“Did you too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name?” asked Walt Whitman in his essay “Democratic Vistas.” Writing in the aftermath of the Civil War, the great poet hoped that democracy might become more than just the balance of ballots cast, that it might find its fullest expression in “the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs…democracy in all public and private life.” But Whitman also had reason to despair. As Reconstruction came to a close, American democracy failed even to fulfill its promise of enfranchisement for all freedmen, and within a few years this nation witnessed the stark injustices of Jim Crow and the first Gilded Age.
American democracy finds itself at another crossroads, facing a new democratic vista. The choice between Barack Obama and John McCain could hardly be clearer. Throughout the campaign, this magazine has called for the rise of a small-d democratic movement and supported Obama’s candidacy for its attempt to galvanize new volunteers, organizers and donors united by their dedication to progressive change. His proposals on the crucial issue of this election–the economy–while imperfect, are grounded in economic reality and empathy for the plight of poor and middle-class Americans. Indeed, as the second Gilded Age comes to a screeching halt and the metastasizing economic crisis drives undecided voters to Obama, the Republican Party has responded with its familiar tactic of blaming the victims. In a vicious smear, McCain has claimed that ACORN “forced banks to issue the risky home loans” that “caused the financial crisis” and that it is “destroying the fabric of democracy” by “perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.” These are outright lies told in desperation and bad faith. As Peter Dreier and John Atlas point out in this issue, it was ACORN and other consumer advocacy groups that fought the predatory lending practices responsible for the subprime mess. And as Andrew Gumbel notes on page 16, ACORN’s voter registration drives–which this year have enrolled 1.3 million new voters from low-income communities–“have not been shown to result in a single fraudulently cast ballot.”
In fact, it is the Republican Party that threatens not just the fabric of democracy but the very thread from which it is woven–the basic premise that every eligible citizen can vote and that every eligible vote is counted. Through voter ID laws, purge lists and other maneuvers, it intends to challenge the legitimacy of millions of votes in crucial swing states like Florida, Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. These contested ballots will come from Democratic-leaning voters, but, more important, they are from the young, the newly registered, minorities and the poor–those for whom democracy is a fragile and hard-fought exercise. Thankfully, a slew of watchdog groups are poised to check such invidious efforts, but it will take vigilance to ensure that this election is free and fair and that the electoral system itself is reformed.
Just as much an affront to democracy is the GOP’s other electoral strategy–to fan the flames of xenophobia and racism by linking Obama with terrorism and anti-Americanism. Such crude and spurious associations pander to the worst elements of American culture: to nativism, fear and ignorance. This is the endgame the McCain campaign has chosen to play–to degrade democratic debate through slander and to cut citizens off from democracy.
Barack Obama has a different vision of democracy, focused on enlarging the electorate and encouraging citizens to play an active role in shaping the country’s policies and ordering its priorities. Our open letter to Barack Obama, which was signed by nearly 25,000 people (“Change We Can Believe In,” August 18/25), described the most inspiring principles animating his campaign while also noting the dissonance between his stances and ours on such issues as the escalation of the US military presence in Afghanistan and the death penalty. On the Letters page of this issue appears the response from his campaign, which welcomes not only our support but also our pledge to challenge him when we disagree with his stands. This response reminds us that, vital though an Obama victory is, it is only the beginning of what’s needed to roll back the policies of the Bush years and begin to enact a progressive agenda. If elected, Obama will face massive entrenched power whose writ runs large in Washington. Such pressure can most effectively be countered if the raised expectations of his presidency are channeled into a movement that stands up for those without wealth and power–a movement that works for and wins a central place in the engaged and expanded democracy that Whitman envisioned a century ago.