Guest View: The value of reflection in our democracy
Not long ago, a British friend e-mailed me saying how fascinated everyone over there was with our primaries because they were being contested by “a black, a woman and a wrinkly.” This from someone who, like most people outside the United States, had been left dumbfounded when George W. Bush was elected to a second term in 2004.
Such renewed interest in the American electoral process would seem to attest to its uniqueness and transparency, and to America’s continuing promise and attractiveness.
But now, as Sen. Barack Obama closes in on the Democratic nomination, various talking heads, analysts and spin doctors have warned that race could become a deciding factor in next fall’s general election. All of which causes one to ponder not just the question of race in America, but how prejudice generally plays into our political process.
As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, one would have hoped that opposing the election of someone simply because s/he is an African-American, a female or a septuagenarian would long since have passed into the annals of history along with poll taxes, stuffed ballot boxes and party bosses.
Readers old enough to remember the election of 1960 will also recall seeing a cardinal’s red hat painted atop George Washington’s head on many 25-cent pieces in order to dissuade people from supporting Sen. John F. Kennedy because he was a Roman Catholic and would therefore be subservient to the pope in Rome.
While prejudice is generally defined as a negative concept, “an unfavorable opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason,” it can also be understood as “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.” Thus, one could be considered prejudiced for supporting Obama simply because he is a person of color, for Sen. Hillary Clinton because she is a woman, or for Sen. John McCain because he is an elder statesman.
Either way, it is patently illogical to prejudge a person simply because of who or what he or she is. What should matter to voters is the position candidates adopt on the issues of the day. Judging by the results of recent primaries in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, however, prejudice – both positive and negative – may yet be alive and well in today’s America.
And by focusing on such prejudices (euphemistically termed “voter preferences,” “geographic tendencies,” “class biases,” etc.), commentators not only tend to reinforce the negative effect such factors have on the minds of the electorate, but also to distract voters from the issues that most affect their lives, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security and the continuing threat of terrorism, the economy, the environment, health care, the housing slump and gas prices – just to name a few.
A decade ago, while living in Madrid, Spain, we witnessed a general election that was in many ways similar to how campaigns are run in the United States, despite the parliamentary system in use there.
A major difference was that campaigning was limited to 10 weeks by mutual agreement among the parties, thus avoiding the voter fatigue that has already beset so many in this country. Also, campaigns ended two full days before Election Day. The day before ballots were actually cast was termed a “day of reflection,” during which no campaigning was allowed.
Ours may be the oldest and greatest democracy in the world, but there are still a few things we could learn – especially the value of reflection!
– Fred Kalhammer is a retired Foreign Service officer and a Stateline resident.