As we get closer to the presidential elections, a conversation will be heard all across America. “Who can liberals choose that will save this country? Is he the one, or is it her?” Lists are being compiled and a debate held over which of the names is America’s savior.
For liberals, the correct answer is “none of the above.”
I say this without knowing who will be the nominee. I say this not because the individuals in question are inadequate. I say this because progressive values cannot be saved by heroes. Progressive values can only be saved by ordinary citizens living up to their principles.
In the biblical story of the Exodus, Moses dies just before Israel can enter the Promised Land. The story is told as a way of making a point. Leaders can only take you so far. At some point it’s up to the people to govern themselves. Eugene B. Debs used to tell his listeners, “I would not lead you into the promised land even if I could, for, if anybody leads you in, someone else can lead you out.”
When George W. Bush named his first cabinet I announced from our pulpit that America was going to war. I am no prophet, but I can read the writing on the wall. If you see a robot with guns for hands you can be pretty sure it will not be planting many flowers. A presidential cabinet consisting of corporate lobbyists with ties to oil and weapons makers, but having no ambassadors or diplomats can only produce war and economic rapine.
“President” means someone who presides over the democratic process. That may seem mundane. Often it is. But the flashier title “Commander in Chief” is our leader’s title in a time of war. Can anyone imagine Jefferson or Lincoln wearing a jacket and hat emblazoned with “Commander in Chief” as has our current President? When people came to make George Washington king, he put on spectacles so they could see his human frailty. That is what a patriot looks like in a peace-loving democracy.
This President occasionally says he took an oath of office to protect the American people. Actually, he took an oath to protect the constitution. It may not seem as exciting as fighting terrorism, but the day-to-day work of participatory democracy is the life blood of our nation.
The flipside of not having heroes is not having demons either. Liberals must stop fixating on George Bush. Corporations took over America using politicians as sock puppets. It certainly makes a difference who sits in office, but we have not solved our problems if we impeach one of the socks. We must change the system. And the way to do that is from the bottom up.
The Howard Dean campaign suggested how grassroots campaigns can be successful, but liberals must stop focusing on personalities and start focusing on the one thing reactionaries do not have, which is principles. If a future candidate happens to shout in a microphone or cry in public we must not let that disqualify her or him from public service. We are choosing a President, not a stuntman for a Rambo sequel.
The American people have chosen reactionary leaders lately because they show their backbone. True, it is a reptilian backbone, it is cruel, ignorant and selfish, but for most voters a spinal column is a requirement for the job. I would suggest that the backbone of a liberal candidate must be a commitment to improving the human condition.
Progressives must not let ridicule or even political defeat trick them into betraying these values: universal health care, livable wages, civil rights for all people including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, reproductive choice for women and a planet governed by people not by corporations, religions or armies.
“But what if those principles cost us the election?” you may ask. We need to remember that the religious right rose to power by losing elections. They ran candidates with very strong views using those elections to identify loyal blocks of voters. They then brokered those voting blocks into swing votes in tight elections. Over time they produced a voter base with unshakable loyalty because they gave people something worth voting for. Lovers of democracy can take back this country the same way.
Bertold Brecht in “The Life of Galileo” has a character say, “Unhappy is a land that breeds no heroes,” to which Galileo responds “Unhappy is a land that needs heroes.” It is a truism of history that heroes usually lead to war whereas peace and democracy are preserved by an informed and involved citizenry. There is no question about it, America will grow tired of the cruelty and ignorance of the current administration. The only question is whether liberals will be at their posts when she does.
The Rev. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Tex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Rigby, Alternet