What this election is really about

Sam Smith

Presidential elections are not just about electing a president. They are about choosing a political culture and battlefield for the next four years. They are about selecting which policies will be the strongest, which existing ones will be most endangered, and which group of Americans will have the most say or suffer the worst indignities.

We have been taught, in no small part by a media that treats our politics as a TV entertainment contest, to obsess over the characters of the major participants while ignoring the effects either might have on our policies or which one will respond best to rational public pressure.

We are not just electing Trump or Clinton but everything that will happen as a result of their being in office, including our capacity to influence events.

It’s not necessary here to reiterate the damage a Trump presidency will do to our society. But what is far less clear is the positive effect a Clinton presidency could have, despite an impressive list of personal failings.

An essential – and undiscussed – aspect of this is that a major portion of the current political struggle is one of generations.

For example, a 2014 Gallup survey found that the percentage of Americans who were Republican didn’t even reach 40% until in the over 40 age category.

Both candidates represent the end of an era, but the effort to cling to this era (or even move further back) is far stronger in the GOP. And while, in the primaries,  Clinton successfully prevented an age rebellion (led ironically by an older Bernie Sanders), she is politically conscious of what happened and has already begun to change some of her views.

For example she now supports a public option in healthcare insurance while having attempted two decades ago to pass a rotten insurance industry sweetheart measure.

While the latter may easily be seen as a good reason not to vote for her, history suggests another possibility, something I was fortunate enough to observe first hand.

In the summer of 1957, as a 19 year old Washington radio news reporter, I covered the buildup to the first modern major civil rights bill, enacted shortly after I returned to college. The debate included the longest filibuster in history and a Senator Majority named Leader Lyndon Johnson playing both sides: getting it passed and weakening it.

But what was extraordinary was that he had anything to do with it at all. As historian Robert Caro has put it:

For no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson’s record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.

Thus the first major civil rights bill in 82 years was passed thanks in no small part to a politician certainly as cynical and untrustworthy as Hillary Clinton and driven, like her, by presidential ambitions.

While I would love it if politics were simply a matter of the will and interests of the people, you can’t hang around it long without realizing that this isn’t true. Virtue is only one reason that politicians do the right thing. Their perceived place and moment in history is a much greater cause.

As I would explain later, the two American politicians who got more good legislation passed in the least time were probably Lyndon John and Adam Clayton Powell – and you wouldn’t want either one of them near your daughter.

Hillary Clinton is now in a place in history where her interest and ours have moved far closer than in the past. She badly needs the support, for example,  of the young, and Bernie Sanders showed her how to do it. What she really believes we may never know but if you want a new agenda for a new generation of Americans, then the best way is to get her into the White House and build the pressure for change as the condition of support.

The day after her election – assuming we pull it off – the Sanders coalition, the young, black, latino, women, ecologists and union members must come together and give her an agenda upon which her success will depend. This is what happened when I returned to Washington journalism in 1964 after serving in the Coast Guard. LBJ had been in the White House for less than a year. Already a new generation was defining his and America’s agenda. And while he wrongly rejected it on Vietnam,  on other issues such as civil rights he  helped to create a truly new and greater society.

I strongly suspect something similar can happen this fall. Another new generation has grown weary of waiting and needs a government it can help define. It will not be a matter of asking Clinton to do things, but giving her few better choices other than to listen what this new generation has to say.

History can be messy and not pretty as we like. But it would be tragic, if due to apathy, anger or self-righteousness triumphing over pragmatism, we lost this chance to change America in a way it hasn’t seen in years.  Don’t think of Clinton as a candidate, but rather as a tool for us to use.

One thought on “What this election is really about

  1. Mr. Smith,

    Your email button does not seem to be working so I am using this space to send a message relating to citizen initiatives

    Direct democracy at the city level … Local Ballot Initiatives
    The U.S. has 5,400 home rule cities …lots of opportunity to make a revolution.

    Dear Mr. Smith

    I live in Houston and have worked with grassroot reformers in many parts of Texas.

    My experience convinces me that petition drives to put proposed charter amendments on the ballots of home rule cities is the quickest way to get political traction. It’s effective, quick, easier and more fun to be a “citizen lawmaker” than trying to elect people to positions on a city council. The good people rarely win and when they do they are still outvoted by their “colleagues” who want to protect the status quo.

    This tactic is an overlooked reform tool from the populist era dating back to 1900. It can be used to…

    1. impose accountability on the police
    2. protect workers from employer abuses
    3. raise a minimum wage
    4. improve access to local foods
    5. rein in city hall corruption
    6. control urban sprawl
    7. end food deserts
    8. improve mass transit
    9. protect urban farms
    10. bring an end to corporatism at the city level which is now common in Texas cities with tax breaks, zoning changes, and infrastructure enhancements done for favored business interests.

    Four progressive groups and strategic leaders with national reputations have embraced this tactic and are generating ballot box successes:

    celdf.org (Citizens Environmental Legal Defense Fund)

    And there is a fifth group, Wellstone Action (Wellstone.org), that has partnered with a sixth, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC@Ballot.org) that focuses on state level ballot measures. See:

    I can tell you about several success stories amending charters with petition drives here in Texas.
    Let me know if you want details.

    Barry Klein
    Houston, TX

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