Commentators and candidates have drawn many parallels from today’s Democratic candidates to historical figures and elections.
[digg-reddit-me]Hillary Clinton has been described as Nixon and LBJ, including the latter by herself. John Edwards has been described as a FDR (mainly by himself), William Jennings Bryan and a Bobby Kennedy. Barack Obama’s historical analogues have been far-ranging. Ken Burns has compared Obama to Lincoln. David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has as well, as seen above. JFK’s top speechwriter has compared Obama to President Kennedy. Before his Iowa win, intelligent pundits saw parallels to failed liberal candidates: Adlai Stevenson, Bill Bradley, and Gene McCarthy.
But it wasn’t until Hillary took a swipe at Obama that the parallels to Barack to Martin Luther King, Jr. became evident. The main theme of the 2008 is, and will be, change. Americans know that we need to tackle many long-term issues:
- global climate change;
- radical islamism;
- the erosion of civil liberties;
- executive overreach;
- the instability of the American economy;
- globalization, the entitlement crises;
- health care reform;
- the inequality of opportunity and the rising gap between the rich and the poor.
Our current politics – based on tears and smears, on the Bushes and the Clintons, on money and more money – is unable to produce meaningful or lasting change.To vote for Clinton or Giuliani or Romney or Thompson or Huckabee (and to a lesser extent McCain ((The McCain of 1999 to 2002 could have changed politics. The McCain of today is still an honorable man – but despite his commendable honesty, I am not sure how much he would be able to, or willing to try to, get done.)) ) – is to vote to continue the politics of the past decades, producing gridlock and negligible progress, even as Cassandras continually point out our impending doom.
There are three candidates who embody three very different approaches to change: Ron Paul, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.
Ron Paul is quite clearly a reactionary – and in this case, I do not mean it to be derogatory. He wants to trim government to a radical extent – back to the period before the Civil War. I doubt the change he desires is possible – and, although I agree with his positions on many contemporary issues, I believe he goes too far in rejecting the American tradition after 1860. I believe there is much to criticize in the American tradition after the Civil War – but also great progress. Ron Paul’s opinions are a valued addition to the public debate.
It is easier to compare Barack Obama and John Edwards to each other, rather than to Paul. They agree on many policies and in their general themes. Their differences are about how they would lead us to the future – how they would accomplish change. When Hillary said that Barack was not Martin Luther King – it occurred to me that the movement he represents, and the figure he projects, recalls the relationship of Martin Luther King to John Edwards’s Malcolm X.
In many ways, the success of Obama is due to Edwards’s harassment of Clinton.
- Obama is trying to bring together people of varying political persuasions and to reach consensus on the major issues America faces. Edwards believes we must fight for them – by extreme measures if necessary.
- Obama calls on Americans to look past their race, gender, class, religion, and other social groupings to the values we share – to build on this consensus to achieve lasting change. Edwards calls on middle and lower class Americans to look to their self-interest, and to their children’s self-interest, and to be forceful in taking what they believe is their birthright.
- Obama focuses on community organizing, bringing new people into the process and the party, and convincing skeptics; Edwards focuses on rallying the base.
Anyone can see the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X can see the parallels. (Which makes Clinton, unfortunately for her, LBJ again.)
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s disagreements about how to accomplish change were more fundamental than the current divide between Obama and Edwards; but both King and Malcolm X recognized in the other the same desire for change, and respected each other as individuals and as leaders. When I saw John Edwards defend Barack Obama against Clinton – this is what I thought of – not that the boys were ganging up on her as she suggested.
Martin Luther King succeeded where Malcolm X did not because King bet that he could bring achieve more by appealing to all Americans, rather than a select group. Barack has made a similar bet. While in King’s day, the Jim Crow laws divided Americans into blacks and whites, our politics today has divided America into Red States and Blue States, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. We have been divided into two teams – we on our respective team, often without a clear rationale, adopt positions and defend our teams against all opposition. Many others are turned off from politics by the partisanship entirely. Yet polls show that agreement exists among working majorities on how to tackle some of our major long-term problems; and even larger portions of Americans agree that something must be done to attempt to deal with the major problems we will soon face.
Obama’s bet, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, is that with a respectful and intelligent dialogue, he can change our politics; and by changing politics, we can change America’s path together.
It is supremely unlikely that he, or we, can accomplish this. But we owe it to ourselves to try.