A Positive Vision of 21st Century Democracy

We need to be as ambitious in envisioning political process integrity as John Edwards has been honest in talking about political process corruption. 

For supporters of John Edwards, the end of his 2008 campaign for the presidency should not be spent in either deep gloom or false bravado.  The future of the cause Edwards champions remains open and John Edwards’ influence on the rest of this campaign and perhaps on the next four years is unknown.  We would be mistaken to write him out of our script just because he has bowed out of the race for the presidency.  At the same time, clearly his campaign is lost and what is most appropriate in the face of this political loss is to take stock of the lessons we can learn from it.  They are not Edwards’ lessons to learn alone, but are instructive to the entire nation.

What we learn from the Edwards campaign is that American politics requires from its populist candidates the highest standard of vision:  It requires much more than the ability to see and speak the truth about corruption.  It requires much more than the ability to set forth a ground breaking plan to address our problems.  For a populist candidate to win in America, he or she must ring the bell of our ideals loud and clear.  We need a positive vision of our democracy that is pitch perfect, resounding, and inimitable.  

Back in August when John Edwards began to aggressively challenge the Democratic Party to look honestly at the corruption and inequality in our nation, he promised his campaign would be about “real change,” saying:

“Real change starts with being honest — the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It’s rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits.  It’s rigged by the very wealthy to ensure they become even wealthier.  At the end of the day, it’s rigged by all those who benefit from the established order of things. For them, more of the same means more money and more power. They’ll do anything they can to keep things just the way they are — not for the country, but for themselves.”

“[The system is] controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water. And it’s perpetuated by a media that too often fawns over the establishment, but fails to seriously cover the challenges we face or the solutions being proposed. This is the game of American politics and, in this game; the interests of regular Americans don’t stand a chance.”

In response to this speech, I offered the Edwards campaign some advice in a column published at CommonDreams.org.  I said, “If Edwards plans to make his campaign about ‘Real Change,’ he is going to have to raise political process integrity to the first place in his political agenda.  He is going to have to champion an ambitious program to engineer from scratch a political process that can maintain its democratic integrity in the face of technology, corporate power, and global economics.” 

Initially, as the Associated Press observed yesterday, “Edwards burst out of the starting gate with a flurry of progressive policy ideas — he was the first to offer a plan for universal health care, the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war, and he led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in,” but these themes “were eventually adopted by other Democratic presidential candidates — and even a Republican, Mitt Romney, echoed the call for an end to special interest politics in Washington.” 

Ultimately, it’s one thing to offer aggressive populist policy which even a Republican can imitate; it’s another to set an uncompromising standard that forces the other candidates to show their true colors.  When the other candidates caught up with Edwards’ ideas, he had a choice: (1) He could advance an ambitious, courageous, and modern vision of comprehensive political process integrity as the first, necessary step to addressing our nation’s problems, or (2) He could distinguish himself by more honestly and more harshly condemning the forces that are at the root of corruption, dysfunction, and inequality in our society. 

Edwards took the latter choice, and as a result, Barack Obama’s positive, but vague vision of a large, inclusive majority became the most resoundingly positive message being broadcast to the people.  The disadvantage at which this dynamic put the Edwards campaign became undeniable the night of Obama’s victory in South Carolina, Edwards’ home state.  Whereas Obama showed himself to be hitting his stride, Edwards gave a version of his stump speech that was less poised than usual.  Obama’s speech was expansive and his victory added a needed sense of reality to his claim that he was the candidate who could create change merely by uniting the people behind a desire for change.  Edwards, by contrast told anecdotes that focused on the suffering of Americans he had met two years ago and promised that their voices would be heard.  Emphasizing the unspecific positive was demonstrably more effective than personalizing the negative. 

Now, we move forward toward “Monster” Tuesday, the Democratic Convention, and, if the stars align, a Democratic White House.  Like Edwards, both Clinton and Obama have their shortcomings.  Clinton offers the ability to maneuver within the system.  Obama offers the possibility of broad initial support.  Neither candidate, however, has yet shown they have a positive vision of democracy that will restore to the people their power and immunize us against the type of abuses we have suffered over the last eight years.  Both candidates are playing the game of getting elected that our political process has become; they are not honestly engaging with the obvious requirements of democracy we have yet to achieve.  This is not a judgment against them, simply a statement of fact. 

Indeed, we have reason to be optimistic.  Whether it is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama who wins the nomination, and hopefully, the presidency, both candidates have the opportunity and potential as head of state to become better champions of democracy than they are presently as candidates for office.  Edwards has lost that chance, but he has not lost the chance to be a better champion of democracy in some other capacity. 

Thus, for Edwards, for Obama, for Clinton, and for all of us, the demise of the Edwards campaign has, I think, this very important lesson to teach:  We need to focus on a positive vision of 21st century democracy. 

We need to be as ambitious in envisioning political process integrity as John Edwards has been honest in talking about political process corruption.   

We are a society of incredible technological and social sophistication.  We do not need to remain victims of a system that is so plainly corrupt and dysfunctional.  We need political leaders with the courage to champion the comprehensive re-engineering of our political process so that it preserves our democratic principles against the modern technology of corruption.  Whether this vision finally adds substance to the euphoria of the Obama campaign or principle to the power of the Clinton machine makes no difference.  It is this vision that the Democratic Party ought to offer America following the Bush presidency.  Anything less is just posturing for power.

Hank Edson is an author, activist and attorney based in San Francisco.  His blog, MP3—My Politics and Progressive Perspective, may be found at: http://hankedson.squarespace.com/ .

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4 Responses to A Positive Vision of 21st Century Democracy

  1. Hank

    Thank you. Honest and heartful and very moving. I was truly saddened today by Edwards decision. It took me a long time to warm to him as a candidate and though I have chosen to support HRC, he would have been my 2nd choice easily. This has been a tough few weeks coming into the stretch of Super Tuesday.

  2. Hank

    I also want to add… thank you for being a part of this little slice of democracy here at The Dem Daily. 🙂

  3. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the problems we face have evolved from the poilitical framework we function under. Trying to make substantial change without modifying the basic framework, it seems to me, is not something that can succeed. Leaving the machine of government untouched and trying to get it to function differently is just not reasonable. Modifications are required to make progress and we have only one mechansim for modifying the basic framework. That kind of change must come from changing the Constitution, and the only process of constitutional change I would trust, because it is least susceptible to game playing, is a Convention of, by, and for the people.

    Here’s a simply change that would create a very different political landscape in this country. However we want the legislature to be constituted, and even if we want states to be equal in some sense, we could still take one fourth of all of the seats and apportion them strictly to minority parties on the basis of proportional results. We are long past the time when we were well served by a strictly two party system, but we have really no way for anything else to develop. If we had a threshhold to keep out cults, and a guaranteed payoff for folks who wanted to work with others of similar ideology it would be only a very short time until parties like greens, libertarians, populists, etc. would actually become viable.

  4. David says: