Like many politically engaged Americans, Election Day 2008 exerts a pull on me. I find myself constantly wanting to jump into the fray of the moment. But I am confident that what has happened Democratic Party presidential politics, and in the United States of America over the past 8 years, cannot be corrected only, or even primarily, by how the vote turns out this November 4.
Do not mistake me. I am not trivializing this presidential election; it is one that I think Democrats cannot afford to win. (Yes, that is right: an election Democrats cannot afford to win.) If the Democratic Party leadership is rewarded by voters with a win this year, it will be that much harder to correct what we must correct in American politics. It really is time to tell those who head the Democratic Party that we do not want our party to be Republican-lite. We want our party to stand for the liberalism of John Stuart Mill - champion of toleration; of Adam Smith - champion of free trade conjoined with democratic regulation; of James Madison - champion of the fundamental importance of individual human rights.
But the more I reflect upon what our country faces, the more I realize that it will take much more than a defeat of an undeserving Presidential candidate to reshape our society.
- We have seen that our country is viciously, horribly misogynistic.
- We have seen that people of all colors are perfectly willing to use race in cynical ways to achieve their personal goals.
- We have seen that Presidents and Presidential candidates will do and say anything to advance their own interests, including telling straight out lies whenever it suits their purposes.
- We have seen that our media prefers form over substance.
- We have seen voter intimidation and suppression.
- We have seen the relentless corruption that comes when politicians roll in the dough.
One election result will not change these things. Instead we have to learn to think in terms of decades, of lifetimes rather than in terms of two, four, or eight year political cycles. And we have to look outside our borders for examples of how true political transformation can be wrought.
Perhaps first among the transformational leaders of our own time is Nelson Mandela. Indeed, the fight he led to transform South Africa has become so mythic that it is easy to lose sight of what a long hard fight it was - and continues to be.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918. He became active in the African National Congress in the 1940s. In 1952, he opened South Africa's first black law firm, with his partner Oliver Tambo. By 1961, the ANC was outlawed. In the early 1960s, Nelson Mandela, after a series of trials, including some held while he was already in prison, Nelson Mandela was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent close to thirty years serving that term. Thirty years.
Some statements by Nelson Mandela from the early 1960s:
"I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man." - from Nelson Mandela's speech from the dock in his 1962 trial, when he was sentenced for a five year prison term.
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But my lord if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." - from Nelson Mandela's statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964; at the end of the trial, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
"After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb." - from Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, p. 554, Little, Brown & Company (1994).
I hasten to say that I, obviously, am no Nelson Mandela. Nor do I share all of his political beliefs. But I look to his life and to his words because they are a way to begin thinking in terms of a lifetime - not just an election year - deeply dedicated to bringing legal and political justice to one's country. And I urge others to consider Mandela's life and words when the short term is seeming very long indeed and when frustration with one election eats at one's spirit and one's energy.
Regardless of which candidate prevails on November 4,it will take many people's lifetimes, working together, to correct our own country's failings. It will be easier if we can return the Democratic Party to an institution we can trust to help in that cause. But if we cannot, we will form new organizations, build upon some that have grown up in the heat of the moment, and work to return the dignity of every individual to the centerpiece of our body politic.