When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to be elected president of the student government. There were many new things we were able to accomplish during that time: new furniture for the student lounge, our first homecoming rally complete with first ever live mascot (a freshman in a green cougar costume) and a soda machine would be listed high on that year’s wins.
But the one reform I really wanted was to allow freshmen (9th graders) to vote for student government. Until then, elections were held at the end of the year for next year’s reps, when the incoming freshman were still in 8th grade, and therefore not eligible to vote. I always thought that to be an injustice, to arrive at school and already have the government representation decided upon. When I was a freshman, I had said If I ever became president I would change that practice.
It was a controversial idea because it would necessitate moving the elections to the beginning of the year, and while that would allow the new members of our high school to vote, the seniors of the transition year would lose their vote, having not voted in the fall and already graduated. It was part of the reason no one had every proposed that change seriously before. The arguments against my proposal were basically we’d be denying seniors their last “rite” as high school members, in favor of inexperienced, highly impressionable incoming freshman to decide school leadership.
But I was determined, even if that meant that I wouldn’t be able to vote myself that year. I remember doing some real politicking among underclassmen and getting “expert advice” from faculty on how to get such a drastic change done. We had debates, both in session and via our school newsletter, and even lively discussions in our newly furnished student lounge. Everyone had an opinion on the matter.
In the end, we had the vote to change the constitution and move the election. That vote required a clear majority of the executive officers, most of whom were seniors, and my friends whom I had appointed as president after my own election. I had invited a large contingent of underclassmen to the meeting to witness the vote, and even some 8th graders (with special permission) came to witness the dramatic change in their favor. But I lost.
It was a devastating loss for me. I remember vividly some 20+ years later, looking at my “colleagues” in disbelief as they raised their hands to vote nay, knowing in my heart of hearts that I was on the right side of this issue. How could they vote against the “right thing to do?” The reason for the loss, was mostly because I had not anticipated how strongly the current seniors would lobby the officers to vote against the proposal. I had assumed that like me, they understood the logic behind the change, and like me, were willing to give up a little to transition to a fairer system. That was the wrong assumption to make. I didn’t understand that many felt that giving up their vote senior year was too much to ask of their final high school experience, and that doing so for freshmen who were new to the school would risk elections won on popularity and superficial first impressions.
That vote created a rift in the student body. For weeks, there were post arguments and divisions among upper/underclassmen lines. People even proposed protests and boycotting that year’s election.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson in democracy. Sometimes, despite trying to do the right thing, in order to govern, you have to take into account the competing interests of the people who have equal say in the decision. If every person has a vote, then of course we must assume that they will vote for their vested interests. And while you may feel you are “right,” you have to remember that other people feel they are “right” as well, and one’s own feeling of moral superiority alone is not enough to enact meaningful change.
That lesson come back to me full force when I read about Obama’s speech earlier at Howard University:
In that speech he says very clearly the lesson I learned over two decades ago:
Change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program and it requires organizing. Passion is vital, but you have got to have a strategy. That strategy, Mr. Obama told the graduates, must include listening to those with whom they disagree and compromising when necessary to achieve their goals.
“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” the President said, adding that such an approach leads to “a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair, and that’s never been the source of our progress.”
It is a lesson everyone should pay attention to. As we decide our next President, we must not only know what we want to achieve as far as goals, but also understand that campaigning and governing are two different things. No President gets everything. President Obama would probably be the first person to tell you that. Change is a long, drawn-out process, with fits and starts, with successes and failures. And sometimes, being “right” isn’t enough.
Is it worth the battle? Of course. But we must also give our leaders the runway to compromise and change, even work with people who are on the complete other side of our issues, in order to get anything done.
We cannot govern from extremes.
We cannot function in a democracy playing a zero-sum game.
We live in a country of over 350 million people, each of whom have their own priorities and ideals. While our opinions and needs matter, ours aren’t the only needs that need to be considered. A President —a GOOD President— is a President of all the people, not just of a party, and definitely not just a certain segment of the party.
Obama understands this, and I believe both Democratic candidates understand this to varying degrees. What worries me is more are the supporters of the candidates, who more and more argue their cases around Utopian promises and expect these promises to be enacted as sold, quickly and in its entirety, as if the opposition will somehow disappear afterr November 8. They fail to see that their utopia is not everyone’s utopia, and those who dissent or simply provide a different view of that utopia are quickly dismissed or attacked. This is not how a democracy should behave.
In a democracy, there is the acknowledgement and respect for a diverse array of views within the community. Respect is key, because while people understand that views may differ, there is an understanding that all of us are equal, and that we will have to work together to get things done. And just like none of us went anywhere during the Bush Administration, and we worked to check his power, so too will there always be a check on progressive ideals. There are many reasons for this, and while we deem ourselves the moral “superiors” of those not wanting higher wages, equal pay, healthcare for all, a reformed justice and education systems, the fact is those that do not subscribe to all of our priorities will work hard to check that the country does not move so far as to infringe upon what they deem most important, like lower taxes, efficient government, free market economies and a strong military.
A leader understands this dichotomy, and puts together a plan to work with these very people to get as much of the agenda accomplished as she can. Sometimes that means compromise. Sometimes that means not getting what one wants. But that is governing in a democracy. Too many of us have forgotten that. Only a demagogue believes that his or her view will conquer all.
Sometimes to get what we want, we must lose first to win later. The initial loss sometimes provides a foundation for others to build upon. Hillarycare was one such foundation. Without that there would be no Obamacare, and the conversation on the public option or single payer wouldn’t exist.
Sometimes patience can truly be rewarded, as long as you work for a greater good, and not ego. In my little story, my high school did eventually vote to move the election and involve the freshmen a year or two after I had graduated.
I remember the faculty adviser telling me that my loss actually set the foundation for the win later on because the underclassmen remembered the struggle and brought it back up when they were in upperclass positions. And then I learned another lesson in democracy —that if a movement is truly about what is right— than it won’t matter who is at the helm when change finally comes.
I believe Obama knows this as well, and is trying to tell us something.
Born in the Bronx, New York and currently a New Jersey resident, Miguel has written multiple entertainment reviews and political opinion pieces for online publications including CNN.com, HLN.com, the Huffington Post, Llero.net and The Father Life, an online magazine for dads. You can follow him @miguad98.