Friday, October 10, 2008

We are Better than This!

I believe that you can tell much about candidates and political contest by what theybring out in supporters.

The best campaigns bring out hope, optimism and inspire nobility in those who follow. There are always exceptions and there are always extremists. But both good candidates and truly great ones encourage supporters to believe in themselves and in one another.

Those judged most harshly by history, speak to the base instincts of human nature, exploiting all too human fears, anxieties, bigotry and suspicion. They are candidates who would rather win an election than build up a people. The candidates may be better than that. But they allow the good in them to subsumed in frenetic negativism because it is easier to allow primal and less honorable motives to be the engine that drives the contest.

It is unfortunate that we see that type of drama playing itself out in the presidential election.

Cheers and boos are acceptable reactions in a political contest. Tough campaigning and criticism of the opponents record is fair game. We have even come to accept a fair amount of distortion of the record to become the norm, so that we are made to look at the record for ourselves and sift through what is true and what is not.

But the public courting of bigotry, hatred and fear is not acceptable. Unchallenged cries of 'kill him', 'traitor' and 'off with his head', and racial epithets spewed at reporters at campaign rallies are not acceptable. While candidates may not use those words themselves, by not personally condemning them in the strongest possible terms makes them culpable, by appearing to condone horrible behavior.

People are afraid. They are afraid because of the economy. They are afraid because of the war. They are afraid because they are losing homes, retirement, life savings and jobs. When people believe that their most basic security, investments and lifestyles are threatened it is easy to champion their cause by providing a scapegoat.

That type of campaigning devolves into demagoguery, not a democratic electoral process.

Speaking to people during a time like this in ways that let them know that all is not lost, is not easy. Saying that we are in a hard place in our history, but the future doesn't have to be something that happens to us, it is something that we can shape, is challenging. It requires vision. It demands broad thinking. It calls for substantive strategic thinking.

Addressing people in that way is much harder than appealing to people's bigotry by sneering in derision at a foreign name; its much harder than leveraging obtuse and tenuous connections into guilt by association; it is much harder than stoking the fires of suspicion through nuanced insinuations regarding race and culture; it is much, much, harder than developing a more articulate and cogent rationale for running for office. It's far easier, to point to eloquence, erudition, ambition and sudden success by promoting the idea that if the American ideal works for someone who does not look like you, then there must be something wrong with that person.

We can play 'six degrees of separation' with anyone and find unsavory relationships and make anyone 'dangerous'. Even the Republican candidates for president and vice president. We can plow their background for things that are incompatible with mainstream values and we can explore body language, malapropisms and lapses in judgement to show them unfit for office. But if our country is on the precipice of economic collapse, military over extension and the struggle for international credibility, is that the way we want to choose the leader of the free world?

Labeling a candidate unAmerican, and referring to them in ways that call into question patriotism and personal honor; doing so in ways that give you plausible deniability when the word 'terrorist', is used but allows your supporters to say it freely and unchallenged, is despicable.

But what is far worse, is to declare fitness to lead, and not know the volatile nature of our times.

To fan the flames of xenophobia and paranoia, to capitalize on those fears, is the worst kind of leadership, and is indeed dangerous.

We've seen all of this before.

We've seen it when enemies of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders tried to discredit them as Communists (as if African-Americans needed someone from outside the country to teach them that they were oppressed!); or during the McCarthy Era, when people were hauled in to swear loyalty oaths to our country because they were suspected by a neighbor; we've seen it in Salem during the witch hunts and subsequent trials: people who were afraid, because they fear loss of freedom or privilege will welcome anyone to build a bogeyman to blame their problems on.

There are good Democrats and good Republicans who decry the public race baiting and fear mongering that is going on now.

Here's the thing: Hawaii is just as much a part of America as Alaska. The same American dream that makes it possible for a former city councilwoman and mayor to become Governor, to become a Vice-Presidential nominee, makes it possible for a former state senator and recent U.S. Senator to vie for the most powerful office in the land. Real leadership celebrates these achievements, even when disagreeing; it doesn't find ways to deride them.

So what are we to do? Here's a suggestion:

If you don't like Barak Obama's policies

If you don't think that Barak Obama has experience

If you don't think that Barak Obama is a leader

If you don't think his economic plan will help you

If you don't think that he has the right plan for energy independence

If you don't think he should get us out of the war as quickly as he says he will

If you don't like his running mate

If you don't like social agenda

If you think 'Yes We Can' is too superficial

Then DO NOT VOTE for him!

Those are mature reasons for not supporting a candidate. But please don't allow this process to be reduced to appeals to base, primal fears via personal, libelous attacks. In times of crisis people can still be noble, they can still be courageous, they can still have a vision of the future rather than resignation to their fate. The type of leadership we need taps into to the latter, not the former.

We live in a world far more serious than this. And we need candidates in a contest for leadership who will be as serious as the times.

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