Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts on election results

First off, I'm happy. I haven't felt this good about a presidential candidate since John Anderson ran for president in 1980, and Obama is probably just as good as John Anderson was. Funny, but four of the best presidential candidates in history were all from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln (1860 & 1864), Adlai Stevenson II (1952 & 1956), John Anderson (1980), and Barack Obama (2008). That's another reason to enjoy living here in Springfield.

There are things I found disappointing. The total voter turnout was much lower than I had hoped. I hear we only had a little over 130 million voters casting ballots, and I was hoping for 150 million. The Senate races were not as impressive as I had hoped. Merky should have crushed Smith in Oregon, but the race was close. Alaska and Minnesota should have gone with the Dems, but a couple days after the elections those races are still close, and the Republicans may win both. I was hoping for Jim Martin to pull off an upset in Georgia, and that didn't happen. I was hoping for the Green Party candidates to make some significant gains in local elections, but I haven't heard anything about this happening. Here in Illinois I was hoping for Democratic Party gains in the 6th and 10th and 13th U.S. House Districts, but Morgenthaler, Seals, and Harper were all defeated. My own very conservative U.S. Representative Shimkus in the 19th District won with 64.5% of the vote, and the Green Party candidate only received 2.1% of the vote. Ah well, at least Shimkus is a nice guy and does well with constituent services. I'm not an ideologue who hates people because of their politics, so I can tolerate politicians I disagree with, so long as they are decent human beings and not corrupt.

McCain's concession speech was touching, and I wish the McCain I saw there (and also saw in his speech at the Republican Convention) had been evident in the campaign. Obama's acceptance speech was moving and exciting. I was hoping to hear him mention Durbin and Durbin's recent loss (his daughter died earlier this week), but Obama didn't work that into the speech. Dick Durbin got Barack in front of everyone at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, and that was probably the most significant step toward this victory. I suppose Obama probably got in touch with Durbin privately. It's probably better to keep such things as private communication between friends, anyway. Thinking about those two, I enjoyed having two of the best senators both coming from my state, and now I'm somewhat worried about who our governor will choose to replace Obama. Our retiring head of our State Senate, Emil Jones was the most likely candidate, or so I thought, but my contacts in the State House tell me this is not as likely as it seemed. Evidently Jones isn't interesting in buying the seat, and the Governor is looking for someone who can give him something in return for the appointment.

I was trying to put the election into a grand historical context. I was thinking of the intellectuals and activists and leaders who have shaped American culture and politics for good, and there could be a long list of people to whom we owe much of what is best about our nation and our political culture. I made a list: Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Morton, Jonathan Edwards, William Penn, Bartolomé de las Casas, John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Oglethorpe, John and Charles Wesley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Claude Henri de Rouvroy (Saint-Simon), Adam Smith, Charles de Saint-Pierre, Robert Owen, Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and so forth. These people contributed their parts into giving us a certain idealism and a good foundation. Then we had people who took in the culture and ideas these people left us, and Abraham Lincoln is foremost among these 19th century Americans who took the good raw material and helped make something glorious out of it. I'd include people like Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Eugene Debs, William James, and W. E. B. DuBois here in this category along with Lincoln. Perhaps Grant belongs in this group as well.
Then, later in the 19th century and into the 20th century another group of great souls and brilliant minds took our nation and its culture even higher. I include among this group influential thinkers from abroad such as Krishnamurti, Gandhi, Alfred Russel Wallace, and then the great Americans such as Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Henry Agard Wallace, Cordell Hull, Eleanore Roosevelt, and of course Martin Luther King, Jr. In more recent years we have have people like John Steinbeck, Linus Pauling, Ken Wilbur, Matthew Fox, Saul Alinksy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and so forth. I am sure Barack Obama belongs with this group. He seems to be one of the bright shining lights of our culture and our national history. He is carrying forward a process of growth and development in our culture and our politics, or so it seems at this point.

Yes, I realize the people on my list were flawed. Some of them were deeply flawed. But each contributed something valuable, or at least they represent something great to me by some aspect of their life or thought. It seems to me we have now elected one of these great souls.

I am also certain that all these people who have embodied or inspired what is best in American politics and culture are drawing from some transcendent process of Providence. Yes, I believe in a sort of supernatural destiny for my country and the planet as a whole. The good that was in these people I've listed is all drawn out of the same source, I feel sure. This country has a role to play, drawing from this same spirit of the age, and we've elected someone who seems to be in tune with this aspect of our national life. So, I'm very glad indeed.

O Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein … Give ear unto that which hath been raised from the Dayspring of Grandeur: Verily, there is none other God but Me, the Lord of Utterance, the All-Knowing. Bind ye the broken with the hands of justice, and crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of your Lord, the Ordainer, the All-Wise.... - from a letter composed by Baha'u'llah and addressed to "Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein," revealed sometime soon after Baha'u'llah's arrival in Akka (in the early 1870s), and incorporated into the Kitab-i-Aqdas (1873).

America is a noble nation, a standard-bearer of peace throughout the world, shedding her light to all regions. Other nations are not untrammeled and free of intrigues like the United States, and are unable to bring about Universal Peace. But America, thank God, is at peace with all the world, and is worthy of raising the flag of brotherhood and International Peace. When the summons to International Peace is raised by America, all the rest of the world will cry: “Yes, we accept.” - Words supposedly spoken by 'Abdu'l-Baha in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1912. (I have no idea if the lecture notes taken in English and used to reconstruct what 'Abdu'l-Baha actually said were ever cross-checked with Persian notes, or if 'Abdu'l-Baha ever reviewed a Persian translation of the English version of his Cincinnati speech to approve it as essentially what he meant.)

Of course, this is just a personal reflection on what is going on. I'm sure religious figures should keep aloof from partisan struggles and the mundane issues of statecraft. That bit from Baha'u'llah about crushing oppressors with the rod of justice might apply to George W. Bush and his desire to get rid of Saddam Husain. I can't know for certain. It might also apply to policies to tax the very wealthy (and over-paid) elites in this nation and use the tax revenue to provide freedom to poorer Americans (freedom in the sense of education, medical care, financial security, etc., as I'm using Amartya Sen's ideas about freedom here.)

One thing I liked about Obama's acceptance speech was that he spoke of the good history of the Republican Party. From its founding until sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s the Republican Party was clearly the party of justice and peace in American politics, and the Democratic Party was the party of racism. But then late in the 19th century the Republicans abandoned African-Americans and embraced ideas of imperialism, and the two parties became about equally mixed bad and good. The great 20th century Republicans like LaGuardia, La Follette, Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower had significant flaws, as did the great Democrats like Woodrow Wilson (a totalitarian and a racist, but a man with a vision of world peace), F.D.R. (who didn't open our borders to European Jews fleeing the Nazis), and L.B.J. (who gave us civil rights and a war on poverty, but kept us in a war in Vietnam he knew we couldn't win because of personal pride). So far, I don't see that Obama has any of these tragic flaws that have stained the presidents who were otherwise admirable.

And so, I see Obama carrying our nation along toward a worthy destiny. I think he belongs in the categories with all these great persons I've mentioned. I'm very glad about this. I think that part of his victory speech where he outlined some of the better moments in our recent national history (as witnessed by Ann Nixon Cooper), and the moments when he gave credit to the grassroots movement that supported him, demonstrate where his mind is (and you can read his two books and see this as well). I am optimistic about what we will see and what we will be able to do with our Obama presidency.

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