On the Rhetoric of Change

I want to write a brief response to the argument regarding political change in America, namely that (specifically Barack Obama, but more generally anyone currently running for the presidency) may use the rhetoric of “change” as the basis of their campaign, but in fact will not be able to single-handedly effect that change, and are therefore not a good choice for president.

My response: … that’s not the point! Since when is the president the sole political actor in a democracy?

[And a note: while in this election I’m certainly more in favor of a Democratic president and have slight leanings toward Obama, please do not consider this post an official endorsement and/or pledge for him over any other candidate. This post is meant only as a kind of “hey, wait a minute–” response to the above argument itself. And for the record, I was sad when Bill Richardson dropped out.]

The rhetoric of change is not, or at least should not, just be about what the would-be president is going to do by themselves. While certainly the president is generally the single most visible person in American domestic and foreign political activity, they do not – and should not – act alone. Setting aside their formal support structure of advisers, staff, and other contacts, as well as elected officials in Congress and state governments, mayors and local politicians, and leaders and members of federal and other agencies and departments, we must not forget the theoretically most important political body of the nation, the people of that nation. The populace has a different role than that of policymakers, but a politically interested, informed, and involved citizenry is critical in ensuring that these policymakers reflect the will of those they represent.

This should include, but should not be limited to, voting. In Illinois, many districts saw record numbers for primary voters this year at 40% (usually 20-25%). Impressive record? This statistic seems both heartening and disheartening at the same time, setting aside the fact that most voters are at most only partially informed about the choices they are making (and unfortunately I rank among those ill-informed, despite my efforts to find good information about the local candidates and positions at stake this year). While certainly 100% turnout would be a difficult goal to achieve, and compulsory voting a system difficult to implement and probably impossible to ratify, getting at least more than half to show up would hopefully not be out of our reach.

Furthermore, political participation is not limited to voting, and indeed should be more than just picking someone else to make our decisions for us.  Joining interest groups or volunteer organizations, attending town hall meetings in local communities, petitioning for causes which currently aren’t given enough voice, engaging others in honest and civil political discussion, making informed consumer choices (and consuming sparingly!), and – on the more dramatic end of the spectrum – marches, boycotts, strikes, protests, and challenging what we believe is wrong.  Political apathy is a right in a democracy, but it becomes a threat to it when the general population allows particular groups to become disproportionately powerful and dictate policy.

(Here I should clarify what I mean by “particular groups,” as this could be read either on the side of those like the tobacco lobby, or those like the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  While it is a mistake to assume that there is an identifiable majority of any kind in America, and that rather it is a collection of overlapping demographics and interests, it is not enough to simply say “minority interest.”  All groups naturally act at least in part in their self-interest; I would distinguish, in a very general way, between those who seek their own ends which would improve the quality of life for all, or at least not detract from others’ quality of life, and those whose ends are purely self-serving and potentially harmful or at best indifferent to everyone else.  Thus, for example, the so-called “homosexual agenda” could be distinguished from “big tobacco” in that the former seeks rights without taking rights from others (although this point, like all points, is probably debatable) and the latter seeks to protect itself without regard to the health of the consumers to which it caters.)

Anyway, back to the point.

Change may be spearheaded by the political leader(s) of the nation, but it should not be their exclusive responsibility.  The degree of political interest and participation in America surrounding the 2008 primary – including greater numbers of voters in various demographics which have not been previously active to such a degree – may be at times over-analyzed and over-hyped, but it is a good thing.  And the degree of enthusiasm and inspiration which candidates like Barack Obama (and yes, Hillary Clinton) foster in their supporters is the actual key to this rhetoric of change:  that we need a leader who can cause change, but who needs the American people to help them do it.  Regardless of years of experience, number of high-profile contacts in the rolodex (does anyone actually use those, except figuratively?), or already-formulated domestic or foreign policy plans, the candidate who can inspire positive action in the populace and an enthusiasm for the change they espouse is a valuable political leader.

This is not to say that those other aspects of the presidency are not important, and certainly criticisms of Obama’s lack of experience may be justified.  To say simply that the rhetoric of change is empty and useless, however, is to underestimate the importance of all citizens’ political participation to effect that change.  The president must have good advisers to help make decisions, good institutions to carry out and/or critique those decisions, and the support of the population that these decisions reflect the will of the people.  They do not have to have all the answers alone, nor do they have to come into office and make sweeping changes alone.  They have to recognize that change happens when many people work for it on many levels, particularly change which improves the situation of many, or at least some, without being narrowly focused or detrimental to all but a very few.

To conclude:  having concerns about a candidate’s lack of experience is legitimate, as is being wary of what seems to be rhetoric without substance.  To criticize on the basis that the candidate alone will not be able to effect all the change they promise, however, is absurd, and seems to miss the point of democratic political life.  I don’t trust the candidate who already has all the answers, but I want to believe in the candidate who relies on many other intelligent and benevolent people to pursue their policies, who works on behalf of improving the quality of life for the nation they wish to represent, and who can rally behind them not just a voting bloc, but a diverse and informed and outspoken and at times boisterous population.

Whether or not such a candidate actually exists on any ticket in the ’08 election, of course, is still open to debate.


1 comment so far

  1. Rigg on

    Hey,Do we really know this guy? I have a lot of thoughts about this new up and coming charismatic guy with no faults. You can read them at: http://riggword.wordpress.com/
    Check it out and let me know what you think.

    Thanks for your time.

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