The 2004 election was an exercise in contradictions that left me feeling quite ambivalent about the state of our nation. While youth voting surged by 11 percentage points – with single women leading the way – 78 million eligible voters neglected to take part in the political process. Sure, we had increased voter participation to over 60% – but was this a number to celebrate as a sign of a strong democracy? I made it a point to talk to people who were “in the know” – and Donna Brazile, democratic leader, political strategist and commentator (not to mention the first African-American to manage a presidential campaign) was one of my first stops.
In response to my political quandary, this was Donna’s definition of the problem: her party didn’t really believe their support base could be increased – let alone mobilized – on Election Day. It was a position she strongly disputed, but felt characterized her party’s assessment of the political times. Was it true? Was the Democratic Party giving up on Jane and John Q. voter? I tested her analysis with a couple of male party leaders, and they echoed her assertion to the T. Was this what our democracy had come to?
As an advocate of women’s leadership and representative democracy, I refused to take their cynicism to heart. And I’m glad that four years later, sweet vindication has arrived.
I thought of Donna this past Saturday as I watched the live coverage of workers at Caesar’s Palace, a diverse and divinely-differently attired bunch, who appeared to be making an awkward but spirited foray into democracy. Like Iowa and New Hampshire before them, Saturday’s democratic caucuses were historic. With a record 116,000 voters, according to Nevada’s Democratic Party, 12 times as many people participated than in the 2004 caucuses. As an optimistic believer in the institution of democracy and our nation’s populace, it’s a momentum that I hope will gain speed and fellow adherents, as more and more people bring their voice and their vote to the political stage.
So what’s the reasoning behind this large-scale venture into the world of political engagement? The formula is simple, and it’s the key to how you get new people invested in democracy: show them people who are not only politically savvy and experienced, but candidates who actually look like them. In Senators Obama and Clinton, voters see viable candidates who, for the first time, are accessible and familiar – a closer reflection of the voters themselves. That’s the beauty of representational democracy – people feel that their interests are truly being spoken for – and hence become more likely to be involved, even passionately so, in the political process.
Mobilizing the disenfranchised in the pursuit of political justice was a main tenet of the civil rights movement that Dr. Martin Luther King built, and it helped to make Sen. Obama’s candidacy possible. But those of us who led the second stage of the women’s movement know that Sen. Clinton’s candidacy is part of that legacy as well. Dr. King would celebrate both of these frontrunners, but he would also understand what the real victory is:
Sen. Clinton won the Nevada Democratic caucuses, Obama won the most delegates, and Donna finally made her point, but the big winner in 2008 will be Democracy. No matter what our political persuasion may be, or which gender, race or class we embody, the triumph of democracy is a victory that we should all celebrate with pride. And as we approach South Carolina’s primary and Super Tuesday, I hope that it’s a theme that grows in strength and numbers. As a country, we have the power to make 2008 a truly historic year – not only because it will have been the year of the “first woman” or “first African-American” nominee – but because it will be a turning point in our collective history for bringing mass numbers of people across the board into the political fold.