This article originally appeared in the July 20/27, 1992, issue.
I’ll admit that my realistic chances of becoming President are right down there with Quayle’s I.Q. On the other hand, Nixon, Reagan and Bush have removed all sense of humility I might otherwise have felt when approaching high office, and pioneers like Chisholm, Farenthold, Ferraro and Jackson have taken the “white males only” sign off the White House lawn. This year, Ross Perot is proving that becoming a presidential candidate can be part of almost anybody’s career track.
But in spite of these new possibilities, I’m still pleased to announce that I am not running. Although Bill Clinton is the candidate of my choice, I wouldn’t wave an autocratic magic wand to put him in the White House, even if I could do that. Process is everything. Here’s why:
Having spent most of my adult life in social justice movements–from living in post-Gandhian India to working in the civil rights, farm worker and peace movements here, and most of all, in the feminist movement–I’ve seen constant proof that revolutions are like houses: They can’t be built from the top down. Leaders can issue blueprints, which we then adapt to our needs or quietly sabotage. They can prevent us from following our own plan, divide the work force against itself and otherwise slow or stop progress. But what they can’t do is create organic and lasting change from the top. Attempts to do so, even in the most authoritarian of systems, eventually end in reversion to old ways, as we see in the countries where Communism and artificial national boundaries were once imposed by Moscow.
In this country, the presidency becomes mainly a bully pulpit. Wisely, legislative and administrative processes slow things down enough to leave time for persuasion, pressure and organizing. As Franklin Roosevelt often told citizens after they had made their impassioned pleas, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and force me to do it.”
The truth of any governmental system is this: What we are “given” by leaders, even with the best of intentions, we are too weak or uninformed to use. We can’t benefit from change that we haven’t been part of making, a fact that women especially can testify to after centuries of paternalism, and a crucial truth that top-down-style liberals ignore. (One could argue, for instance, that the difference in success between Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s War on Poverty was that Washington poverticians didn’t exist during the former, and so local initiatives were supported instead. Certainly, trickle-down economics–the idea that if you’re nice to the rich, the rich will be nice to you–is the opposite of the Keynesian theory of pump-priming at the bottom that got us out of the Depression.)
Even more than our tangible problems, this country’s ailment is an almost terminal passivity, cynicism and expert-itis. Along with obstructionist registration laws and voting procedures, this is the reason we have a lower voter turnout than any other democracy in the world. Instead of learning in depth about organic solutions from people who are experiencing the problems, for instance, we learn about our leaders, from their smallest habits to their most grandiose plans. Centralized media help make the disease worse.