Our Flawed Political Leaders

6 Nov

I wrote this yesterday – just some idle thoughts on this political campaign season, a throwaway – and posted it on Facebook. Already at least three of my friends have copied and shared it.  So I’m putting it here just as a record it’s originally mine (easier to archive than Facebook).

(Meanwhile I’ve been carrying two, maybe three more in-depth posts around in my mind since August, looking for the time to develop them further here.)

As I prepare to vote on Tuesday, I find myself thinking and talking more and more about Lyndon Johnson (whom my students have never heard of, incidentally). I was not old enough to remember him and the obscenity of our war in Vietnam (my first actual memories began under Nixon), policies for which history has decided he was rightly despised. There is no apologizing for this, and this is what brought him down and overshadowed his presidency and his legacy, at first attacked by the progressive forces of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but undermined and succeeded by the likes of Nixon with the assistance of Cold War Democratic hawks and Dixiecrats.

And yet, here’s a list of what this often duplicitous and untrustworthy wheeling-and-dealing politician oversaw in just five years of his Presidency: The Civil Rights Act (actually two of them, the second including the Fair Housing Act), the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Law of 1965 that ended quotas and preference for white Europeans, the first Endangered Species Act, and the acts that created Medicare, Medicaid, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Head Start, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR and PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the act that made food stamps a permanent program. (Not to mention appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.) None of these, which have altered and improved the lives of all Americans, would have existed or passed without him – flawed, dishonest, and hawkish as he was. Fifty years on it’s hard to imagine American life without these, even though arguably whatever social justice they helped to bring about at home stopped at the border of our empire. It’s also hard for us to conceive of the kind of political imagination that could envision these dramatic improvements that reshaped American life in just five years. (Even as there were more progressive voices inside and outside of government, some of whom formed useful alliances and some of whom remained in opposition.)

Little of this happened without considerable people pressure by progressives, progressives who were mobilized for years by violent and structural injustices in Southeast Asia and the U.S. South. As I’ve said before, democracy doesn’t end on Election Day, it begins then. No one we elect on Tuesday can or will be a savior. Not only is there no perfection, but it may take generations before we significantly change the course of our foreign policy away from its history of massive spending on war, violence, and weaponry, or address the damage we unleashed during “shock and awe” in 2003. Are we going to address economic inequality, racial injustice, or the steps needed to stop catastrophic climate change in the next four years? That’s up to us, but it will help not having someone in the office who would like to forcibly turn the clock back to a time before any of these social advances were part of the fabric of modern America. Nor will it help having someone in office too flagrantly disrespectful of science, sociological evidence, public policy, history, tolerance, and gender equity to recognize the relationship between the folly of willful ignorance, nationalism, hatred, and catastrophe.

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