not leaders of the party. That is why the leaders of both parties prefer primaries to caucuses. In primaries you can limit the game to leading players, but in caucuses you get regular folks coming together to debate the issues and the pros/cons of the candidates. In caucuses regular folks actually think they know something about policy and leadership and they make up their own mind. They distrust the veteran politicians and listen to what makes sense to them, and the party leaders can’t stand it. What has happened this primary season is that somehow the political hacks let things get out of hand and they ended up with a McCain, a Huckabee and an Obama sparking people’s interest in actually speaking their minds, and the Clintons, Romneys and Fred Thompsons of the world are being left on the sidelines.

The fact is even the founding fathers didn’t believe in true democracy. That’s why when they set up the Constitution they limited voting power to white males of Anglo descent who owned land. Women, blacks, Native Americans, Germans Irish and poor folks were excluded from voting. That way they could control the game and predetermine who got what. Despite 200+ years of amendments that have allowed blacks, non-Anglos, women, and poor folks to vote, the game is still rigged. The other day on NPR I heard a report of all the “special interests,” such as lawyers, educators, unions, entertainers and corporate PACs that are pouring money into the campaigns of Clinton, Obama and McCain in hopes of “getting something in return.” Why should they have more access to power than the poor schmucks who are just trying to make a living and can’t give a contribution, or volunteer for a candidate? For all his talk about “exporting democracy,” George Bush doesn’t believe in democracy either. In the Gaza strip Hamas won free and fair elections, and immediately he discredited them and cut them off from any support. Furthermore, he can’t stand Hugo Chavez, the duly elected president of Venezuela, who happens to be socialist.

So why does Barack Obama give me hope? Obama came to politics as a community organizer. In his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Obama describes his education into the needs of the working class, mostly African-American folks he got to know on the South Side of Chicago where he worked as a community organizer. Community organizers by training and orientation believe in grassroots politics. Their job is to help people identify the important issues facing their community, bring folks together around those issues, and devise ways to bring pressure on the power brokers to make changes. Community organizers trust that people can make wise and effective decisions when given the power and opportunity to do so. If you notice, in his speeches Obama uses the language of “we” and “us” a lot, and speaks of his campaign as a movement. That’s organizer language, and while it may be just a set of good political slogans, I’m hoping that it is more than rhetoric.

Clinton and McCain came through the ranks of the established political system. They talk about heir experience and how they will get things done on the first day in the job. It’s all about what they will do because “Hey, I’ve got the experience and I know how the system works.” That may be true, but the system is what is wrong. The system favors the few who either have survived the cutthroat political game or who have the money to influence the players. The game is that we call it “democracy” (the rule of the many) when it is in fact oligarchy (the reign of the few).

So I am putting my hopes on Obama. I may be wrong. The moneychangers and the power brokers may get to him. He may be pulling the wool over our eyes. But his words and actions, plus his past experience, make me want to believe that he actually wants grassroots democracy to flourish, even if it challenges his views, even if it is messy at times , and even if the big boys and girls get pushed a bit to the side.


Winton Boyd said...

I share your sense that what makes Obama different is his community organizing background. The other value I learned as an organizer 18 years ago was the importance of relationships. Obama is out-organizing others not by spending money on ads, but by networking with organizations and people. His "surge" has gone under the radar of pundits (did you see how they mis predicted Wisconsin this week) because even their tools for measuring political views misses the importance of word of mouth, friend to friend conversation, and neighborhood gatherings.

I also am voting (and voted already) for Obama because I resonated with Carolyn Kennedy who wrote that she has never been inspired by a politician like people talk about being inspired by her father (JFK). As I read that line, I realized my whole voting life has been shaped by my deep seeded political cynicism. I have come to wonder what different voting really makes when, as you wrote, the system is so wrong and so skewed to those with money and connections to current lawmakers. I have long thought that many don't vote in this country because they know it has little impact on the things that matter. I have voted because I do think a President matters, but I have always been discouraged with the choices because I have seen politicians avoid most of the issues I care deeply about.

I decided that I am ready for a new way of engaging in politics. I am ready to be inspired, ready to talk about "we," ready to live by some other driving force besides fear. It is my hope that Obama also inspires others like himself to step up into politics. Voting for him, in my mind, is as much a statement about me and us as it is a statement about him.

Anonymous said...

This dovetails interestingly with what we've been discussing in Sunday school. I hope that Obama can avoid being swallowed up by "the system"!
Sherri Michalovic