Election Diversity: We’ve Come a Long Way … or Have We?

With the four leading candidates in this year’s presidential contest having been an African-American, a female, a Mormon, and a 72 year-old, the diversity envelope was certainly stretched this year. A USA Today/Gallup poll reported last year on the willingness of present-day Americans to select a non-traditional candidate for the presidency compared to responses to a similar survey 40 years ago. The results indicated that the percentage willing to vote for a black or a woman had increased signficantly in the last 40 years, moving from 53% to 94% for a black candidate and moving from 57% to 88% for a female candidate. Given that an African-American candidate and a female candidate were the top Democratic contenders this year, it would seem that we’ve come a long way.

The poll also delved into questions relevant to the Republican ticket, asking voters about their willingness to support a Mormon or a 72 year-old for president. The survey results indicated that the Republican front-runners also faced significant demographic obstacles, with only 72% of the respondents indicating willingness to vote for a Mormon and 57% indicating willingness to vote for a 72 year-old. Gallup reported that the sentiment about electing a Mormon was “essentially unchanged” in 40 years, which seems to indicate that maybe we haven’t come such a long way after all. Add to that the way the topics of race and sex played out during the primary campaigns and it would appear that even the poll numbers from the Democratic primary mask some uncomfortable realities.

Let’s look at some presidential trivia for starters. How many Americans know the middle name of any of the four front-runners, other than Senator Obama? (The other middle names are Diane, Sidney, and Mitt). How many Americans can name the former pastor of more than one of these presidential contenders? Or how many Americans can name any biographical facts about any candidate’s great-grandfather other than Mitt Romney?

Or, if you want even more ridiculous trivia that hopefully fewer Americans can actually answer, what brand of men’s underwear did one journalist claim had been spotted in Mitt Romney’s master bathroom? And, if that seems a bit too ridiculous to believe, a Washington Post staff writer treated us to a discussion of Senator Clinton’s cleavage, and an MSNBC anchor speculated that McCain would be comfortable switching from a discussion of the economy to a discussion about “buying more Depends.”

While we’re on the topic of age, how many Americans can correctly answer the question “Who was the oldest major-party presidential candidate?” If you go to WikiAnswers, you might think it was McCain, though it was actually Ronald Reagan. Or, how many Americans could name the last election in which the president who was elected died before reaching his 80s? (That would be 40 years ago, when LBJ was elected: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and G.H.W Bush all lived long enough to reach 80, though in fairness, the jury is still out on whether Bill Clinton and George W. will live into their 80s).

Of course, we have debates to help keep candidates focused on substantive issues, right? The only problem is that our debates are a bit different from the old-fashioned variety. One hundred fifty years ago we had politicians such as Lincoln and Douglas who, in their famous Senatorial debates, gave lengthy speeches on the pressing topics of the day – including slavery and its relationship to both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, states’ rights, the Dred Scott decision, and racial equality. Lincoln collected these debates into a book of more than 250 pages which was published in advance of the presidential election of 1860. Today, by contrast, we allow for sound-bite answers in response to questions chosen by moderators or audience members. Questions this year have included ones such as the question posed to the Republican candidates regarding whether they believe every word of the Bible, even though one would think it might be more appropriate to ask a presidential candidate whether they believe every word of the Constitution or, even more simply, whether they would defend all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. I think Clinton had it right when she proposed switching from moderated debates to a format more reminiscent of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. We can only hope that McCain and Obama adopt that idea during the general election.

A snippet from a John Quincy Adams campaign song shows the venom that played a part in historical elections:

Little know ye who’s coming if John Quincy not be comin’ … fears are comin’, tears are comin’, plague and pestilence are comin’, hatin’s comin’, Satan’s comin’ if John Quincy not be coming.

So, how far have we come? If the Voting for Satan website is used as a yardstick, it seems we haven’t entirely outgrown the type of political venom in the John Quincy Adams campaign. Admittedly, that website was not an officially endorsed website. However, through the miracle of modern technology, that website probably had more hits than the John Quincy song had listeners. But perhaps there has been some progress after all: our modern electronic media do allow far more people to be reached by debates and written content. Now, if we can only figure out how to spend more time on the Constitution, civil rights, and the economy than we spend on briefs, Depends, and cleavage.

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“We’re Not Going to Violate Their Civil Rights until We Get an Outcry”

State of Texas 45, King George 28

45. In what has to be one of the most notable quotes of the Eldorado fiasco, the Schleicher County Sheriff said, “This is the United States…. We’re not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry.”

Here’s a little more context for the quote, as reported by the Tucson Citizen:

I have no regrets because we never received any outcry, a complaint. There was no evidence of illegal activity nor an offense in plain view. You can always suspect something, but until you get something that puts you on that property, there’s not a whole lot you can do…. But there again, this is the United States. We are going to respect them. We’re not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry.

If he had said, “We’re not going to move against the FLDS until we have evidence” or “We’re not going to ask for a search warrant until we have a credible complaint,” I would have been right with him. Or even if he had said, “You cannot go in and bust in someone’s house if there’s not probable cause to do so,” as the Texas attorney general said, I can still see the imprint of the constitution in such a statement. But, if you take the Sheriff’s quote literally, he’s essentially saying that after there’s an outcry or a complaint, it’s OK to violate civil rights. I can only hope that comment didn’t come out the way he intended.

The sheriff’s statement, even in the form it came out, is not as scary as some of the comments about his statement. I have found multiple posts on the internet by people complaining that the sheriff felt constrained to wait for an outcry. These sentiments remind me of Lincoln’s great speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum in which he addressed the subject of “the perpetuation of our political institutions”.

When men take it in their heads today to hang gamblers or burn murderers, they should recollect that in the confusion usually attending such transactions they will be as likely to hang or burn someone who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is, and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of tomorrow may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes up, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down and disregarded.

But all this, even, is not the full extent of the evil. By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.

While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country, seeing their property destroyed, their families insulted, and their lives endangered, their persons injured, and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better, become tired of and disgusted with a government that offers them no protection, and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit which all must admit is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed-I mean the attachment of the people….

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently before they would ever think of exchanging it for another-yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.

Yes, those who don’t want the government to wait for an outcry are justified in expecting that the FLDS honor the laws, but we must also insist that the government honor its own laws. Otherwise, if it becomes popular for the government to move against unpopular groups without being restrained by law or constitution, we will be reduced to government-sponsored mobocracy, which – as Lincoln reminded us – in only a step away from anarchy.