The presidential election is in the news every day, even though we won’t vote for another 14 months. Most of the news is about polls. There have been at least nine different polls in the last month in Iowa alone. Who is ahead? Who is falling behind? Who cares?
Instead of reporting about what kind of president the candidates might be, news organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on polling. The focus on polling comes from the desire to predict, to be the first to know the answer, like Hermione at Hogwarts. Political prediction may be an exacting social science, but it’s very limited in how far it can see into the future. None of the legion of political writers predicted last year that Bernie Sanders would be a Democratic candidate at all. No pundits predicted that Donald Trump would be a viable Republican candidate, even though he had run for president before.
We don’t need more predictions today. At this point, early in the campaigns, it is more useful to remind ourselves of what we already know about politics. I will try to do this in several columns. Let’s begin with equality.
Since the earliest days of our nation, human equality has been hotly debated. The American version of equality was revolutionary and inspired people all over the world. But that version also included cultural and political disdain for people who did not originate in northwestern Europe. For the last 250 years we have been repairing the flawed perspectives and politics of our founders. Equality remains a goal, not an achievement.
Each time another great stride toward human equality was on the horizon, powerful voices said no change was needed, no change was good, the past should be our guide. Those voices have been consistently wrong.
Defenders of racial inequality were wrong. Supporters of slavery were wrong. Critics of abolition were wrong. The creators of Jim Crow were quite successful for a long time, but they were wrong, too. Their political victory over racial equality was a great loss for millions of Americans, which still reverberates today.
America was one of the freest places in the world for Jews, but ancient Christian ideas brought over from Europe prevented Jews from winning even more equality than they did. When the Nazis threatened Jews across Europe, more were allowed into the US than anywhere else. But powerful religious voices and vote-counting politicians kept those numbers much lower than they could have been. Those people are now dead and dishonored. The Holocaust confronted traditional antisemites and an antisemitic political tradition with the consequences of these ideas, and Americans recognized they were wrong.
The opponents of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century were wrong. Their arguments came up again in the 1960s, when the demands for equality for women went far beyond the vote. It seemed then that the defenders of inequality could still find an active following. But who remembers Bobby Riggs? He claimed he was fighting for the preservation of male superiority. He lost three sets to Billie Jean King and the larger argument about women’s equality.
Just in my adulthood, the struggle for equality among sexual identities has transformed our nation. The voices of “no” are still newsworthy and attract vocal popular support. But they have lost the battle for public opinion. They are reduced to arguing that an intolerant religion gives them the right to an intolerant politics, the same argument they made about race and gender .
The past voices of “no” now populate a Who’s Who of political losers. Have those voices been right yet? They achieved nothing more than delaying equality for people they didn’t like.
The American conversation about equality brings people into the streets every day. There is much more to hope for. Listen to the voices of our candidates. Which side have they been on?
The election is far away. In these next months, family crises will appear and pass, people will marry, children will be born, jobs will be won or lost. There is no hurry to add up hypothetical votes over the phone. There is plenty of time for the people who want our vote to say clearly where they stand in the endless river that flows toward equality, and which way they are swimming. Let’s judge them by their words and deeds.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 8, 2015