There is a story that after an advisor had presented a well-reasoned proposal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said something like: "Sounds good. Now go find me a constituency to make me do it."
As we approach the first major political convention of the season, many of us are asking ourselves how We-the-People, in our fragmented and conflicting constituencies, can get our elected officials to dance with us -- to the familiar tunes of freedom and justice, with the steady beat of equality -- in the fundamental dance of democracy. How can we, as constituencies, make our president do what we believe is right, and how do we know which candidates we can we trust to dance with "them what brung" them after the election?
This year we already know who our suitors will be, for both parties. We are already hearing and seeing broadcasts of contrived, shrill scripts showing what sneaky, skunky fellows their opponents are and how noble and principled their candidates are. Blogs and water-cooler conversations are rife with hearsay, half-truths, and reiterated sound-bites, and often include words that newspapers won't print..
With the electorate already pretty evenly divided between Bush supporters and Kerry supporters, and a margin of "undecided" voters large enough to swing the election, we already know that "them what brung" the next administration will be an uneasy constituency of partisans and skeptics. We are also uncomfortably aware that recent elections have been unbalanced by large campaign contributions, swayed by undercurrents of racism and religion, and pressured by fear-mongering about terrorism and loss of liberties.
We are also concerned about the tunes we are going have to dance to. What fundamental principles should drive the rhythms and harmonies of the next administration, and who's going to call the tunes -- the president or the constituents?
At the funeral games for President Reagan, George Bush Sr. observed that Reagan " ... just had certain basic principles that he tried to adhere to. Taxes are too high. Communism is bad. Things of that nature that are fundamental principles ..."
Funny. Those are pretty ethnic tunes for a great nation. I thought fundamental principles should generalize to the human condition across all ages and cultures, more like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", or "all men are created equal... endowed with ... inalienable rights [of] ... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
I find the current administration's fundamental music much worse, and nearly undanceable -- complex fugues of Medicare reform that benefits drug companies more than citizens; patriotic marches to pre-emptive wars in which the poor can die and the well-connected can profit; fundamentalist hymns about homosexuality and marriage; discordant improvisations on economic themes of tax-cuts and corporate privilege.
Edward Countryman, historian of the American Revolution, observed "Leaders are nothing ... without followers. Neither the colonial elite nor the Sons of Liberty could have done anything serious about British policy without enormous popular support."
The dance of democracy requires both strong leaders and strong popular support. As Americans, our patrimony is not to be dumb worshipful, childlike followers of leaders who know what is best for us, but to be adult sons and daughters of liberty -- grown-up, independent, responsible persons, capable of reason and judgment -- who can be equal partners in the complex dance of self-governance.
How do we do it? First, we need to stop seeing candidates in terms of non-negotiable binary oppositions, either all good or all bad. Candidates are human, like the rest of us. Rather than scoring candidates by their past words and deeds and selecting a winner, it is better to examine how they respond to new ideas and criticism, how they question themselves and listen to questions of constituents, how they handle power and use force, and how they promote trust and respect in communities at every level.
We should stop complaining about what candidates are or aren't saying or doing. Instead, tell candidates what you need, what you want, what you think is important and what you expect. Keep reminding them of the principles you consider fundamental, the tunes you want to dance to. Don't lose your chance to dance over a single issue. Note that Dennis Kucinich recently recognized that the anti-war stance he hoped would be a plank in the Democratic party platform didn't have a large enough constituency to be adopted. But Kucinich has neither given up on opposing war, nor withdrawn his support for Kerry.
Finally, one question I hear in many forms these days is about how and how much a particular candidate "cares about people". It's a pretty basic question, that goes right to the heart of the democratic experiment. People matter. Constituents matter. Leaders who value "them what brung" them matter.
The dance of democracy matters. And We-the-People must call the tunes.